It’s still the tail-end of cold and flu season and, especially with the media frenzy around the coronavirus, everyone is looking for ways to support their immune systems. As you’ve likely heard before from holistic healthcare practitioners, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. The key to fighting off illnesses is making healthy choices that support an optimally-functioning immune system everyday, not just once you’ve come down with something. Nutrition and lifestyle choices can make a huge difference in your immune system’s ability to fight off pathogens and invaders.
Your immune system is highly complex, too complex to cover in a short article such as this one, but there are a few important things to know if you want to learn how to support your immune health. A key player in the function of your immune system is inflammation. You’re probably familiar with that word! “Fighting inflammation” has become a widely researched and talked about subject in recent years, and for good reason. But an important thing to note is that inflammation is a normal part of the immune response. Inflammation is characterized by swelling and heat. The difference between the inflammation that is an integral part of a healthy immune system, and the inflammation that weakens the immune system, is the length of time it is occurring in the body. Acute (short term) inflammation is normal and healthy. This is the body’s way of fighting pathogens and repairing injury. Long term, or chronic inflammation, wreaks havoc on the body and taxes the immune system.
The goal, then, is to reduce any chronic inflammation and improve the body’s ability to enact a quick and strong acute inflammatory response to fight off viruses and other pathogens. For some, that can be rather complex: some people have inflammatory or auto-immune conditions and need to work with a holistic healthcare practitioner to manage their specific issues and identify triggers of their inflammatory response. For most people, chronic inflammation is caused by a few usual culprits:
As you can imagine, chronic inflammation is unfortunately rather common in North America. People live fast-paced, stressed out lives and they use lots of caffeine and sugary foods to get them through their day. Then they stay up too late or struggle to sleep soundly. We must be mindful of this common lifestyle and take measures to protect ourselves from its damaging effects.
Another key player in immune function is your gut. Did you know that over 80% of your immune system lives in your gut? A well-balanced gut is crucial for a strong immune system. Your gut contains all kinds of different strains of bacteria. When your gut is “balanced” and healthy, that means there is a community of a variety of probiotic bacteria (“good” bacteria) living there. Those are the two really important factors: a variety of strains, and lots of probiotic bacteria. So how do we support our gut health? For a variety of gut bacteria, you need to eat a variety of foods. Each strain has a different preferred food source and you want to feed as many kinds of probiotic bacteria as you can. The bacteria in your gut are in a fight for territory. When you eat a variety of nourishing foods, you create an army of “good guys” who work hard to fight off the “bad guys”. Some people have severely imbalanced gut flora for a variety of reasons, including antibiotic use, illness, chronic dieting, and more. If you tend to have digestive difficulties most days, it’s a good idea to seek out a holistic healthcare practitioner who can guide you through the process of reestablishing a happy community of good bacteria in your gut.
To really nurture your gut, it’s important to understand prebiotic and probiotic foods. Prebiotic foods contain the types of fiber that feed the “good guys” of your gut. These foods include apples, asparagus, onions, garlic, leeks, dandelion greens, bananas, and chicory root. Probiotic foods contain the “good guys” themselves, and when you eat them they help populate your gut with probiotic bacteria. Probiotic foods include anything fermented like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and kefir. Eating both prebiotic foods and probiotic foods is key to make sure you are populating your gut with good bacteria and also feeding those good bacteria.
Contributed by Melanie Maxwell, R.H.N.