One nutrition trend that peaked everyone’s interest in 2020 was “immune-boosting foods”. Understandable, too, with COVID-19 keeping the entire world terrified and “sheltering in place”. Outside the home, people were running scared about getting COVID from any place they went for necessities and from everything they touched.
Marketers got right on the fears, emphasizing on their products’ labels and in their ads how their food or supplement “boosted” immunity. They know fear is a great motivator, always has been.
Taking good care of your immune system though, means taking care of your gut — vaccine or no vaccine. Why? The gut, especially the colon, is the nerve center of the immune system. Indeed, 90% of our immune system is located in the gut, so taking good care of your gut also serves your immune system quite well.
The gut is loaded with bacteria though, both good and bad types. The right foods can nurture the good gut organisms and minimize the bad ones that work against us. A few definitions first:
- PRObiotics: These are live, “good” bacteria that are already in fermented foods we eat.
- PREbiotics: Fancy term for plant fiber. Since we can’t digest it, it passes through to our colons, where it becomes food for healthy bacteria, helping them grow and proliferate.
Examples of Probiotic Foods
To “cut-to-the-chase” and get good bacteria right into your gut immediately, eat foods that already have good bacteria, the PRObiotic foods. Look for “live and active cultures: on food labels to make sure the food contains enough good bugs to actually matter. Some excellent ones:
- Tempeh (fermented soybeans and often includes some whole grains)
- Miso – another type of fermented soybean, usually seen as a paste. Adds great flavor to soups and foods like salad dressings.
- Kimchi (this is high in sodium, so not ideal for everyone)
- Miso (fermented soybean paste)
- Sauerkraut (another high-sodium choice)
- Some cheeses – but the bacteria in cheese has to survive the aging process. Some that do: mozzarella, cheddar. Have another look at cottage cheese. It can have probiotics too, if the label says, “contains live and active cultures”.
Examples of Prebiotic Foods
These don’t have bacteria, but they have lots of good fiber to FEED the good guys in your gut and help grow more. These take the longer-term approach, but these are also foods that healthful diets need anyway, so forge ahead. Some great ones are:
- All fruits and vegetables. Yes, all of them, so eat the ones you like, preferably one or more at each meal. Raw ones will have more fiber, but don’t obsess about this.
- All beans – kidney beans, pink beans, the ever-loving garbanzo, and my personal favorite: elephant beans from Greece.
- Peas and lentils. Beans are actually a vegetable, but they’re also loaded with protein and get placed into many food groups. Doesn’t matter, get some beans on most days, please.
- Whole grain bread and cereals.
- Brown rice, wild rice.
- “Ancient grains” like quinoa, teff, and spelt.
Refined grains don’t have much fiber, so eat whole grains whenever you have the option. Whole grain cereal is super-easy now, as most of the “big name” cereals have at least half their grains as whole grains. Some pastas are made with partial whole grains, so they’re another source.
Can Pre- & Probiotic Foods “Boost” Your Immune System?
Yes and no. A vaccine is really the only way to truly “boost” the immune system and produce antibodies. Moreover, you don’t WANT a supercharged immune system – that results in over-recognizing substances as harmful agents when they really aren’t. It’s what happens in auto-immune disorders, where the body turns on itself, causing inflammatory responses that shouldn’t be there.
Immune SUPPORT should be the goal, and the foods listed above can help.
The Science Behind The Food: HOW Pre- and Probiotics Work
A just-published review of clinical trials of probiotics and fermented foods found that these directly influenced certain circulating immunoglobulins (Ig), especially salivary secretion of IgA, one of the blood proteins your body makes to help fight disease.
Beyond the immune system, prebiotics have been shown to have metabolic and health benefits. This scientific review acknowledged, “The prebiotic effect has been shown to associate with modulation of biomarkers and activity(ies) of the immune system.” The authors specifically noted evidence supporting a healthy gut in modulating conditions such as type 2 diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome.
Cut To The Chase Takeaway
Evidence is building: probiotic foods and foods with prebiotic fiber have a positive influence on our health, including our immune systems. They’re also delicious, and there are lots of options to enjoy.