Harvesting immunity: Fuel your body's defences through autumn
As the leaves start to change and a cool breeze fills the air, the autumn season brings with it a certain charm. However, along with the picturesque landscapes and cosy evenings in front of a fire, the autumn months also signal the arrival of colder weather and heightened susceptibility to illnesses. Supporting your immune system becomes a priority during this time, and a strategic approach to nutrition can play a vital role in safeguarding your health.
Understanding the immune system
Believe it or not, about 70% of your immunity resides in your gut! Your immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to defend your body against harmful invaders, and ensuring it’s working optimally is key to decreasing the risk of illnesses.
The role of nutrition in immunity
Certain nutrients have been identified for their immune-supporting properties, making them particularly relevant as we transition into the autumn months.
Here are some you may want to consider:
Often associated with cold and flu prevention, it’s a powerful antioxidant that helps protect immune cells from damage. You probably know about oranges and lemons, but also consider incorporating red bell peppers, strawberries, and kiwi into your meals.
Tip: How about adding red peppers to your stir fries, strawberries to your chia pudding or oatmeal, and oranges and lemons to your water?
The sunshine vitamin is closely linked to immune health. During the colder months when sun exposure may be limited, it's important to seek dietary sources such as fatty fish, fortified dairy products, and egg yolks.
Government guidelines suggest supplementing with 400iu (10mcg) of Vitamin D during the autumn/winter months to support overall health and bone and muscle health. Ideally, you would want to check your serum levels in September and speak with your GP or a health practitioner, to understand how much vitamin D is right for you to supplement.
Zinc is involved in various immune processes, including the production and function of immune cells. It is also needed to support cognition and digestion. Include zinc-rich foods like lean meats, poultry, beans, nuts, and whole grains in your meals. Try adding mixed seeds to your oatmeal and soups, or making your meat-free day meal a bean stew, or even black bean tacos! Taco Tuesday anyone?
A diet rich in antioxidants can support an overall anti-inflammatory action in the body, contributing to immune resilience. If you think that most chronic diseases can start from inflammation, switching to a more anti-inflammatory diet would be a great place to start! Berries, dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and green tea are all excellent sources.
Gut health and immune function are intricately connected. Try adding some probiotic foods like kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut or yoghurt in your diet to support a balanced gut microbiome (the environment in your gut filled with a mix of beneficial, opportunistic and pathogenic bacteria. In addition to potential fungi or viruses).
If you're not used to eating probiotic foods, start with 1 tablespoon a day and increase slowly to allow your body to adjust and avoid symptoms of bloating or gas, which could happen in sensitive individuals.
Incorporating immunity-supporting foods into your diet
Sweet potatoes are always a great choice! Packed in beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, vital for maintaining the integrity of our skin and mucous membranes, which are the first line of defence against pathogens. I love them roasted or mashed as a side.
Carrots are another smart option, packed with antioxidants, including vitamin C, helping to neutralise free radicals and support immunity. Juice, add to salads or stir-fries to add colour and flavour to your meals. Let’s not forget butternut squash! Its vivid yellow-orange flesh indicates high levels of vitamins A and C, as well as dietary fibre promoting gut health. Personally, my favourite way to use it is in a warming butternut squash risotto.
Mushrooms, especially shiitake and maitake mushrooms can be fantastic ingredients to support immune resilience. These fungi contain beta-glucans, bioactive molecules that possess potent immune-enhancing properties. Their earthy flavour works beautifully in soups savoury stir-fries, and, of course, hearty risottos.
Spices and herbs
Turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon offer a natural way to support our immune defences while adding flavourful depth to our meals. The golden colour of turmeric comes from curcumin, a compound renowned for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Incorporate turmeric into your autumn curries, soups, or roasted vegetables, to introduce a powerful ingredient that supports immunity by taming inflammation.
Ginger, contains gingerol – a bioactive compound with immune-modulating effects. Often used to alleviate symptoms of respiratory infections, it can be infused into teas or added to stir-fries, imparting a comforting warmth that resonates with the season. Also useful for nausea, should you need it the morning after a party.
Cinnamon is not just going to make your kitchen smell heavenly but also boasts antimicrobial properties that contribute to overall immune health. Try sprinkling cinnamon onto your morning oatmeal, your pancakes or your cinnamon latte.
Omega-3 fatty acids
These fats, often associated with heart health, also play a significant role in supporting immune function. They contribute to the fluidity of cell membranes, allowing immune cells to communicate effectively, and modulate inflammation. Not too shabby. To remember the best types of oily fish, just think about the acronym SMASH: salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring. Sorted.
When the chill of autumn settles in, there's nothing quite as comforting as wrapping your hands around a steaming cup of herbal tea. Echinacea and elderberry are herbs that have long been cherished for their immune-supporting potential. Echinacea is believed to stimulate immune cells and enhance their activity, helping the body combat infections more effectively. Elderberry, rich in antioxidants like anthocyanins, has been associated with reduced duration and severity of cold symptoms. Choose your favourite, or both, and make them perfect companions for your cosy evenings.
Please remember that hydration remains a cornerstone of well-being – especially when it comes to supporting your immune system. Proper hydration ensures the optimal function of immune cells and the circulation of essential nutrients throughout your body. If plain water is not appealing to you, think about switching to warming herbal teas, or eating hydrating fruits and veggies such as cucumber, celery, lettuce and watermelon.
While nutrition is a cornerstone of immunity, don’t forget lifestyle factors also play a role in maintaining a robust defence system.
Prioritise quality sleep, as it's essential for immune function and overall health. Aim for 7-9 hours of restful sleep per night.
Three easy tips to support sleep include:
- Staying away from screens at least 1 hour before bed, as blue light can impair melatonin production.
- Eating at least three hours before bed, to allow the body to digest your meal efficiently.
- Focusing on melatonin production, dimming your lights in the evening, to allow your brain to understand that it’s time to wind down.
Chronic stress can suppress the immune system. Create a toolbox of stress management techniques that works for you. Some ideas could be meditation, deep breathing, stretching, dancing or walking your dog in nature.
Regular moderate exercise can be supportive of immune function. Take brisk walks, and start practising yoga, Pilates or try a class at your gym. Exercising with a friend can also be more enjoyable, and keep you accountable. The key is to choose activities you enjoy, to help this change be a long-lasting one.
Don’t forget that practising good hygiene, such as washing your hands frequently and properly, remains a key aspect of illness prevention.
I hope this article helped you to understand that it's not just what we eat, but also how we live that can make all the difference in our well-being, immunity included. So, enjoy this wonderful season, and slowly start to incorporate delicious foods and lifestyle tweaks to make it the healthiest and most enjoyable autumn so far!
- Childs CE, Calder PC, Miles EA. Diet and Immune Function. Nutrients. 2019 Aug 16;11(8):1933. doi: 10.3390/nu11081933. PMID: 31426423; PMCID: PMC6723551.
Calder PC. Foods to deliver immune-supporting nutrients. Curr Opin Food Sci. 2022 Feb;43:136-145. doi: 10.1016/j.cofs.2021.12.006. Epub 2021 Dec 18. PMID: 34976746; PMCID: PMC8702655.
- Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS. Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human Health. Foods. 2017 Oct 22;6(10):92. doi: 10.3390/foods6100092. PMID: 29065496; PMCID: PMC5664031.
- Mashhadi NS, Ghiasvand R, Askari G, Hariri M, Darvishi L, Mofid MR. Anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects of ginger in health and physical activity: review of current evidence. Int J Prev Med. 2013 Apr;4(Suppl 1): S36-42. PMID: 23717767; PMCID: PMC3665023.
- Shaik-Dasthagirisaheb YB, Varvara G, Murmura G, Saggini A, Caraffa A, Antinolfi P, Tete' S, Tripodi D, Conti F, Cianchetti E, Toniato E, Rosati M, Speranza L, Pantalone A, Saggini R, Tei M, Speziali A, Conti P, Theoharides TC, Pandolfi F. Role of vitamins D, E and C in immunity and inflammation. J Biol Regul Homeost Agents. 2013 Apr-Jun;27(2):291-5. PMID: 23830380.
- Vimala B, Nambisan B, Hariprakash B. Retention of carotenoids in orange-fleshed sweet potato during processing. J Food Sci Technol. 2011 Aug;48(4):520-4. doi: 10.1007/s13197-011-0323-2. Epub 2011 Apr 3. PMID: 23572783; PMCID: PMC3551189.
- Vetvicka V, Vetvickova J. Immune-enhancing effects of Maitake (Grifola frondosa) and Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) extracts. Ann Transl Med. 2014 Feb;2(2):14. doi: 10.3978/j.issn.2305-5839.2014.01.05. PMID: 25332990; PMCID: PMC4202470.