nutritional and herbal allies for immune support

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We’ve hit that point in the year where everyone I know is sick, just getting over being sick, or living or working with someone who is sick. Since I work within public elementary schools, which are among the germiest places on earth, I’m often asked if I’ve gotten my flu shot. I never tend to go into a long diatribe but I long ago stopped getting one as it rarely helps ward off the actual virus I end up coming down with, and does nothing to support the natural strength of the immune system. Instead I’ve slowly built up a natural medicine cabinet of traditional foods and herbs to support the system throughout cold and flu season.

While this is a long list that I’ve been using this year, it is by no means comprehensive. Nature is incredibly competent at providing ample foods and herbs that support health and prevent viruses and infections, and truly, the herbs and products one might reach for should depend on the nature of the condition since even with the same virus, individual symptoms may vary and are best supported by addressing the nature of their presentation, such as assisting a dry cough with different herbs than a “wet/mucousy” cough, etc. And fortunately enough, this is also where herbs shine in their support of immune health.

 

Vitamin C // citrus // rose hips powder
Vitamin C helps stimulate white blood cell production, the blood cells that act as an army to take care of infection, pathogens, and inflammation in the body. Rather than relying on a supplement, I prefer to eat vitamin C rich foods including citrus fruits, berries, and dark leafy greens. I also sometimes add in a few shakes of powdered rose hips into smoothies, as rose hips are among nature’s richest and most-potent sources of Vitamin C (1).

Vitamin D
Vitamin D has a variety of positive effects on the immune system including enhancing innate immunity which means those white blood cells do their jobs when a cold or flu virus is on the scene. Vitamin D also protects against autoimmune conditions. All individuals should have their vitamin D levels tested when getting normal bloodwork done, and suboptimal levels should be supplemented with vitamin D3, especially in the fall and winter months or when one primarily works inside and doesn’t get adequate sunlight.

Dark Leafy Greens
I don’t think I will ever be able to emphasize enough the importance of an ample variety of dark leafy greens on one’s health. Greens are rich in vitamins A, E, K, and C, as well as a myriad of beneficial phytonutrients. Choose a couple varieties to eat each week and rotate throughout the season including spinach, kale, mustard and collard greens, turnip and beet greens, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, swiss chard, arugula, parsley and cilantro.

Probiotics // Miso
A daily dose of beneficial bacteria is good for more than just gut and mental health. Growing research is showing us that certain strains of bacteria modulate the immune system as well as bind to viruses and toxins to prevent infections (4). While I tend to rotate probiotic supplements for general health, consuming beneficial bacteria from traditionally fermented foods is best. My favorite during the winter is miso, as sipping on a little spoonful whisked into warm water, or making a miso broth-based soup when sick is really delicious and helpful.

Elderberry Syrup
There’s a reason this folk remedy has been around so long. Many scientific studies have supported the long tradition of consuming elderberry syrup to ward off or shorten the duration of viral infections. I take 1 teaspoon elderberry syrup every day throughout cold and flu season. Bonus is that when made with gently heated (not cooked) raw honey, it also includes a small daily dose of beneficial probiotics from the honey.

Adaptogenic herbs // reishi // Eleuthero  
Medicinal mushrooms have been getting a lot of trendy press time lately for a good reason. Reishi is my favorite as it strengthens both the immune and adrenal systems. Reishi, like several other mushrooms contains polysaccharides called beta glucans which stimulate the immune system. (2,3)
Eleuthero or Siberian ginseng is another favorite adaptogen. Like reishi, it can be used as an immune tonic with regular use reducing the incidence of colds and infections. It has also been shown to reverse low white blood cell counts in cancer patients. (3)

Herbal Throat Spray and Herbal Throat Lozenges // Zinc
Rather than reach for the common drugstore throat sprays, I’ve taken to using an herbal version called TheraZinc. It contains some of those soothing and supportive herbs such as elderberry, cloves, echinacea, and slippery elm, as well as zinc, an important mineral used as a co-enzyme in many cellular reactions, as it is essential for the normal development and function of cells and for regulating immune cells (4). I tend to rotate throat lozenges but some of my favorite ones also contain the same herbs and zinc.

Turmeric 
One of the current superfoods, turmeric has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine. It is highly beneficial and nearly a catch-all in terms of what it can assist with, including the ability to enhance immunity. Like dark leafy greens, turmeric also contains important antioxidants to support the immune system, including vitamins C and E (1). However, the thing about turmeric is that its beneficial compounds are exceptionally difficult to become bioavailable in the body. Taking it with a small amount of ground black pepper and with another ingredient that contains fat helps turmeric work its magic in our systems.

Ginger 
Common fresh or dried ginger is exceptionally beneficial in controlling inflammation and muscular pain, increases circulation, and also aids in digestion. Ginger is a warming and pungent spice, and I particularly enjoy it in hefty doses during the cold season. What’s more, many herbs act as synergists with each other meaning when you take them together the effects of both herbs are more than a sum of their parts. Happily, turmeric and ginger seem to work together to great effect in our bodies when it comes to combating inflammation.

Demulcent Herbs // Marshmallow Root // Licorice Root //Mullein
Marshmallow Root // Putting a few pinches in a jar of cold water and letting infuse overnight is the best way to see how marshmallow root works. In the morning, you will have a jar of slippery, soothing, slightly sweet liquid that is best for dry and sore throats and coughs. The root will provide a similar soothing action on the tissues of the GI so beyond cold and flu season, this is a great herb for digestive support.

Licorice Root // Despite the connotation with licorice candy, licorice root does not taste anything like the red or black ropes I loved to eat as a child. Licorice is an excellent herb for balancing the adrenals, balancing blood sugar, and helping decrease stress and inflammation. It is also soothing to the mucous membranes and GI tract, and makes for a good addition to a tea blend to help out a sore throat. Note: licorice should not be taken by those with high blood pressure. 

Mullein // Known for its ability to support the lungs and respiratory system, this common weed grows freely along roadsides and pathways in the summer months. Mullein brings moisture to the respiratory tract providing soothing relief to dry, inflamed tissues and tickly coughs (2). I’ve taken to adding a couple teaspoons of dried mullein to loose leaf tea blends when I need some moistening lung and throat support.

Bee Pollen
Look to adding bee pollen when one is especially depleted. Bee pollen, the food of the young bee, contains nearly all the nutrients we require, and contains protein in the form that is readily useable by the body. It is eaten throughout the world for a variety of indications including aiding recovery from chronic illness, building new blood, preventing colds and flu, improving endurance and vitality, and extending longevity (5). When using bee pollen, it’s wise to remember that it is precious food, with a daily dose taking one bee over an entire month to gather. Use consciously.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This information does not intend to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. 

References:
1) McBride, K. (2010). The Herbal Kitchen
2) Pursell, JJ. (2015). The Herbal Apothecary
3) Winston, D. and Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.
4) Braun, L. and Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs & Natural Supplements: An evidence-based guide (4th ed.).
5) Pitchford, P. (2002). Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (3rd ed.). 

 

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All Healing Anti-Inflammatory Green Soup

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This time of year with the dark days, cold mornings, and heavy clouds, my system desires to go internal even more than usual. If I had my way I’d stay home, work from home, and spend the winter in the remote countryside or forest to calibrate even more with what nature does in this season (i.e. rest) rather than partake in all the festivities.

This is not to say I don’t enjoy socializing, but too much noise, people, stimulus, clutter, travel, and food really compromises my wellbeing. I think a lot of us can relate.

This is especially true when it comes to how the holiday season can be havoc on the digestive system. For the last few years, I’ve taken to making the first couple months of the new year about resetting my system with healing anti-inflammatory meals because the time between mid-November and January can mean weeks of need for digestive ‘rest’ and healing, even when I try to be careful and deliberate about what foods I choose during these weeks. I believe a big part of this is because digestion is so much more that what we eat. It’s also how we eat, and in what environment.

It is very difficult to digest, absorb, and assimilate properly when the nervous system is not in rest and digest mode. And for those of us that are a bit extra sensitive, that state of relaxation can be challenging to achieve in these special, celebratory weeks.

I’ve spoken to a number of nutrition clients the last few weeks with similar dietary constraints as mine. They’ve all reflected how I’ve felt and dealt with the season: trying to simultaneously take care of themselves while not wanting to be too much of a bother to others or completely self-deprive from the feasting foods. Over time, I’ve been slowly advocating for myself more, speaking out about my needs and being an assertive houseguest by opting for my own meals rather than risk options that I know will lead to discomfort later. For some, this is especially important–but so too is taking a time out and getting into a state of relaxation as much as possible between or during the holiday gatherings.

 

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A few things I’ve taken to lately is adding Ayurvedic spices to many meals such as cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, cardamom, turmeric, and ginger, as well as loading up on lots of anti-inflammatory greens, warm soupy meals, and herbal tea to support my extra finicky digestion. This soup is a good base for this type of eating and it’s high on my list to make this week after Thanksgiving. I tend to cook the split mung beans or red lentils, and then puree the greens and remaining ingredients raw, gently warm them, and then serve. That way the nutrients and good bacteria from the miso that degrade with heat are still present, and food that is pureed makes eating even easier on compromised digestion.

 

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Anti-Inflammatory Green Soup, serves 3-4

1 cup split mung dal or red lentils
2 ounces (2 handfuls) turnip greens, kale, or spinach, de-stemmed
1 large celery stalk
1 ounce parsley leaves (1 handful)
1 ounce cilantro leaves (1 handful)
1 clove garlic
3/4 tsp. ground coriander
3/4 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. ground fennel seeds
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
3/4 tsp. turmeric
1 tablespoon white miso
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1/4 cup whole-fat coconut milk
2 cups water
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt and black pepper
Optional Toppings: Sunflower + Brazil Nut Sprinkle (below), thinly sliced spring turnips or radishes, minced celery, parsley, or cilantro

  1. Combine the split mung dal and water in a medium pot. Bring to a boil and then turn town to low simmer and cook until they are soft. Cool slightly, and then transfer to a high speed blender along with the greens, celery, parsley, cilantro, garlic, spices, miso, nutritional yeast, and the water. Puree until smooth.
  2. Transfer back to the pot and add the coconut milk, apple cider vinegar and salt and pepper. Heat gently until hot but not simmering. Taste, and adjust with a bit of salt, vinegar, or more miso, if needed.
  3. Serve topped with whatever toppings you have on hand or prefer.

 

Sunflower + Brazil Nut Sprinkle
1/2 cup brazil nuts and sunflower seeds, toasted
1 1/2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
sea salt and ground black pepper, to taste

  1. In a food processor, combine 1/2 cup of toasted nuts and seeds (in ratio you desire) with the nutritional yeast and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Pulse until broken down into a ‘sprinkle’ texture, but not yet a paste. Add to the top of soups, salads, and other meals for a nutrient boost and texture contrast.

 

pumpkin ginger bran muffins

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I’ve just made it past the halfway point of my last fall term in nutrition grad school. I’ve been working with clients in clinic these past few weeks, experiencing all that I’ve learned in the last couple years come together in practice, and enjoying it so incredibly much. Getting to the clinical work has reinforced why I’ve spent so much of my energy on this career shift endeavor when I get to sit with someone and offer even a little bit of individualized support.

In addition to nutritional recommendations, I also give interventions that address balance from a whole systems perspective which is in line with the integrative and holistic approach to my program. This often means I try to emphasize stress reduction and relaxation practices. On the closer to home front, I’ve been trying to take some of my own advice and incorporate downtime each day for relaxing my system, an intention I constantly struggle with. Inevitably I often forego the rest I need and end up in the kitchen instead. My only excuse is it’s pumpkin season– and I find baking quite restorative!

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Since it is pumpkin and winter squash season, The Recipe Redux theme this month is Fresh from the Pumpkin Patch. We’ve had a string of mostly gorgeous days so far but once this fall season finally and truly sunk in, I began cooking lots of very autumn appropriate Ayurvedic recipes from Kate O’Donnell’s Everyday Ayurveda Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind. Nutritionally, the recipes are helping rebalance my system after a rough end-of-summer transition. The first portion of the book is all about the Sattvic lifestyle in Ayurveda–a way of life I’ve been gleaning more from as time goes on and I notice how I fare better with less stimulating foods, practices, and experiences.

These muffins are a deviation from a recipe in the cookbook. If you’re a runner and a fan of the Run Fast Eat Slow superhero muffins, they’re also quite similar, but I’ve upped the emphasis on using walnuts and chia since they both are rich in omega 3’s which are an essential fatty acid that most of us need more of.

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Pumpkin Ginger Bran Muffins, makes 4 large muffins or 6 regular size
Even though I adapted these fairly dramatically, they do stay true to their ayurvedic roots. They are delicious as is but there are also many variations depending on what you’ve got on hand:
1) instead of ground walnuts, use almond flour 2) instead of bran, use 3/4 cup oatmeal 3) instead of pumpkin, use 1/2 cup applesauce and 1 medium chopped apple or other fruit and flavor combos. 4) instead of coconut sugar use pure maple syrup or honey

1 Tbs. ground chia seeds
3 Tbs. water
3/4 cup / 60 g raw walnuts, ground
1/2 cup / 50 g oat bran
1/4 cup / 20 g oatmeal
1/4 cup / 30 g coconut sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
pinch of ground black pepper
2 Tbs. / 25 g coconut oil, melted
1 cup / 220 g pumpkin, pureed or mashed
1 Tbs. / 3 g minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup raisins
1/4-1/2 cup water or nut milk, as needed.

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line muffin tins with baking cups or oil and flour them.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the ground chia seeds and water. Let this stand for 5 minutes. In a separate bowl, mix the ground walnuts, oat bran and oats, salt, turmeric, baking soda, and baking powder.
  • Add the coconut sugar, pumpkin puree, and coconut oil to the chia seed mixture and stir until well combined. Stir in the ginger and the raisins.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix until it just comes together. If the batter seems a touch dry, add water or nut milk just until it becomes a touch looser, but only add up to 1/2 cup, as they won’t need much. This step largely depends on how much moisture content your pumpkin puree has in it.
  • Divide into the muffin cups and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until they are golden brown and a toothpick in the middle comes out clean.

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