Foods to boost the immune system in times of coronavirus
A strong immune system can be key to fighting off the worst of the coronavirus. That’s why people at risk of becoming seriously ill are considered to be all those likely to have weakened immune systems, commonly defined as the over 70s and those with ‘underlying health conditions’, including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and obesity.
So how do we turn that knowledge into practical support for our families?
We spoke to nutritional therapist Rosie Letts about how diet can help to boost immune systems and promote the natural anti-inflammatories that can help build protection.
Rosie explains that when it comes to diet, it’s important to look at the quality of food as that helps to build up stores of helpful nutrients and minerals.
Eat more fruit and veg
Fruit and vegetables provide anti-inflammatory antioxidants, as well as key nutrients known to help the immune system function. Yet hardly anyone eats enough fruit and vegetables, says Rosie.
Certainly go for the five-a-day, she advises, but if possible, make it eight portions, and include as much variety as possible. Different fruits and vegetables have different inflammatory properties, so a wide range gives the best benefit. Mushrooms, for example act as antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and cell-regenerating agents, while garlic is known to boost the response of white blood cells to illness.
Look at box schemes
Eating the best quality food possible will deliver returns in terms of vitamins and the antioxidants that work as anti-inflammatories.
Because these foods lose their nutrients as they age, it’s better to buy and eat fruit and vegetables that are as fresh and of the highest quality as possible.
Many businesses that supply pubs and the restaurant trade in ‘normal’ times are turning their hands to delivering food boxes locally. Tracking down these companies and asking them to deliver to your parent achieves a number of benefits:
- Fresher food that you’re likely to get from a supermarket
- More readily available delivery slots
- Supporting local businesses that will be struggling to survive
Consider what makes a meal
For many of our older family, a meal is about meat and two veg. That’s fine, says Rosie, but if people can increase the amount of vegetables on the plate, and improve the quality and variety of those vegetables, that will all help.
If your parent is open to a little more experimentation, try suggesting adding lentils, beans, pulses and quinoa to meals.
Feeding the microbiome
The bacteria in our guts, known as the microbiome, have been gaining attention of late as being crucial to health. Over 70% of the immune system resides in the lining of the gut, supported by a diverse community of bacteria.
Ways to support the microbiome include taking probiotic supplements, and even venturing into the realms of fermented foods.
Paying attention to the microbiome can help with metabolic conditions, such as vascular health and diabetes, adds Rosie.
Take in vitamin D
Many older people are deficient in vitamin D. Usually by the spring it’s increasingly easy to take on board enough of this vital vitamin by spending time outside in the sunlight.
With lockdown it’s not so easy for people to get out, so taking supplements could really help. It’s something that’s recommended for the winter months, so taking it for a little longer into the summer will cause no harm.
Check on vitamin C
This is another important vitamin, but more easily enjoyed through diet. Vitamin C can be found in foods such as citrus fruits, green vegetables, kiwi fruits, berries and sweet peppers. If that’s difficult to manage, then again supplements can be useful.
Any other useful vitamins and minerals?
- Lack of vitamin A can impair the immune system. As a beta-carotene, it can found in red, yellow and orange plant foods. Its other form is retinol, and is found in high-fat animal foods such as eggs, butter, liver and full-fat dairy products.
- Lack of selenium may help to speed up virus mutation, so it’s worth making sure there’s enough in any diet. Find selenium in brazil nuts, oats, sunflower seeds, fish, turkey and chicken.
- Low levels of zinc can affect the body’s ability to cope with infection. The body can’t store zinc though so it’s important to include it in everyday eating. Find zinc in meat, chickpeas and lentils, pumpkin and sesame seeds.
What about frozen vegetables?
While fresh is best, the process by which vegetables are frozen means that they can retain many of their beneficial properties. Frozen spinach and broccoli are good examples. And for someone living on their own, being able to dip into a pack of frozen veg can be more practical.
On the other hand, if there’s space in the freezer, then fresh vegetables that can’t be eaten immediately can be frozen fairly easily, especially if they’re not going to be kept for months.
Stocking the cupboards
For long-term storage, the most useful tinned foods are beans and pulses. Add to that tinned fish such as sardines, mackerel and salmon, which supply the very important omega 3. For an older person with a smaller appetite, sardines on toast can be a satisfying, comforting and nutritionally beneficial meal.
If there’s a shortage of tinned foods in the shops, then dried beans are a possibility, but are not so convenient.
Don’t forget to drink
Hydration is very important, and something that older people can forget about even when there isn’t a crisis. Encourage them to keep drinking, even to the extent of asking Alexa, should she be in residence, to remind them on a regular basis. Or perhaps you could organise large bottles of water and set a target of one bottle a day – a particularly good idea if tap water in the area is hard to enjoy.
Green tea is also recommended, though not to everyone’s taste. It’s a useful addition though, as it contains flavonoids that are believed to help block the production of virus-spreading enzymes, and it’s very high in antioxidants.
Diet is one part of the story when it comes to boosting the immune system. Getting some sort of exercise is important too. The white blood cells that promote immunity are very lazy but exercise mobilises them by increasing blood flow, so they can get to work throughout the body. Getting the heart rate up can make them more efficient.
There are a growing number of online exercise groups – live and on YouTube – that are designed for older people.
That’s a good start but there are benefits to getting outside if it’s at all possible.
While older and vulnerable people are being encouraged to stay at home, many can still take a walk if they feel safe to do so.
Being outside is not just good for the body, it’s important for mental well-being too.
If your relatives and friends can get out into open spaces, enjoy the nature around them, and feel the sunshine, they will find it a little easier to cope with the lockdown experience.