10 ways how to boost your immune system naturally
When asking people about their "tricks" to boost immunity before winter, you usually hear things like:
- Washing hands a lot
- Eating lots of fruits, esp. citrus fruits, kiwi etc. for vitamin C
- Eating garlic and onions
- Taking supplement X or Y
If we consider that 70-80% of our immune system lies in the gut, it is interesting that improving gut health is usually not mentioned. Yet, without a healthy gut, none of the above means will keep you from getting sick. Worse actually: Some of them might even be contraproductive to the effort of establishing a healthy gut flora, like eating lots of (sugary) fruits, that on top cool down your body (not exactly what you need in winter). And even the best supplements in the world won't be well absorbed by a permeable (= leaky) gut.
So let's talk about gut health as THE important factor to not only get through winter without catching the flu, but to improve your overall health and well-being all year long.
There are two main aspects to gut health: gut flora and gut permeability that are interdependent.
(I beg the pardon of any gut specialists reading this, if I oversimplify things).
Our gut is colonized with billions and billions of bacteria - which make up the so-called gut flora. In the ideal case the "good" bacteria keep the "bad" ones and other pathogens, such as yeast, fungi or parasites (that might enter via food, air or skin) under control.
A healthy gut lining is (almost) "closed", meaning that the "villi" (sort of "fingers" sitting on the gut wall) only absorb the nutrients made available through digestion, but don't let big particles of (undigested) food, yeasts, parasites, environmental toxins or other (potentially pathogenic) elements pass through the gut wall into the blood stream. If that ever happens, an immune reaction is caused (release of anti-bodies) to fight the intruder. This is an inflammatory reaction which - if it is continuosly triggered - wrecks down the immune system over time and increases the risk of developing allergies, auto-immune or degenerative diseases of any kind (if you suffer from a lot of allergies or food intolerances, you can be almost sure to have a permeable gut to a certain degree).
Since there is a direct connection between the gut and the brain, a leaky gut is also associated with an impaired brain barrier, allowing toxic elements to "leak" into the brain and potentially cause brain fog, concentration / memory issues and/or behavorial issues (e.g. ADHD in children).
The overgrowth of bad bacteria, parasites, yeasts (in other words, an unhealthy gut flora) plays a major role in damaging gut lining.
This is why it is so important to keep the gut flora balanced.
Factors altering gut flora and making the gut leaky
When bad bacteria, yeasts, fungi or parasites are allowed to overgrow, we talk about gut dysbiosis.
This condition can be caused or worsened by:
- Chronic stress, incl. external stress from work, relationships, money... as well as internal stress from food (see below), but also from thoughts and feelings (read more about the psychic immune system here)
- A diet high in carbohydrates (esp. refined carbs, like sugar, white bread & pasta..., but also too much fruit or whole grains, especially if those are not correctly prepared). In general, sugar/carbs feeds bad bacteria and yeasts. Some studies also link gluten (contained in wheat, spelt, rye and barley) to increased gut permeability.
- A diet high in omega 6 fatty-acids (especially from cheap vegetable oils, soy and corn, but also an excess of nuts & seeds, especially if intake of omega 3 is deficient). Those are pro-inflammatory and can damage gut lining.
- A diet high in processed foods (like extruded breakfast cereals, pasteurized dairy, cookies, snacks, ready-to-eat meals, soy milk, meat replacements...). Industrial processing, esp. high-heat, high-pressure or chemical processing, alters the chemical structure of foods and might render them unrecognizable and/or damaging to our digestive system - while being a welcome food for bad bacteria or yeasts.
- Food intolerances: Having food intolerances is already an indication for a (somewhat) leaky gut. Continuing to eat those foods further damages the gut lining and causes an inflammatory immune reaction and release of stress hormones in the body.
- Pesticides, GMOs or additives in food, chemicals in cosmetics, or environmental toxins contained in the air or water you consume damage the gut lining.
- Lack of natural, traditional saturated fats (such as raw butter or coconut oil) which contain anti-bacterial properties (fighting the bad guys) and heal the gut lining. Saturated animal fats also contain vitamins A, D, K2 and cholesterol which nourish immune-system-supporting organs / glands, repair gut lining and optimize digestion (undigested foods feed bad bacteria).
- Lack of traditional probiotic foods (foods that naturally contain "good" bacteria and digestive enzymes) and foods supporting a healthy gut lining (see below)
- Antibiotics (they wipe out bad AND good bacteria and damage gut lining)
- Other medication, such as the "pill" (hormonal changes influence gut flora)
- Foods that push your individual Metabolic Type out of balance.
Once the gut flora is disturbed, and pathogens (bad bacteria, parasites, yeasts...) get installed, they further damage the gut lining, making the gut even more "leaky". It is quite difficult to change things back again, since the mere presence of pathogens feeding on sugar, bread etc. makes us crave those foods even more (in a way they use us to get what they need to survive). This is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken once and for all times.
Note: Babies get their gut flora from their mother (via the placenta and the birth canal). Therefore it is essential that women take good care of their own gut first! Babies are born with "leaky" guts, which is why it is so important to NOT feed baby any foods that it cannot (yet) digest (especially grains / cereals), before the gut closes. Otherwise they might be at a higher risk for food allergies / intolerances and an overall impaired immune system.
How to re-establish a healthy gut
Apart from avoiding the foods mentioned above (esp. refined carbs and processed foods) and limiting stress, it is crucial to consume foods feeding beneficial bacteria and the gut lining:
1. Probiotic foods
Probiotic foods are naturally rich in beneficial bacteria, vitamins & minerals and digestive enzymes.
- RAW (= uncooked) sauerkraut (or other lacto-fermented vegetables). Get the recipe here.
- Traditionally prepared pickles or Kimchi (not the vinegar version you can find in stores),
- Kombucha (again - the home-made version and not the sugary version you can find in stores)
- Kefir (ideally from raw milk)
- Natural yogurt or cheese made from raw milk
Eat these foods with every meal (as a complement in small quantities). In addition to that, you might want to add a high quality probiotic supplement to your diet.
Attention: these foods are NOT (yet) good for you if you have candida overgrowth. In this case you need to get rid first of the yeast before fermented foods will be good for you again!
Only after your gut flora is re-established, PRE-biotic foods will help to keep the good bacteria well-fed. That's where the onion and garlic come into play.
2. Pre-biotic foods:
- Jerusalem Artichoke (topinambour) - not to be confused with regular artichokes
- Black salsify (scorsoneres)
- Legumes (such as lentils or beans), properly prepared
- Garlic & Onions (ideally raw)
- Foods containing "resistant starch". Potatoes or rice that have been cooked, cooled down and re-heated transform some of the sugar into resistant starch
- Raw potato (in very small quantities and without any toxic green parts)
- Platanos (the starchy bananas used for cooking)
Attention: as long as your gut flora is still out of balance, these foods tend to cause major digestive discomfort, such as bloating, gas etc.
Home-made bone broth is rich in gelatin, healthy fats (esp. beef stock, chicken fat is less favorable since it contains more omega 6), certain essential amino-acids and minerals.
Making broth from a whole chicken or some beef bones is really easy, not expensive and not overly time-consuming (I make a big batch once a week). Get the recipe here. If your broth doesn't gel (e.g. if you use only marrow bones), you can "cheat" and add some powdered gelatin from grass-fed, antibiotic & hormone-free cows (available at www.ergomax.nl).
Note that store-bought bouillon "cubes" do not contain any health-promoting properties. but are usually full of cheap salt and additives.
4. Animal foods rich in saturated fats, cholesterol and vitamins A, D and K2
It might seem like irony to you that the very foods demonized for years are crucial for a healthy immune system. Saturated animal fats, which are largely present in raw butter, cream, cheese, egg yolks, organ meats, greasy meats, lard etc. are antimicrobial and together with cholesterol they help seal and heal the gut lining. Vitamin A, D and K2 - exclusively contained in the fats of free-range, grass-fed animals (in their "real", easily absorbable form), are crucial for immunity, nutrient absorption and balancing hormones (among others). This is why raw cod liver oil is such a great immune booster.
When it comes to dairy, prefer cultured dairy, such as yogurt or kefir (contains less sugar and more beneficial bacteria). You might want to limit dairy in winter due to its tendency to cool the body.
Summary: 10 ways to boost your immunity naturally
- Avoid all foods feeding bad bacteria (basically foods high in sugars, processed foods) and foods you can't digest / are intolerant to. Buy organic whenever possible.
- Prepare your own bone broth once a week and consume it daily - either pure or as a basis for soups or sauces or to cook your (correctly prepared) grains or pulses in it. Get the recipe here. In addition to that, add powdered gelatin to smoothies, soups and baked goods.
- Eat probiotic foods on a daily basis (find the recipe for home-made lacto-fermented vegetables here), ideally with every meal (start with small quantities and build up gradually to avoid bloating). Take a good probiotic supplement as well (I recommend Prescript Assist for adults and GutPro Infant for children up to 2 years).
- Don't be afraid of saturated fat & cholesterol contained in foods from free-range, grass-fed animals. Prefer natural, traditional raw butter or ghee over vegetable oils.
- Take extra virgin cod liver oil for a supply of natural vitamin D and A (synergistic effects - much better than isolated, synthetic vitamin D). Alternatively take drops combining vitamin D3+K2.
- Eat plenty of vegetables, but only little fruit. Always combine with fats/proteins.
- Prefer foods that are good or neutral for your individual Metabolic Type.
- Limit stress and take your time for eating and chewing. You can eat the healthiest and highest quality foods in the world - if you are not able to digest well, they will not do you any good. You are NOT what you eat, but what you can digest!
- Avoid all unnecessary medication (incl. the pill). If you have to take antibiotics, make sure to re-build your gut flora by taking a probiotic supplement (in addition to eating lots of probiotic foods).
- Lead a healthy lifestyle in general, getting enough rest, fresh air and body movement.
And as a bonus: Develop a strong PSYCHIC immune system. Learn more about that here