Ways to boost your immunity for winter

You may be surprised to hear from me… it’s truly been a while! The last three years have not been kind to us folks in hospitality and the combination of Covid lockdowns, trading restrictions, staff shortages, and inflation have been a tough challenge to manage. This has not left me with much time for such idle things as writing. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been thinking about how we can make the world better through eating better food and I hope to find more time this year to come back to the Breadpolitics project. 

There are so many things we should be thinking and talking about: from the pollution of our streams with nitrogen, to the lack of farm workers and workers in food production, the rising cost of living due to exploding inflation, the absolute dismal addiction to devices that has gripped such a large number of people, to the lack of nurses and doctors that tend to the ever growing number of sick and old people, many of whom suffer from preventable lifestyle induced illnesses like diabetes and heart disease,  it seems we are spiralling downwards to an ever darker and more hopeless looking future. 

So I always have to come back to the basics to find my sense of hope. In the end, what each and everyone of us has control over is what we eat! And with every choice we make what to put in our mouths we can increase or diminish the wellbeing of our body. And every food choice we make also sends a signal into the wider food system telling food producers what people want. So while there seems to be a trend in current thinking that it’s the governments job to fix everything, I firmly believe that this is not the entire truth. Yes we need government and taxes to provide the legal and physical infrastructure we all rely on. But we also need to recognise our own role, and dare I say, duty as a moral citizens. Our choices affect not only ourselves, but also the people around us our family and friends,  our community, our nation and ultimately the whole planet. So making the right choices will benefit everyone. And the best way to make better choices is to have better information. Therefore starting with information about how to improve your diet is something that I aim to provide here.

Natural immunity  or drugs and vaccines?

The days are getting shorter and it’s getting colder and damper… we can sense winter is coming. And with this, we can be sure there will also be an increase in colds, flus, and now also Covid. Alarmist articles warning us of the impending collapse of our health system are again a common feature of our every day news cycles. Of course some would have us believe that the best protection against respiratory illness comes in the form of some shot or other, but there are other ways how you can boost your immunity, which will support your health naturally. This does not mean that you should or shouldn’t take things like flu or Covid shots, such decisions are for you and your doctor to make and they should be made individually and not by fiat from either the government or someone like me, who doesn’t know you and your particular circumstances. Nevertheless it is always a good idea to understand what you can do to make sure you are the healthiest you can be. 

Our immune system has evolved over millions of years to protect us from viruses, bacteria and other infectious organisms. For the vast majority of human and animal evolution on this planet there were no pharmaceutical companies offering protection in the form of pills and shots, so nature had to find a way to deal with the problems itself. Granted this didn’t always work so well, after all the vast majority of our ancestors died of infectious diseases up until 100 years ago. So don’t get me wrong, antibiotics and other infectious disease mitigating products like vaccines are absolute miracles and have saved countless human lives in the last century. But respiratory illnesses are difficult to fight with vaccines and unlike vaccines against measles or polio, they often don’t provide really good protection. Therefore it is important to understand how you can boost your natural immunity. It might involve some lifestyle changes and for some that can be daunting and they might think that taking pills will be easier, but I feel that if there is one thing we should have learned in the last three years it is that there is no easy way to mitigate complex problems. EVERYTHING has trade-offs. Every intervention, no matter how well intended and beneficial it was meant to be, has consequences and a lot of them will be unintended! Welcome to complex systems. Our bodies are complex systems and we live in a complex world. Medicines and drugs always operate on simplified assumptions about how bodies work and the models used to make these assumptions can only take in so much information. This means that they never capture the whole organism and its interactions in the world. Consequently there will always be side-effects that have not been accounted for (or that were conveniently swept under the rug). Medicines will work in some cases, sometimes in most cases, but they won’t always be the solution. It’s always always better not to get sick in the first place rather than rely on the pharmaceutical industry to save you. 

Gut microbiome & fermented foods

Until recently the role of the gut and specifically the role of the colonies of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in the large intestine – the part at the end of our gut –  have been largely ignored when it comes to health and nutrition. The thinking was that these microorganisms at the end of the gut just deal with the waste that happens to come their way. More recently we have come to a better understanding of their role in our health. The microorganisms collectively referred to as ‘the microbiome’ play an important role in regulating your immunity, crowding out pathogens, helping you get energy from the food you eat and improving intestinal function. It is also becoming clear that the gut and the brain have a direct line to each other, they talk and what goes on in one affects the other. Just think of times when you feel really nervous about some upcoming thing you don’t want to do, but can’t get out of: it makes you feel queasy and sometimes you need to rush to the loo. Vice versa a bad diet will affect the microorganisms in your gut and not getting which will then affect your mood.

Our food is composed of many different molecules: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins and …. artificial chemicals. The first three are the main components our bodies extract from our food, as these are the building blocks for all living things. Some of the vitamins and minerals we can extract ourselves directly, some we can only get in different ways (more on that later). The chemicals in our food often have economic or technical purposes. They either make food taste of something that we think is desirable, but too expensive in the natural form – think artificial orange flavour in Fanta compared to real orange juice – they function as a preservative (to prevent spoiling of foods), or they have pure technical applications, like allowing the foods to be processed on machinery that would otherwise not be able to handle the sticky mixture, or they might speed up some process that otherwise would take too long. Many of these chemicals are deemed ‘safe’ for human consumption and while this is a questionable claim that I won’t go into further here (if you want to read more about it read one of my earlier posts: Chemicals in the food chain), what is never discussed or in fact studied is how these chemicals affect the microbiome.

Take for example preservatives in food – they are added specifically to prevent or slow down the growth of bacteria so the food stays edible longer. They do however also affect the microbiome by killing certain types of gut microbes while allowing those microbes that are resistant to the preservative’s specific effects to flourish. Eating a whole cocktail of food chemicals, combined with other environmental chemicals you use on an everyday basis like hand sanitiser, antibacterial soaps, household sprays, and the occasional dose of antibiotics, has profound effects on your microbiome. Wiping out the good bacteria can lead to the wrong kind of bacteria coming to dominate your microbiome. The result can be that you can feel unwell – a number of diseases and digestive disorders like allergies and Irritable Bowel Syndrome have been linked to an imbalance of the bacterial communities living within us. 

Conversely people with a healthy microbiome are a lot more resistant to diseases of all kinds: respiratory, intestinal and even mood disorders and cancer are rarer in people with a healthy gut microbiome.

What can you do to boost the microbiome? 

Three simple things:

  1. Avoid artificial chemicals in your food and on your body: look at the ingredients on the label. Try and avoid anything with E-numbers and chemically sounding products like Sodium Benzoate (a preservative) or Tartrazine 1934-21-0 (yellow food colouring). Try and eat as little food that contains these chemicals. Opt for whole foods made from the real thing, or use processed foods that are minimal in their use of artificial ingredients. Use soap and hot water rather than hand sanitiser and sprays that ‘kill 99.9% of all germs’ – on your skin as well as in your household!
  2. Eat as many different types of plant foods as possible. A recommended benchmark of different plant foods per week is 30. Go through your pantry and fridge and see how many different ones you have. Everything counts that is a different plant species: grains and seeds, pulses, spices, drinks like coffee and tea, vegetables and fruit. Basically every type of food you eat nourishes a different group of bacteria and the more different varieties of bacteria you have the more stable your system will run. The more fibre the foods contain the better. Since our bodies cannot break down plant fibre – cellulose – this long-chain carbohydrate then gets swept through the gut into the large intestine, where it becomes food for bacteria. Whole grains are great, pulses like chickpeas, beans, peas and lentils contain not only good amounts of protein, but also a lot of fibre. People that consume diets low in fibre are particularly prone to gut disorders and bowel cancer.
  3. Incorporate different types of fermented foods. Fermented foods are foods and beverages that have been subjected to controlled microbial growth and fermentation. Fermentation is an anaerobic process – this means it happens without oxygen – in which microorganisms like yeast and bacteria break down the components of food such as carbohydrates like glucose and cellulose and turn them into other products such as organic acids, gases or alcohol. These products of fermentation may then continue to further alter the composition of the original foods, and it’s these products that give fermented foods their great flavour, texture and appearance. Fermented foods can also contain beneficial pre-curser molecules like tryptophan – an amino acid – that is a key component in the making of neurotransmitters like dopamine. There is a huge range of fermented foods, including: sourdough bread, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, yoghurt, kefir, tempeh, wine, beer, cider.

While a lot of the whole foods that are fermented are nutritious in their original form for some fermentation is absolutely necessary to make them digestible for us (try eating raw grains or flour!) and for other it gives them superpowers, especially when they contain probiotics and prebiotics, which you’ve probably heard about.

Probiotics are known as good or ‘friendly’ gut bacteria, and the two most well-known are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium however there may well be others that have not yet been isolated and sufficiently characterised in the lab. Experts believe these friendly gut bacteria support the body to be a happier, healthier place that is better able to stand up to disease.

Prebiotics are food ingredients that the microorganisms in your body, such as your gut bacteria, use to grow and live. The prebiotics with the most evidence-based health benefits in humans are the non-digestible oligosaccharides fructans and galactans as well as various short-chain-fatty-acids.

It’s easy to get confused about probiotics – there’s a bit of a misconception that fermented foods are the same thing as probiotics, but while they may contain probiotics, their actual microbial count isn’t defined. However, fermented foods and beverages do provide a spectrum of probiotics which encourage a varied microbiome. 

Adding fermented foods to your diet is a great place to start – a little sauerkraut on your sourdough bread, add some corned beef, cheese and pickles and you have a pretty good Reuben sandwich. Or how about refreshing glass of kombucha, so tasty and really easy to make at home. You can buy your fermented foods, or have a go at making your own – you can ferment dairy, vegetables, legumes, fruit, meat and fish, and it not only benefits your gut, but your pocket too. Fermented foods last much longer than fresh, making it a great way to preserve the bounty from the garden or whatever is seasonal and freely available. 

Vitamin D

Lastly there is a very cheap – or even free – way of boosting your immunity. Something that sadly has not been discussed during the Covid pandemic, although studies have shown as early as late 2020 that a large proportion of people with severe symptoms from Covid-19 have a severe deficiency of a simple vitamin: Vitamin D! 

Vitamin D is a vitamin that we make ourselves in our skin as a consequence of exposure to sunlight. Because of our largely indoor lifestyles, because we often wear clothes that cover most of our bodies, and because we douse ourselvers in UFP50 sunscreen when we do go out, and because many of us live at latitudes where the sun just doesn’t have enough strength for many months of the year, a huge number of people in the western world suffer from vitamin D deficiency. Having vitamin D deficiency poses a big risk when it comes to the functioning of the immune system. Vitamin D is critical for bone and mineral metabolism. Because the vitamin D receptor is expressed on immune cells such as B cells, T cells, vitamin D also has the potential to modulate innate and adaptive immune responses.

But it’s a relatively easy fix. Vitamin D can be bought in pill form, over the counter in any pharmacy. It’s not expensive! Or you can make it yourself for free. Just go outside when the sun shines (between 10:00am and 3:00pm is the best time) and spend about 20 – 30min in the sun without sunscreen! Please note, this time will vary depending on your skin type and melanin content (how dark your skin is) and the time of year and thus the intensity of the sun. People with darker skin will need to stay in the sun longer, people with very light skin will need less exposure. But as a rule of thumb 20-30min in the middle of the day is all you need to make enough vitamin D. 

This might seem risky to you, as we have all have it drummed into us that we must ALWAYS protect ourselves from the sun with suncreen, but it turns out that this is only a partial truth. Yes getting sunburned, repeatedly, will increase your chances of developing skin cancer later in life, but contrary to this narrative, you do actually need some sun directly on your skin – it’s just how we evolved over millions of years.

But if you cannot get enough sunlight or you are too scared to get skin cancer, then protect yourself and get the vitamin D in pill form. 

Of course spending time in nature, at the beach, in the bush or just outside in the garden has many other health benefits. So make to unplug yourself from the matrix regularly, get your hands into the soil and your feet on the grass or on the sand, go forest bathing (look it up, it’s a real thing!) and spend time in real nature. Eat good food, grow it yourself if you can and enjoy the company of family and friends. 

Stay sane everyone! 

For more information and further reading consider the following books and articles:

Cookbooks that teach you how to cook great healthy and tasty food that will provide nutrition and joy:

Abra Berens: Grist, A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes

Sébastien Bureau; David Cote: Fermentation Revolution – 70 Easy Recipes for Kombucha, Kimchi and More

Joshua McFadden: Grains for Every Season: Rethinking Our Way with Grains

In ‘The Guardian’- Nicola Davis: The human microbiome: Why our microbes could be the key to our health

And a good little video that is easy to understand and has some good visuals that you can even show your kids can be found here:

NPR: The invisible universe of the Human Microbiome

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