There’s no denying that cold & flu season is upon us – the daylight hours are shorter, the PNW weather is greyer, colder, and wetter, and whether we like to admit it or not, our immune systems may be a little weaker than usual. This is absolutely the time of year that properly nourishing ourselves with nutrient-dense foods, adaptogenic herbs, and healing activities will help support our immune systems and whole-body wellness.
Of course, prevention does a lot more to protect from the common cold and flu viruses than treatment does, so it’s always best to keep up with immune supportive practices throughout the year. However, if you feel the start of a cold or flu coming on, it’s still not too late to ramp up the nourishment to make sure your system clears it quickly. With these tools, you’ll be back to wellness in no time!
1. Elderberry & Other Immune Boosting Herbs
Elderberry has been used traditionally as a medicinal plant in many parts of the world. The flowers and leaves have historically been used for pain relief, swelling, and inflammation, while the bark has been used both as a laxative and to induce vomiting when needing to excrete toxins. Today, elderberry syrups, tinctures, capsules, and lozenges are commonly made from the berries and can be found widely available on health-food and supplement store shelves. There is evidence to support that taking elderberry at the onset of cold or flu symptoms may reduce the severity and length of the illness by up to 50% or more (1). Due to its high antioxidant content, elderberries improve immune function by increasing the number of T cells (a type of white blood cell), thereby giving the immune system a helpful boost (2). So, if you feel the start of a sore throat coming on, stock up on elderberry! We utilize elderberry at Joule by making a naturally sweetened jam out of the berries, pairing it with house-made sunbutter for a nutrient-dense take on a classic PB&J toast.
Astragalus is another traditional herb that has been used for many years as a natural cold and flu fighter. It contains well-known plant compounds that may improve immune function because of the high antioxidant content found within them. Research has shown that taking astragalus may have a similar effect on white blood cell production as elderberries – it helps to increase white blood cell production which are the cells primarily responsible for preventing illness, thereby keeping our systems in a healthy state.
Echinacea, garlic, and mushroom extracts like reishi, chaga, and lion's mane are also commonly used to boost the immune system, due to their high antioxidant status and ability to promote homeostasis throughout the body.
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is most commonly known for its positive effects on calcium and bone health. However, it also plays a crucial role in overall immune health and function, with deficiency leading to a weakened immune system, increased susceptibility to infection, and a potential risk for the development of autoimmune conditions (3). In a research study of nearly 19,000 subjects, individuals with lower vitamin D levels were more likely to self-report upper respiratory tract infections than those who maintained sufficient vitamin D levels, and in other cross-sectional studies those with lower vitamin D levels have also shown higher instances of flu and other infections (3). Vitamin D is unique in that it is the only nutrient our bodies require that we can produce (which we do from cholesterol) when exposed to sunlight. While sun exposure is the number one method for obtaining it, there thankfully are some reasonable food sources of vitamin D, because sun exposure can be tricky in the PNW.
i. Wild-caught salmon (990 IU per 3.5oz serving, or 125% of the Daily Value)
ii. Sardines (180 IU per 3.5oz serving, or 22% of the DV)
iii. Egg Yolks (35-140 IU per egg yolk; caged chickens provide 4x less than free-range, pasture-raised chickens ).
iv. Mushrooms, if grown wild or treated with UV light (130-450 IU per 3.5oz serving)
It’s worth noting the difference between wild-caught and farmed salmon, as well as free-range, pasture-raised chickens compared with caged chickens. In both cases, the quality and content of vitamin D in wild-caught or free-range is upwards of 4-5x that of farmed or caged. At Joule, we use only wild-caught Sockeye salmon from Lake Iliamna, the largest freshwater lake in Alaska, as well as pasture-raised, cage-free chicken eggs. In following these principles, we’re not only making a difference by providing the most nutrient-dense foods we can, but are also supporting the farmers, fisherman, and food systems that utilize and promote humane and environmentally conscious practices. And it means higher vitamin D levels in our cured salmon and baked farm eggs!
3. Organ Meats
Organ meats are, by far, one of the most nutrient-dense categories of food on the planet. Rich in protein, all of the B vitamins but especially in B12, as well as iron, zinc, magnesium, selenium, choline, and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, ad K, organ meats provide a wider variety of nutrients than nearly any other food group, and are typically inexpensive to source. Liver is the most commonly eaten organ meat, but other popular choices include heart, kidneys, brain, and tripe (the stomach lining). It’s easy to understand why liver is the most common option – it’s often referred to as “nature’s multivitamin” due to its incredible concentration of each of the nutrients listed above.
A 3.5oz serving of liver contains:
i. Over 3000% DV of vitamin B12
ii. 800-1000% DV of vitamin A
iii. 200-260% DV of riboflavin (B2)
iv. 60-80% DV of folate (B9)
v. 80-100% DV of iron
vi. 1400-1600% the DV of copper
vii. and fulfills all of the Adequate Intake (AI) of choline, an essential nutrient needed for brain and memory, as well as neurotransmitter synthesis (5).
This mega-dose of nutrition makes liver an easy choice for boosting immunity when our systems are down. Live in the Portland are? Next time you feel the start of a cold or flu coming on, head on over to Joule and try our house-made sausage – it's made of both beef heart and chicken liver! Seasoned with clove, oregano, and just the right amount of pink salt, you won’t detect the taste of organ meat. But your immune system will surely reap the benefits of its nutrient-density.
4. Easy-to-Digest Meals
Most often when battling a cold or flu virus, the hit to our immune system causes a rippling effect throughout the body. We may feel extra tired, muscles or joints might ache, and our digestive systems are likely not functioning at 100%. The most nourishing foods we can eat while under the weather are easy-to-digest meals that are loaded with nutrients such as those mentioned above. If you think about the #1 food recommended when you’re sick – chicken noodle soup – it makes sense! Chicken offers a bioavailable, easy-to-digest source of protein, cooked vegetables are partially broken down for better digestion, and chicken broth provides both warmth and nutrient-density. While I don’t usually reach for the usual chicken noodle soup when I’m sick, I do stick to easily digestible foods that provide me with the biggest dose of overall nutrient-density and immune boosting benefits possible. My top two favorite “sick foods” are Japanese congee (rice porridge) and Indian kitchari. Both dishes are comprised of well-cooked rice and broth as the base, plenty of antioxidant-loaded spices like ginger, turmeric, and garlic, as well as cooked vegetables, healthy fats, and an easy-to-digest source of protein.
i. This homemade congee from my recent bout with the winter bug not only boasts all of the usual benefits of the traditional dish, but also contains chicken liver for an added mega-dose of nutrition! Made with turmeric ginger chicken bone broth, rice, garlic, liver, and probiotic-rich fermented kimchi, my head cold didn’t stand a chance against the immune boosting benefits of it. And most importantly, my body didn’t have to put a lot of work into digesting it since most of the ingredients were cooked into the porridge; breaking down the cell walls and thereby making the nutrients more bioavailable and easier to process. While this particular dish in the photo doesn’t have a recipe to follow, a simple google search for Japanese congee recipes will lead you in the right direction toward restoring wellness.
ii. Kitchari is a traditional Indian dish using basmati rice and mung dal as the base. These are cooked together into a porridge-like consistency with the addition of turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander, mustard seed, and other antioxidant-rich spices, as well as cooked vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, or squash. Kitchari is often used as a meal for cleansing, offering the digestive system a chance to reset and rebuild. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is also known to provide strength and vitality, due to its roundedness of all nutrients required and its easy digestibility (6). The following kitchari recipe is adapted from The Ayurvedic Institute, and has been my go-to recipe for any time that I feel my digestive system needs a little hand; either while sick or in need of a digestive reset. Give it a try!
- ½ cup basmati rice
- 1 cup mung dal (split yellow mung beans)
- 6 cups water
- 2 tsp ghee
- 1 inch ginger root, finely minced
- ¼ inch turmeric root, finely minced
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- ½ to 1 tsp coriander seed
- ½ to 1 tsp cumin seed
- ½ tsp mustard seed
- ½ tsp ground coriander
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- ¼ tsp black pepper (for better absorption of turmeric)
- 2 medium carrots, sliced thinly
- ½ head broccoli, cut into florets and chopped stems
- ¼ to ½ cup frozen peas
- Juice from ½ lime
- ½ tsp sea salt, more to taste
- ¼ cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
- Rinse the rice and mung dal in a fine mesh strainer until water runs clear. Set aside.
- Heat a large stock pot over medium heat, then add ghee, ginger, turmeric, garlic, and all spices. Stir to coat, and toast until fragrant, about 2-3 minutes (but don’t burn seeds).
- Next, add rice and mung dal and stir to combine with spice mixture. Continue cooking for 1-2 more minutes, to allow the flavors of the spices to infuse with the rice and dal.
- Add 6 cups water, stir, then cover with a lid and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook until rice and mung dal are nearly done and have absorbed most of the water, about 20-25 minutes (more if using brown basmati rice).
- Add vegetables and stir, then re-cover with lid and continue cooking for 5-8 minutes, until vegetables are tender.
- Last, season kitchari with lime juice and salt, taste, and adjust flavors as needed.
- Scoop into bowl and top with chopped cilantro, then serve.
- When eating kitchari, remember to start the meal with an intention setting practice. What is your goal with this meal? Take 5 deep belly breaths with closed eyes, letting your body ease into a rest-and-digest state, set your intention, then dig in mindfully and slowly, allowing the nutrients of the kitchari to fully nourish you, mind and body.
Here’s to a healthy and vibrant winter season! But when that pesky sore throat gets your attention, you’ll now be equipped with some extra tools to boost yourself back to health naturally and quickly.
In good health,