Foods and supplements to boost your immunity and fight infection during the COVID 19 pandemic.
At any time, but especially during this worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, we need our immune systems to be performing at their peak. But at the same time we also find ourselves facing grocery shortages, food insecurity and for many, loss of income. Therefore, before we talk about which foods or supplements you should get to help protect yourself, we must remember that the absolute top priorities are to eat, rest and manage stress as best you can. These three things affect the immune system more than any expensive supplement ever could.
We may not have access to our favourite food brands and the food available to us may not be our first choice right now, but that doesn’t matter at the moment. We will do the best we can with what is available. For those dancers working through disordered eating, this is your time to be gentle with yourself; silence that voice that tells you to restrict or to reject certain foods that aren’t in your comfort zone. Your body’s immune system needs you right now and the best way to boost it is to nourish your body.
Phytonutrients are non-caloric substances naturally found in plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and even teas that have health benefits including positively affecting the immune response. “Polyphenols promote immunity to foreign pathogens via various pathways”1.
Phytochemicals are the compounds responsible for the beautiful bright colours in blueberry skins, the purple of grapes, black beans, the dark red of beetroot, and even the orange of turmeric for example. The more colourful your range of food choices, the better. Most of us know that we should eat 5+ servings of vegetables and 2-3 servings of fruit each day, but this is even more important right now. Cooked, frozen, or raw all have their benefits so prepare them however you prefer, and however you can get them during the current shortages. Sometimes frozen is the only option right now, and that’s ok.
Stock up on green tea and herbal teas, but remember that green tea does have caffeine, so don’t over do it, particularly before bed time. My top tea recommendations are echinacea, elderberry, red clover, lemon balm, oregano/ marjoram, nettle and mint. Some might enjoy drinking kombucha which combines tea with probiotics and now comes in a huge variety of flavours and organic varieties. The topic of how specific probiotic organisms found in fermented foods boost the immune system would fill a large book. For the scope of this article I’ll limit it to recommending kombucha, keifr and yoghurt.
Vitamin E, a key antioxidant, protects membranes of the lungs, and we all need our lungs as strong as possible right now in the face of this respiratory virus. Vitamin E is found in nuts, seeds (especially sunflower), oils, peanut butter, avocados, and mangos. Vitamin E may also reduce the risk of respiratory tract infections in the elderly2, so it’s a great addition to the diet of our older loved ones right now.
Vitamin C is a well-known immune system essential, but people do tend to go way overboard with vitamin C tablets and powders (see my Dance Informa article on this topic). We need about 65-300 mg per day, not mega doses of 1000 mg all at one time. The best food sources include papaya, rock melon, citrus fruits like oranges, kiwi, capsicum, mango, berries and even broccoli and the skins of potatoes, believe it or not! So just wash your potatoes well, don’t peel them.
Vitamin A, is known for helping to delay the initiation and severity of autoimmune conditions and can also help the body fight viral infections2. It is best obtained through foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut pumpkin, spinach, and other leafy greens.
Vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin because when the skin absorbs sun, it makes a form of vitamin D in the body. Try to get 30 minutes total of sun per day (while social distancing), but make sure not to get burnt. This vitamin is absolutely essential for the immune response and it’s hard to get adequate amounts through only food. Supplements of vitamin D3 (the active form) are found in most stores or online and are worth the investment. Recommendations are to take 800-1500 IU per day. Don’t mega dose this vitamin unless under the care of a medical professional. Food sources include eggs, salmon, and cod liver oil.
Iron deficiency is extremely common in female dancers. Did you know that poor iron status can significantly impair the immune system. How can you eat more iron on a budget, particularly while the meat aisles are bare, or if you don’t each meat? Start with the amount of fresh leafy greens (kale, spinach, chard, etc) that would fill a small swimming pool, then steam or sauté them for 2-3 minutes. They will now fit in a fry pan. Add copious amounts of garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice (the vitamin C from the lemon will increase iron absorption). Toss with any cooked or canned beans of your choice and some sea salt. You now have an iron packed meal to go, that you can serve with vitamin A containing sweet potatoes. Dried fruits like sultanas and apricots and some fortified cereals also nonperishable sources of iron to keep in your pantry.
Stock up on all kinds of mushrooms, particularly shitake. Mushroom elixirs and powders made from varieties such as lion’s mane, cordycepts, reishi, and chaga are very popular right now and do have research to back up their immune boosting claims, but these supplemental packets can be expensive. Less expensive, but no less influential to the immune system, are garlic, ginger and turmeric. Use these fresh roots in generous amounts in all your budget friendly cooking such as in lentils, beans, veggie stir fry. Keep these shelf stable dry legumes stocked in your pantry.
2. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease 10 ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 2006.
By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Nutrition for Great Performances.
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org