Food as medicine: Part 3 – supporting immunity

by | Jul 24, 2018 | Body

fresh ginger and turmeric pieces

This week has seen me in the garden lifting out the turmeric and ginger as they are ready to harvest and beautifully golden (or orangey-yellow for the turmeric). The picture you clicked through to this post is the real deal.

Foodies will no doubt be thinking about what they could create from these exotic spices, and I love to cook, so my mind is also considering all the dishes that could be coaxed forth. Being also a herbalist I enjoy an extra layer of delight as not only do I acknowledge their culinary greatness, I am also very aware of their medicinal qualities. Which brings me to the point of today’s post — a more detailed look at how I have been using foods as medicine recently.

Stress depletes your immune system

I am not immune to the everyday stressors that can impact daily living and erode my sense of wellbeing. In fact, last week I was aware of a niggling sore throat and feeling fatigued despite resting well. Work has been busy for weeks, creating an increased level of stress that’s been hard to withstand in my usual resilient way — so it’s no surprise to me that eventually something ‘gave’. In this case, it’s clearly my immune system under pressure — though the fact I even have a symptom is a good thing as it shows my immune system is working as it should.

That said, I also know that I need to give myself extra specific support at this time and the way I do this is to focus on foods I know that contain nutrients to support healthy immune function. I don’t automatically reach for high dose herbs and nutritionals, though I do use these strategically when I feel I require it. At times like this, when there is nothing very acute or extreme happening (i.e. no fever), I begin with food.

Choose foods to help your current state

Firstly, I amped up my antioxidant intakes — I’ve been having two servings of berries daily (one of raspberries and one of blueberries). I’ve cut out all alcohol, dairy (I only eat cheese so easy to do), and red meat, and upped my greens instead — consistently with a squeeze of lime over the top of each meal to increase my vitamin C intake.

Essentially, my aim here is to remove the items that could be considered inflammatory or depleting right now (this could include alcohol, dairy, red meat), and replace them with extra helpings of foods easy to digest (e.g. colourful vegetable soup, or maybe a slow-cooked chicken soup). Those that contain zinc (nuts, seeds, fish) or vitamin C (green veggies, berries, citrus), or several antioxidant phytochemicals that help support the immune system (all the colourful foods such as berries, greens, spices).

I also turned to a helping of garlic shiitake mushrooms — one of my all-time immune-supporting combinations that I’d be happy to consume any day of the week — this just gave me an extra excuse to indulge knowing I was getting a perfect medicinal food combo. Garlic is one of natures most potent antimicrobials and mushrooms (specifically shiitake, but also reishi) contain constituents called beta-glucans; polysaccharides that can stimulate immune system function — precisely what I need to fight off any potential pathogenic ‘invader’.

Nature knows best

The best thing about this time of year in Australia is not only having my ginger ready to harvest, but my lemon tree is full of fruit also — it was very simple to grate some fresh ginger into a teapot to steep for a while and create a tea with fresh lemon. Ginger offers anti-inflammatory properties, but its pungency goes beyond this and becomes what herbalists refer to as a ‘circulatory stimulant’ and a ‘diaphoretic’. The former helps me at this time of year in particular as I feel the cold (so ginger is my friend because of its warming qualities), as well as ensuring my ‘medicine’ reaches all areas of the body easily.

The latter action (diaphoretic) is a term used to describe a medicine that can induce fever and sweating. At the right dose you can literally raise your temperature just enough to where you begin to sweat — when done informedly this can help you to ‘sweat it out’ and the rise in temperature activates your immune system defences in the same way a healthy (not too high) fever does — a good sign your immune response is appropriate. This time around I didn’t need this as I’m showing no feverish signs, so kept the dose lower at only three cups of ginger and lemon tea a day.

I suspect I’ve had a mild response to a viral exposure – but by taking these steps I am more likely to move on and not be depleted for the next virus I come into contact with. After all, we get sick because our immune defences are deficient (could be ongoing stress, poor nutritional choices, too much alcohol perhaps). A good way to consider this is to think of a time when a group of people you know all came in contact with an unwell person — yet not everyone became unwell themselves. This is a great example of those who had a resilient immune system and those who did not — I see it all the time.

What do you need?

Right now I’m feeling fully recovered, but continuing to eat widely from colourful foods, drinking lots of warming cinnamon and ginger teas to remain hydrated in this cold weather (yes it gets relatively cold in Australia!), and ensuring I get some sun in the middle of the day to top up my vitamin D levels; another nutrient fundamental to healthy immune system function. For some zinc I’ve been snacking on small portions of nuts and seeds for that extra immune boost.

My advice to you today is: don’t underestimate the power of having a ‘food first’ philosophy and, as I discussed in Part 1 of this series, remember you are what you eat. So, if you are someone who gets sick often or is under the pump a bit, prioritise your immune system and choose foods that will provide the nutrients it needs. Lay the foundations to support your own wellbeing — it’s a wise way to make a difference to your health.



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