We live in a germy world, where potentially serious flu outbreaks are valid concerns. At this time of year, it’s good to start revving up your immune system so you can make it through the winter with as few colds and flus as possible. Many factors—including stress reduction, adequate exercise and plenty of sleep—play a role in keeping the immune system strong, but one of the most easily controlled and important factors for staying healthy is diet. When you put nutritious foods into your body, you reap the rewards.
Load up on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, and cut way back on immune-suppressing sugars, alcohol, caffeine and chemicals. Vegetables and fruits are nutritional powerhouses that contain protective compounds such as chlorophyll (found in green veggies); lutein (in spinach, peas and romaine lettuce); lycopene (in cooked tomatoes); carotenoids (in carrots, yams and leafy greens); anthocyanidins (in berries, cherries and red cabbage); and sulfur compounds (in broccoli, garlic and onions). Eating at least five to nine servings of vegetables and fruits each day will ensure you’re consuming plenty of these compounds and will get you on your way to the best diet possible, reducing your risk of cancer and heart disease while boosting your immune system.
This hearty vegetarian breakfast (my mother’s specialty) provides a delicious source of protein and several vegetable servings. Substitute six scrambled eggs for the tofu if you’d like. The scramble tastes great with a side of garlicky Roasted Red Potatoes or whole-grain toast. Or top it with salsa for a bonus dose of lycopene.
Baked red potato quarters make a delicious and classic breakfast side, but they accompany lunch and dinner equally well. Baking instead of frying makes the dish lower in fat and red potatoes are a good source of potassium and vitamins B6 and C.
It’s said that every Indian cook has her own curry recipe. Curries, spice mixes that were originally created as a method to deliver medicinal herbs in a tasty way, almost always have one ingredient in common: turmeric, which imparts the curry powder’s deep yellow-orange hue. Turmeric’s active ingredient, curcumin, has infection-fighting, anti-inflammatory, liver-protective and anti-tumor properties. (More than 1,300 individual studies on the herb are available on PubMed, the National Institutes of Health’s research database.)
Shiitake mushrooms (as well as also-medicinal but much less tasty maitake and reishi mushrooms) have immune-boosting properties that help prevent the body from forming cancer cells. Though these mushrooms do not grow wild in the United States, they are so widely cultivated that most people can easily find a locally grown source. While potent shiitake extracts are available in capsule form, research suggests that eating cooked shiitakes is a good way to reap the mushrooms’ health benefits as well. Shiitakes with a rounded shape are much easier to stuff. Be sure to remove every last bit of the tough stems.
Herbalist Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, author of The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs (Lotus Press, 2009), says that one daily serving of dark fruits or berries will usually fulfill your antioxidant needs. For a little extra immune power, add a teaspoon per serving of a powdered adaptogenic herb such as eleuthero, schisandra or ashwaganda. Adaptogens (also known as tonics) are gentle herbs that, taken long-term, help the body adapt to stress and fight off illness.
AMY MAYFIELD, former editor of Herbs for Health magazine, is a contributing editor for Natural Home.