You know that the immune system protects against disease and infection and helps you recover after an injury, but did you know that 70-80% of your immune system is located in your digestive system? Keep up your immunity by eating foods high in nutrients, like vitamins A, C, D, and E. Unprocessed foods contain more nutrients. Seniors can get the nutrients they need from whole foods, including legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and even animal protein.
Older people tend to eat less and have less variety in their diets. According to Harvard Health Publishing, “Cold weather and respiratory disease, including flu, go hand in hand.”
This is especially true for older adults who don’t retain body heat as well as they used to. In addition to exercise and getting plenty of sleep, prevent colds and the flu by piling your plate high with these immune-boosting superfoods this winter.
Vitamin E is one of the keys to a healthy immune system. It is fat-soluble, so it has to have fat to be absorbed properly. Nuts, like almonds, are packed with both vitamin E and healthy fats. A half a cup (about 46 whole, shelled almonds) contains your daily recommended dose. Other foods that are rich in vitamin E include sunflower seeds, avocados and dark leafy greens.
Antioxidants help fight colds and support immune health. Berries are a rich source of antioxidants, but on average, wild blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries contain 81% more antioxidants than their cultivated counterparts.
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower can strengthen the overall immune system by boosting enzymes that help fight cold and flu germs. This superfood provides three types of antioxidants: vitamins C, E, and A. They are also rich in folate (vitamin B-9) and fiber. Broccoli is most nutritious when eaten raw. If you prefer it cooked, give it a light steam.
Our bodies need Vitamin C to produce antibodies that fight infections. Vitamin C is thought to increase the production of white blood cells, which are key to fighting infections. Older people tend to have lower levels of Vitamin C. The best sources for the super-vitamin are fruits and vegetables, including citrus fruits, tomatoes and tomato juice, and potatoes. Popular citrus fruits include grapefruit, oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes, and clementines. Other great sources of vitamin C are papayas, red and green peppers, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts and cantaloupe. Vitamin C can also lessen the duration and intensity of sickness.
Eggs provide Vitamin D, which combined with vitamin C, boosts the immune system to fight off colds and the flu. This is a great excuse to have orange juice with your breakfast. Eggs are such an easy food to incorporate into your diet, with plenty of ways to prepare so you don’t tire of them quickly.
Ground flaxseeds boast multiple health benefits. Flaxseeds contain a group of nutrients (lignans) that have formidable antioxidant properties. You have to grind them up to get to the good stuff though, as the stomach can’t get past their hard shell. Add a tablespoon to your oatmeal, smoothie, bread, muffins or yogurt.
Garlic, along with onions and leeks, is part of the allium family. Its immune-boosting properties seemingly come from a high concentration of sulfur-containing compounds, like allicin. This versatile flavor is an easy addition to many dishes.
The immune system functions better when inflammation is down, and ginger is packed with anti-inflammatory properties. Look for recipes that incorporate freshly grated ginger. You can add fresh ginger to a smoothie or juice, a stir-fry or homemade salad dressing, or make ginger tea by steeping peeled fresh ginger in boiling water.
Flavonoids are a type of antioxidant, and green and black teas are packed with them! They also have high levels of another powerful antioxidant, EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), which has been shown to enhance immune function. Black tea gets fermented, which destroys a lot of the EGCG, but green tea is steamed, thereby preserving the EGCG. Green tea is also a good source of the amino acid L-theanine, a natural compound that may aid in the production of germ-fighting compounds in your T-cells. L-theanine’s potential anti-inflammatory effects could also help fight illness. Green tea does contain some caffeine, so it is best to consume it in the morning. Try subbing it for one of your cups of morning coffee.
Herbs & Spices
Herbs and spices are nature’s healthy and organic immune-boosting supplements. Cayenne pepper, black peppercorn, turmeric, and cinnamon can help your body fight off viruses, infections, and inflammation.
Fresh shiitake, maitake, and reishi mushrooms are immune system superfoods. They increase white blood cell production, making them fight infection more aggressively. Luckily, they’re available year-round.
Another superfood, spinach is chock full of vitamin C, numerous antioxidants, and beta carotene, which may increase the infection-fighting ability of our immune systems. Like broccoli, spinach retains most of its nutrients when consumed raw, but light cooking enhances its vitamin A and allows other nutrients to be released from oxalic acid.
Shellfish like crab, clams, lobster, mussels are high in zinc, a mineral that helps keep our immune systems strong. It can also help once you get sick. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Zinc lozenges or syrup reduced the length of a cold by one day, especially when taken within 24 hours of the first signs and symptoms of a cold.”
Consumption of intact grains like buckwheat, brown rice, oats, and barley helps healthy bacteria in the gut flourish, which in turn, ups your immune system.
Yogurt & Probiotics
Researchers are finding evidence of a relationship between probiotics and the development of the immune system. When taken regularly, probiotics can help balance gut health and keep the digestive system functioning normally. As we age, the natural levels of healthy bacteria decline.
Plain yogurts with “live and active cultures,” like Greek yogurt are a healthy source of probiotics. If you can’t stand it plain, add fruit or a drizzle of raw honey. Sauerkraut, pickles, traditional buttermilk, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha are all packed with health-promoting probiotics, too.