On Saturday I had a perfectly lovely morning helping my friend move into an adorable studio on the UWS. About her week, she mentioned that she freaked out that day when they announced that there was now an ebola patient in Manhattan, because she’d been on the A train the previous day. And then she’d gone to a really hard yoga class and felt so sore (body aches!) the next day. Of course she didn’t catch ebola–but I had felt the exact same hypochondria that week, what with living in Harlem (3o+ blocks south of the patient’s apartment, but still), and taking the train a lot. Once, I heard someone cough at one end of the train car and got up and stood next to the door rather than sit…The memory of which made me blush upon watching last night’s 60 Minutes and seeing how unbelievably heroic and generous those nurses were while tending to the patient in Texas. But still, I can’t take any chances!
While it’s not good to fuel any unnecessary panic, right now is a very good time to be vigilant about your personal health. It’s not just about being selfish but a matter of keeping other people healthy, too! In addition to practicing good hygiene, common sense, and getting enough rest, do stock up on these immune system boosting foods. But first, let’s discuss how your immune system works.
Your immune system has 3 levels of defense (imagine a fortress with three layers of walls like Minas Tirith). The first line of defense is your skin, mucus, saliva, and other bodily fluids. These do a remarkable job of keeping most of the pathogens out. The second line of defense is inflammation–you know, the very thing we hear about constantly. Inflammation is your body’s response to initiate healing, and happens in acute (localized) form and chronic form. Chronic inflammation can lead to disease if left untreated, which is why it’s so important to include lots of anti-inflammatory foods in your diet. Finally, the third line of defense is your lymphocytes, T- and B-cells that kill pathogens and create antibodies, respectively.
1. Vitamin D
Low vitamin D levels make you susceptible to viral infections like the cold or the flu. A recent study concluded that kids who only drink non-dairy milk were more than twice as likely to have vitamin D deficiency than kids who drink only dairy milk–and while this might not be applicable to adults, it’s still a good reminder that vegans and vegetarians can stand to amp up the D.
The best way to get more vitamin D is by enjoying some sunlight–but as the days are getting shorter, it’s even more crucial to get enough D in your diet. Read your non-dairy milk nutrition facts carefully to make sure it’s been fortified. Good news: 1 cup of maitake mushrooms (aka chicken of the woods) has 196% of your daily recommended value of vitamin D! Chanterelle mushrooms are another D powerhouse, with 28% DRV in 1 cup serving.
2. Vitamin C
Vitamin C both prevents infection and helps fight it after you get sick. Your body doesn’t store C, so it’s important to eat plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits every day. Try goji berries, red bell peppers (1 cup, raw, sliced has 156% of your daily value), strawberries, blueberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kiwi, and parsley. 1/2 a medium papaya will give you just over a 100% of your daily value: for an easy breakfast, scrape out the seeds and fill with vegan non-dairy yogurt (oh, hello, D!), and give a squeeze of lime!
We always hear that you have to eat colorfully for more vitamins, but did you know that 1 cup of cooked cauliflower has 73% of your daily vitamin C? (Not to mention, 9% of Omega-3 fatty acid?) Which is why this is one of the best immune system boosting foods.
3. Vitamin E
E doesn’t just keep our skin and hair pretty–it’s also crucial for the production of immunoglobulins. Try avocado (1 medium Hass has 20% of your daily vitamin E, and 20% of vitamin C), sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, Swiss chard, peanuts, beet greens, and asparagus.
4. Vitamin A
A is also crucial for building pathogen-fighting cells (getting repetitive, but bear with me!). The #1 vitamin A winner is the humble sweet potato, with its bright orange, delicious and sweet flesh. One medium baked sweet potato has over 213% of your daily A needs. Carrots, spinach, kale, mustard greens, collard greens, Swiss chard, beet greens, and winter squash varieties will all help you get enough A.
5. Various mushrooms
Most mushrooms look kind of unimpressive from a nutritional perspective, if you stick to just the usual nutritional info label. But more studies are revealing the incredible medicinal and immune boosting properties of mushrooms! A Tufts University study found that white button mushrooms improve your immune system and even help fight tumor growth. Crimini mushrooms are especially good for fighting breast cancer, while shiitake contains lentinan which stimulates white blood cell production, and also fights against cancer.
Zinc is one of the most important immune boosting minerals. Get it through miso, sesame seeds, tahini, pumpkin seeds, lentils, cashews, chickpeas, quinoa, shiitake, crimini, spinach, asparagus, and oats.
7. Coconut oil
50% of coconut oil’s fatty acid is made of lauric acid. In the body, lauric is converted into monolaurin, which acts as an anti-viral specifically against enveloped viruses (viruses that are surrounded by a layer of lipids). Monolaurin dissolves this protective lipid layer, thus destroying the virus. Coconut oil is also antibacterial and anti-fungal. Try using coconut oil to saute or roast your veggies, or even add a spoonful of raw coconut oil to your smoothie! You can also try raw coconut (it’s hard work, but delicious).
What’s your keep healthy secret ingredient?
Related: 25 Stress-Busting Foods
Photo: Samantha Marx via Flickr; Sorina Fant; Mary Hood; Peaceful Dumpling