Raise your hand if you’ve ever worked through an illness. (Guilty!) You have a horrible cold, you’re not feeling so well, but you don’t have any more sick days so you just kind of stare at your computer all day pretending you’ll be productive.
Or instead, ever had coworkers that come in when they should definitely have stayed home? There’s always one. And sometimes it’s you.
It’s part of life—if we’re going out into the world, we’re going to encounter germs, and the best thing we can do is to build up our immunity to help avoid getting sick.
Here are my top foods and herbs for boosting your immune health naturally. Keep them in your diet on regular rotation for the most benefits!
You may not make any friends with this first one, but it’s nature’s antibiotic! It’s anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-bacterial. The potency of its medicinal enzymes actually increase when you smash it and let it sit for 10 minutes. The magic of nature!
If you feel yourself starting to get a cold, crush a clove of garlic and let it sit, then take it along with a spoonful of raw, local honey to nip it in the bud. Raw, unpasteurized honey is important so you’re getting the medicinal benefits from those enzymes too, rather than just straight sugar.
I started doing this when I feel my seasonal chest cold coming, and my breath wasn’t AMAZING but it definitely kept things a lot calmer than usual!
Green, yellow, red, orange, purple—they’re all anti-viral and ani-microbial too. And they actually have twice the amount of Vitamin C than oranges! (Photo from my Avolini Wrap recipe.)
When you’re stressed, which a lot of us are, the first thing we want to do is comfort ourselves with sleeve of Oreos, but that’s the opposite of what our body needs at that time. Stress depletes our Vitamin C stores, so the more stressed we are, the more Vitamin C we need.
Glucose (sugar) competes with Vitamin C for uptake in our cells, so if all the space is taken up by glucose, there’s no place for Vitamin C to get in the cell in provide its immune-boosting benefits.
Other great sources of Vitamin C: citrus fruits, brussels sprouts, cherries, papaya, broccoli.
Mushrooms help modulate the immune system, meaning they can dial it up or down as needed.
Why would you ever need to dial down your immune system? Some people have overactive immune systems and autoimmune disease, where the immune system attacks itself. Mushrooms contain compounds that aid in the process of bringing that inflammatory response back down.
Medicinal mushrooms like reishi and chaga are adaptogenic, helping your body adapt to stress over time so it can better fight off illness. If you can find these, great, but they’re not typically at your local market in culinary form (you can find them more as “coffee” and tea, or you can—proceed with caution—find them in the wild, and make a decoction yourself).
Aside from the adaptogens, simply including a variety of mushrooms in your diet (shiitake, portobello, etc.) will help you just as well. They contain beta-glucans, a type of natural sugar that helps strengthen the immune system.
I’m sure you’ve heard more and more about fermented foods and their probiotic benefits in recent years with the rising focus on gut health. These are things like home-brewed kombucha, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, yogurt, etc. All of these things contain healthy bacteria that are great for your digestive system.
The reason this is important is because 70%+ of our immune system lives in the lining of our intestinal tract. Those probiotics keep the good bacteria flourishing. This is especially important if you’ve just been sick and had to take a round of antibiotics—those don’t just target the bad guys, they wipe it all out. (Not a knock on antibiotics! We just want to follow them with a round of probiotics to restore balance in the gut and keep our immune system at its best.)
If you’re new to fermented foods, start small otherwise you may get a little rumbly if you’re not used to it. Start with 4oz or 1/4 cup and work your way up.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are high in wonderful immune-supporting minerals like selenium, copper, zinc, and Vitamin E.
The optimal way to have them is to soak them first. Doing this germinates the seeds and essentially unlocks the nutrients inside that, if you planted it, now has enough power to grow into an amazing, strong plant. But you can get those benefits in your body instead.
This is known as sprouting, and not only does it increase the nutrient density but it makes those nutrients more absorbable in your body, so you can get more bang for your buck.
Sprouting at home is a whole other world that I can’t detail in this blog post. Essentially you can just give ’em a good overnight soak, or you can go all the way to actually sprouting seeds til they grow leaves. The former can be good enough, but if you do this at home you may want to dehydrate them afterwards if you’re planning to eat them as a snack.
No time for that? Sprouted nuts and seeds are becoming more available at stores. Can’t find them? You will still get plenty of benefits from non-sprouted.
Thyme is a great herb for supporting immunity before and during an illness. It stimulates the thymus gland, which regulates the immune system, and it’s also great for cold, cough, flu, and other respiratory issues as an expectorant and anti-microbial herb for the lungs.
I love culinary herbs because they provide medicinal magic like this without us even realizing it! But now that we know, we can use it more strategically. Add it to your seasonings, simmer it in your next batch of bone or vegetable broth, enjoy it in a tea blend, etc.
Not a culinary herb, but usually easy to find at health food stores with bulk herbs (or online at Mountain Rose Herbs). It’s the fruit of the rose bush! Rose hips are quite high in concentrated Vitamin C and have a deliciously tart flavor.
I most often have this as tea, but you can make a medicinal syrup out of them similar to elderberry syrup (elderberries are another immune-boosting herb), which is going to be much tastier than the gross orange and fake grape cough syrups at the drugstore.
You most likely know this one already, but what you may not know is that it’s only really effective at the very beginning of a cold in higher doses as an immune stimulant. Once the sickness has arrived, move back up this list. It’s most often found as tea, but I have purchased it in tincture form from Foster Farms Botanicals (based in Vermont).
What are your go-to immune health foods and herbs?