10 Immune-Boosting Superfoods
Strengthen your defences this winter
by Faryal Luhar, ND
Of the several systems working in our bodies to support, protect, and enhance healthy function, the immune system is by far the most complex and intricate.
An army of white blood cells, the immune system is a fighting force that destroys the “bad guys” that cause illness and rids the body of toxins. So is it possible to boost the fighting power of this army and help make your immune system stronger?
The idea is enticing, and definitely achievable. Incorporating these 10 immune superheroes into your life will enhance your body’s defences and keep you healthy.
In Ayurvedic healing, ashwaganda boasts a long history of medicinal use as a vital herb. Also known as Indian ginseng for its rejuvenating and anti-inflammatory properties, it strengthens the immune system and works as a general tonic to increase energy and prolong longevity.
Ashwaganda is recognized as a potent adaptogen, which augments the body’s resistance against stress. Poor stress coping mechanisms can lead to psychological disorders such as anxiety or depression. This in turn promotes immune dysfunction, disrupting the functional interaction between the nervous and immune systems. Adverse health consequences such as slow wound healing, reactivation of the herpes virus, or cardiovascular disease can result.
A member of the Allium genus (along with onions and leeks), garlic has been used as an elixir to treat the common cold, chest infections, and even to ward off evil spirits. This flavourful food fights infection by increasing natural killer cells, macrophages, and lymphocytes.
Rich in antioxidant phytochemicals such as organosulphur compounds, garlic scavenges free radicals that damage membranes. It is also a great protector of the heart and lowers cholesterol, but is also gaining popularity for its anti-tumour effects.
This native plant with yellow roots is famous as a leader among the immune-boosting superpowers—hence named the “yellow leader” in traditional Chinese medicine. It is usually boiled into a decoction to be taken at various times of the year to prevent illness. Also called huang qi, this herb boosts antibody and antiviral compounds such as interferon to protect against viral invasion. Further, astragalus has an affinity for lung disorders with studies highlighting its anticancer properties.
Research is currently underway to investigate the antiaging potential of this mighty herb, which has been shown to slow or prevent telomere shortening. Telomeres are DNA-containing caps at the ends of chromosomes. As cells divide, the telomeres get shorter. Once telomeres have reached a critical shortness, cells are unable to continue dividing and typical signs of aging result.
This pungent herb has been a mainstay in Asian medicine for centuries to treat upset stomach, migraines, pain, nausea, and vomiting.
Lab experiments by Dr. Rebecca Lui and her colleagues showed that gingerols (ginger’s active ingredient) killed ovarian cancer cells by inducing programmed cell death (apoptosis), suggesting significant potential in treating this type of cancer.
5. Reishi mushroom
This “mushroom of immortality” is a fungus not to be underestimated. Reishi is the most versatile of the cancer-fighting mushrooms, as it also nourishes and protects the heart and liver. Recent studies also demonstrate its cytotoxic activity against tumour cells in animals.
Reishi has withstood the test of time in Asian medicine as a balancer and revitalizer of the body. Medicinal and delicious, this mushroom is a perfect addition to salads and stir-fries.
With an impressive record of clinical research, this Native American plant stimulates nonspecific activity of the immune system. In other words, it’s a cure-all for a variety of infections and diseases.
A 2003 study utilizing echinacea reported a tenfold increase in various interleukin genes, which regulate the immune response. These results are consistent with echinacea’s reported ability to reduce the duration and intensity of cold and flu symptoms.
Commonly studied for its antifatigue effects, ginseng also improves mental clarity, vitality, and alertness. Different varieties, such as panax, Korean, and Siberian, offer different health benefits; however, all ginsengs are suggested to provide adaptogen and immune-stimulating effects, making it one of nature’s best gifts.
Several studies report American ginseng’s powerful effects on diabetes by enhancing pancreatic beta cell function and reducing insulin resistance. In cells, ginsenosides have been shown to protect against oxidative damage that typically occurs in diabetic environments.
Spice up mealtimes by adding this common ingredient in Indian curries to boost immunity and reduce pain and inflammation. Hailed for its wide-ranging health benefits, the active ingredient curcumin fights free radicals that damage cell membranes and DNA and even induce cell death.
Furthermore, new research is emerging showing the efficacy of curcumin alone or combined with vitamin D in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
9. Camu camu berry
This South American Amazonian plant is touted for the highest content of natural vitamin C. A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C is thought to reduce inflammation, protect the heart from stroke, and boost immunity to cold and flu.
A recent Japanese study of 20 male smokers treated with camu camu juice resulted in significantly lower markers for inflammation and oxidative stress. More research is required to determine camu camu’s exact effects on the body, and how it could positively impact nonsmokers.
10. Holy basil
Last but certainly not least of the immune champions is holy basil, an Ayurvedic herb grown in almost every household in India. This holy herb is venerated for its myriad of healing properties and is a powerful adaptogen, inducing relaxation during periods of stress. Historically, it was used for the common cold, headaches, stomach disorders, skin disorders, dental problems, and fevers.
Early lab research has shown holy basil to have chemoprotective properties, slowing cancer progression in rats.
Adding these 10 superheroes to your diet will bolster your vitality and support your fighting force all year round. Healthy nutritional habits, along with optimal digestive function, good quality sleep, adequate exercise, and a positive mental outlook, are pillars of a robust immune system. Be sure to consult your naturopathic doctor for further guidance specific to your health.