Now that the head of the Coronavirus task force, Dr. Fauci and the president’s own doctor have revealed their own recommendations of supplements like vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc for immune support during the pandemic, we hope more Americans will follow suite and supplement up. But what about our diets? Lisa Dreher MS, RDN, LDN is a registered dietitian at The UltraWellness Center, one of the premiere destinations for functional medical care in the nation. Lisa is walking us through simple, but crucial nutrition tips for keeping our immunity strong through cold and flu season…
Functional medicine determines how and why illness occurs and restores health by addressing the root causes of disease for each individual. Right now, there is a lot of attention around how to prevent the cold, flu, and Covid-19, and functional medicine shines a light on imbalances that are causing so many American to be at high risk for infection and more serious complications.
Despite all of the misinformation regarding what protects us from getting sick, the greatest predictors to how our bodies will respond when exposed to a bacteria or virus are our lifestyle choices. Through the lens of functional medicine, there are five key lifestyle factors that set the foundation for health, resilience, and longevity. These include:
While each of these factors plays an important role, as a functional medicine nutritionist, I regularly witness the ways that nutrition impacts health in both the short- and long-term. In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, the World Health Organization states:
“People who eat a well-balanced diet tend to be healthier with stronger immune systems and lower risk of chronic illnesses and infectious diseases. So you should eat a variety of fresh and unprocessed foods every day to get the vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre, protein and antioxidants your body needs.”
They are spot on, and it is more important now than ever to be familiar with the foods that lower our risk of infection and complications.
Before we get into food, I want to make a quick note about supplements. While some supplementation can be helpful for certain people, such as vitamin D and zinc, it’s most important that we focus on getting nutrients from food first. Unlike with a supplement, whole foods provide an array of vitamins, minerals, protein, fatty acids, phytonutrients, and so much more. It is impossible to concentrate all of the nutrients and ways they work synergistically into a single supplement, which is why we cannot rely on our pill bottles to replace a nutrient-dense diet. When it comes to nutrition, always remember “Food first.” So, what should we be eating?!
High quality protein. Right now, protein is king! Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of antibodies that make up our immune system. This means that low protein intake can leave us with a weaker immune system and more vulnerable to infections. Protein also slows down the breakdown of carbohydrates into sugar if they are eaten together – think of a piece of fruit eaten with pumpkin seeds. The protein in those seeds (along with the fiber!) prevents spikes in blood sugar and insulin from the carbohydrates, which can cause inflammation. Also, specific amino acids such as glutamine and arginine play a role in managing inflammation and the immune response. It’s recommended that you eat quality protein with every meal. Special attention should be given to older adults as their appetite decreases and protein intake declines.
- eggs, fish and seafood, poultry, beef, wild game, certain nuts (almonds, pistachios), seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, hemp), beans, lentils, and if you are not sensitive to dairy, cottage cheese and Greek yogurt. *Animal-based proteins should be organic, Humane Certified, and/or grass-fed grass-finished whenever possible.
- If you struggle to get enough protein from food, consider protein powder such as pea protein, pumpkin seed protein, collagen, or whey protein if you are not sensitive to dairy.
Fiber. Fiber is the part of a plant that can’t be broken down or absorbed by the body. It functions as a prebiotic, which means it feeds and promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacterium and protects against pathogenic ones like Clostridium. When fiber ferments, the gut microbes produce short chain fatty acids (SCFA) which play a key role in regulating the immune system. Fiber can also make the gut lining thicker, which makes it harder for viruses and bacteria to infect the human host. In studies, dietary fiber is inversely linked to hs-CRP levels (a sensitive marker of inflammation) as well as risk of death from respiratory illness and infectious disease. Average fiber intake in the U.S. is between 15-20 grams daily, but for disease prevention, women should get at least 25 grams of fiber and men get at least 38 grams daily (these numbers may be different if you suffer from a condition like Crohn’s or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, in which case you should work with a licensed nutritionist or physician). While all plant-based food contains fiber, there are some that stand out from the crowd.
- legumes such as beans, split peas, and lentils; nuts and seeds such as pecans, chia, and flax seeds;
- fruit like passion fruit, raspberries, blackberries, pomegranate seeds, and avocado;
- vegetables including artichokes, broccoli, and sweet potato;
- whole grains, especially barley (contains gluten), quinoa, and steel cut oats.
Make sure to drink plenty of water as you increase your fiber intake!
Essential fatty acids. These are fatty acids (fats) that we need to get from food because our bodies can’t produce them naturally. The two essential fatty acids are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3’s have been shown to trigger an anti-inflammatory response, whereas omega-6’s have been shown to be pro-inflammatory. However, this doesn’t mean we should avoid omega-6 fatty acids altogether. Instead, having a healthy balance between the two will have the most significant impact on your immune and inflammatory response.
The recommended balance of omega-6 to omega-3 is anywhere between 1:1 and 4:1 ratio, but people following a Standard American Diet (SAD) get at least a 10:1 ratio. It appears that when you have a ratio closer to 4:1 and your omega-3 fatty acids are within a healthy range, the inflammatory response and immune system work more effectively and it protects against chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are found in wild caught salmon, sardines, herring, cod, oysters, mussels, walnuts, ground flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and grass-fed beef. Aiming for 2-3 servings per week of the fish listed above is an excellent way to get the recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Omega-6 fatty acids are found in soybeans, corn, safflower and sunflower oils, nuts, seeds, eggs, and poultry.Want to learn more? Here are all our stories on COVID and taking care of your immunity so far.
The Chalkboard Mag and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. All material on The Chalkboard Mag is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programs.