Due to the current crisis, many people have been trying to build up their immune systems by eating immune-boosting foods. By eating healthier foods that strengthen the immune system, people will be better protected against any pathogens, especially the nasty one that is sending people to the hospital and causing them to end up on ventilators.
Eating healthy is one of the best things you can do for your immune system and your overall health. However, some myths have been floating around, especially as of late, that you need to be aware of. Keep reading to learn more about the myths and the real facts of immune-boosting foods.
Myth: Eating Superfoods Will Cure Anything
Americans love superfoods. Remember back in the early 2000s, when everyone was raving about acai? Acai was the magical superfood that was supposed to provide extra energy, fight free radicals, and do everything else that we want a magic bullet to do.
There have been plenty of superfood fads since then. One of the most recent ones is charcoal, which is now being added to all kinds of beauty products and food supplements. Then there’s turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and the list goes on. But the fact is that no “one” superfood will fix anything.
Fact: Eating A Varied, Healthy Diet Is Your Best Defense
Instead of jumping onto the latest health-food fad, focus on eating a varied diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables. Yes, use the turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon to season your food. Yes, cook your food in whatever oil you think is the healthiest. But don’t believe that one or two foods, in particular, is a magical cure-all.
Aim to eat a colorful plate full of different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Get plenty of protein, because protein is necessary for just about every cellular function (but not too much protein). If there is a specific nutrient that you know you are deficient in, for example, if you do not spend enough time outside to get adequate vitamin D, consider a supplement. However, the supplement is just that, a supplement, not the main thing.
Myth: Mega-dosing On Vitamin C Will Help Your Immunity
When you think about boosting your immunity, you probably think about vitamin C. It’s the powerful antioxidant that helps you feel better when you have a cold, the flu, allergies, or any other problem that can send your immune system into a tailspin.
Many people falsely believe that taking vitamin C supplements with high levels of the nutrient will help their immune systems, but this is simply not true. Excessive doses of any nutrient can be toxic, and in the case of vitamin C, any extra is excreted in the urine.
Even more, taking supplements of vitamin C doesn’t necessarily help your body absorb the nutrient. Your best way of getting any nutrients in a way that your body can adequately absorb is to get the nutrient from food.
Fact: Eating Fresh Fruit Regularly Will Supply You With All The Vitamin C You Need
One serving of fruit has anywhere from 20% to 100% of your daily recommended allowance of vitamin C. Instead of taking a supplement with 5000% of how much vitamin C as you need, all that you have to do is eat an orange or handful of strawberries. Alternatively, drink a glass of orange juice.
Vitamin C does provide an essential boost to your immune system, and without a regular supply of it, you will be much more likely to get sick, even just from seasonal allergies. But really, don’t go overboard. Just keep the fresh fruit coming.
Many people believe that as long as they eat healthy foods, they will have robust immune systems and healthy bodies. While they are not necessarily incorrect, the problem is when people begin thinking that eating healthy food can make up for chronic sleep deprivation, drug and alcohol abuse, and other lifestyle factors that do not support health.
Smoking, chronically high levels of stress, and a sedentary lifestyle also harm health. Believing that eating healthy is a substitute for regular exercise, quitting smoking, and other lifestyle choices are merely false.
Fact: Health Is Composed Of Many Factors, Including Food
For our bodies to be functioning optimally, we need more than just healthy food. We need healthy relationships, regular social contact, daily exercise, a spiritual practice that helps ground us, and a lifestyle that reduces stress as much as possible.
Studies are showing how traumatic stress, in particular, is wreaking havoc on people’s bodies. While that is not a death sentence for those who have experienced traumatic stress, it is a good indicator that reducing stress in our daily lives is just as crucial as getting at least five fruits and vegetables each day.
Myth: Citrus Is The Only Food Necessary For Boosting Immunity
This myth may come from sailors who ventured out into the open seas from the 1400s on. They mostly ate biscuits and the fish that they caught, so they became severely deficient in many essential nutrients and developed scurvy. The cure? Eating limes. These sailors went on to be known as “limies” because eating limes prevented scurvy.
Citrus is an essential source of vitamin C, but it is far from the only cause. And vitamin C is not the only thing that you need to keep your immune system in tip-top shape. If you are a fan of citrus, then there is certainly no harm in eating it daily (unless you have an allergy), but don’t be fooled into believing that it is the only thing you need to eat for immune health.
Fact: Immune Health Depends On Many Different Nutrients
Zinc may be just as crucial to a healthy, well-functioning immune system like vitamin C. And where do you get zinc? Peanut butter, for one. Carrots, mangoes, and other foods high in vitamin A also provide an essential role in boosting the immune system.
Immune health also depends on having a high level of good bacteria in the gut, so consider fermented foods, like yogurt and kombucha, or probiotic supplements. And perhaps the most overlooked factor in immune health is emotional health. Depression, rage, and chronic mood disorders can weaken your body’s immunity.
Myth: Only A Few Nutrients Are Necessary To Support Immunity
Zinc, vitamin C, vitamin A, selenium, and other vitamins and minerals are indispensably critical to a healthy immune system. These nutrients are necessary for your cells, especially the T cells of your immune system, to perform regular functions.
But a healthy immune system requires much, much more than a few isolated nutrients. Much of your immune system is located in your gut, and maintaining gut health goes far beyond getting enough vitamin C and zinc each day. You need probiotics, prebiotics, and much more to keep the good bacteria thriving.
Fact: Immunity Comes From A Healthy Lifestyle, Not A Few Nutrients
Good immunity also requires getting sufficient sleep every night, or at least most nights. Have you ever wondered why you sleep so much when you are sick? One reason is simply that your immune system requires sleep to do its job adequately.
Having a lot of inflammation can also harm your body’s immune response, and reducing inflammation requires more than getting a few isolated nutrients. It requires a reduction in daily stress, reduced sugar, and other white carbs, and ample exercise, to name just a few. Moreover, studies show that our immune systems work better when we surround ourselves with supportive, caring people.
Some people swear by echinacea when they get sick, saying how much it helps them feel better quickly. Others insist that specialty mushrooms, such as cordyceps and lions mane, are a panacea for whatever ails them. And while those supplements can help some people, the danger is in believing that as long as a supplement is “natural,” it is harmless.
Many people are allergic to “natural” substances, everything from bee stings to pineapples to various herbs, the list goes on. Furthermore, “natural” substances can come with side effects, especially if combined with other foods or medications. If you want to use natural supplements in your daily health regimen, the best course of action is to talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits.
Herbal medicine has a lot to offer. It has fewer side effects than prescribed medication and, in some cases, can be just as effective. But there is danger in thinking that taking reishi mushrooms or adding elderberry to your daily smoothie is a panacea that will keep you in tip-top shape and prevent you from ever getting sick again.
Consult with your doctor, a specialist in herbal medicine, and a nutritionist before making herbal medicine a regular part of your routine. They can advise you on potential side effects to look out for and how you should NOT use herbal medicine or other natural supplements. They can also help you determine if you are reacting negatively to the supplements you are taking.
Myth: You Should Drink Enhanced Waters To Support Immunity
Athletes regularly consume sports drinks, such as Gatorade and Powerade, and water that has been enhanced with nutrients, because of how quickly they deplete the nutrients in their bodies through their intense workouts. Especially of concern is keeping their electrolytes in balance, because without enough electrolytes, they can go into cardiac arrest.
Nevertheless, sports drinks are not for everyone; they were designed specifically for athletes. Moreover, their purpose is not to boost immunity but to help athletes replenish their nutrient supplies so that they can continue working out. Believing that you should consume sports drinks and other enhanced waters to support immune health is simply not true.
Fact: Sports Drinks Have A Lot Of Added Sugar And Chemicals
Yes, sports drinks and other enhanced waters have nutrients added that could be beneficial to your immune system, like zinc and vitamin C. As we have already shown, good immune health requires more than a few isolated nutrients that are separate from their natural food source.
What outweighs the nutrients that are added to sports drinks is all of the sugar and chemicals that are also added. Take a look at the ingredients of your favorite enhanced water or sports drink, and you may be shocked at how much has been added. And all of those additions are harmful to your immune health. So drinking that Powerade, when you are not in a heavy workout, can do much more harm than good.
Myth: You Should Always Eat Fresh Fruits And Veggies Over Canned Or Frozen
This myth may be one of the most often touted and commonly believed that only in eating fresh fruits and vegetables can you get enough of the nutrients that you need. This myth neglects the many benefits of canned and frozen produce and the negative potential of fresh.
Unless you are growing the produce yourself or getting it from a local vendor, the fact is that the product may have been grown thousands of miles away and picked before it was ripe because it had to travel for days before reaching you. At that time, many of the nutrients can have already begun to break down.
Fact: Fresh Is Just One Way To Get Enough Fruits And Veggies
Produce that is canned or frozen is usually picked at the peak of freshness, rather than before it is ripe, and then quickly processed to preserve the flavor and the nutrients. As such, canned and frozen fruits and veggies can have more nutrients than fresh!
Not to mention that many people have trouble eating fresh produce because they have allergies or gastrointestinal problems. Produce that has been canned or frozen can cause fewer adverse side effects and be much better tolerated by people who have trouble with fresh produce.
What do people even anticipate when they talk about wanting to “boost” their immune system? Do they think that they want to give it a jump start to start working in the first place? Do they mean that they want to fine-tune it, or start recognizing the need to care for it?
The myth is that you can improve your body’s ability to fight off invaders, be they pathogens, toxins, or other nasties that can make you sick. You can’t. You can make sure that there is enough gas in the car so that it continues to do what it is already designed to do.
Fact: You Can Support Your Body’s Natural Abilities To Protect Itself
Unless you have an immune disorder, you were born with an immune system that can defend the body. Nevertheless, for it to work, there are certain things that it needs, like vitamin A, vitamin C, zinc, selenium, probiotics, and adequate rest.
However, in maintaining a lifestyle that supports immune health, all you are doing is giving your body what it needs to do what it is supposed to do. You are not giving yourself any superhuman abilities to conduct amazing feats of immune hyperbole. You are just keeping the engine running the way that it is supposed to.
One of the health trends that emerged a few years ago was intermittent fasting or IF. The idea behind IF was that by going for several hours at a time without eating, you strengthen many of your body’s abilities because you do not always expend energy by digesting food. Muscles replenish themselves, infected cells get replaced by healthy cells, and brain fog clears.
One of the expected outcomes of IF was that immune systems would improve. T-cell (essential cells in your immune system) counts would increase the body’s ability to fight off foreign invaders. But that outcome simply did not materialize.
Fact: Immune Health Is Not An Outcome Of Gentle Fasting
There are many documented benefits to IF, but improved immune health is not one of them. The only instance of fasting in which immune health has been measured as a viable by-product is when people go for days without food.
While gentle fasting, or IF, can be feasible for many people and improve many aspects of their health, going for days without food should not be advocated. Many people cannot do so safely and will become sick as a result. If you want to begin an IF regimen, by all means, talk to your doctor about doing so. But don’t expect immune health to result from it.
Myth: Garlic Will Prevent You From Getting A Viral Infection
Garlic has long been touted for its immense health-boosting benefits, and rightly so. Eating garlic regularly can help lower your blood pressure and fight off bacterial infections. Plenty of people eat a bite of raw garlic whenever they feel themselves getting sick and swear that the garlic makes them feel better.
Despite how beneficial garlic is, it cannot prevent you from getting a viral infection. It cannot protect you from a virus, seeing viruses (such as the one that causes COVID-19) to travel through water and person-to-person contact and have nothing to do with what we eat. You can eat garlic and still get a virus.
Fact: Garlic Can Help You Fight A Bacterial Infection
Bacteria are different, and eating garlic can help prevent, or at least help to mitigate, a bacterial infection. If you get infected with a virus, then eating garlic is unlikely to make things worse. However, it is unlikely to be a magic bullet that will prevent you from getting sick.
Regularly consuming garlic as part of a varied diet and healthy lifestyle can help keep your immune system functioning optimally. Instead of eating a clove of it raw to keep you from getting COVID-19, follow social-distancing guidelines, wear a mask when you leave the house, and take inventory of your entire lifestyle.
Half of the fat in coconut oil comes from lauric acid, a type of fatty acid with antimicrobial and antifungal effects. So if you want to kill off any pathogens inside of you, you should consume lots of coconut oil, right? Wrong.
To reap any antimicrobial benefits of coconut oil, you would have to guzzle so much of it that your heart would stop. Moreover, honey, which also has some antibacterial properties, is also a concentrated form of sugar. Not that you should skip these foods altogether, but don’t believe for a minute that they will improve your immune system.
Coconut oil does have some health benefits, particularly regarding brain health. People with dementia have reported better outcomes in their memories when consuming coconut oil, but it is higher in saturated fat than butter. So while you can cook some food in coconut oil, you should limit how much you consume.
And honey, primarily if it is produced from local flowers, can reduce the effects of seasonal allergies. Nevertheless, don’t consume too much of it, because it is very high in sugar. Other healthy foods that supposedly boost immune health should not necessarily be avoided, but they should be consumed in moderation.
Myth: You Should Not Consume Dairy When You Are Sick
This myth claims that dairy increases mucus production, and excessive mucus can clog the airways and harbor pathogens. While there is some truth to this claim, it is more myth than fact. There is simply no evidence to corroborate it.
Singers, public speakers, and others who rely heavily on a well-functioning throat may avoid dairy before an important event. However, they do not do so because they are trying to improve their bodies’ immune responses. They are trying to prevent a mucus build-up in their throats so that their voices are clearer.
Fact: Dairy Provides Necessary Proteins For Recovering
Dairy can cause extra mucus to line the throat, but it also provides nutrients that can help recover from illness. Amino acids, found in proteins, are an important part of immune health, and dairy has high protein levels.
Many dairy products are fortified with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Vitamin D is critical for just about everything that the body does, including supporting its immune response and aiding in the recovery from illness. But if your experience is that dairy weighs you down, then go on and avoid it.
When you start to feel the sniffles, your first impulse may be to pour yourself a glass of orange juice. However, you should be aware that orange juice is very high in sugar – it has more sugar, ounce for ounce, than soda – and doesn’t have the fiber that helps slow down the absorption of that sugar.
In other words, drinking orange juice can give you a sugar high, and sugar is the opposite of what you need to recover! The cells in your body can mistake sugar for vitamin C and accidentally bring the wrong molecule in. If all you can get down is a glass of juice, then sure, drink some juice. But don’t believe the myth that juice is beneficial.
Before oranges are juiced, they have fiber that helps slow down the absorption of sugar. So while you may be able to down three or four glasses of orange juice without noticing how much you have consumed, eating two or three oranges will leave you feeling full and satisfied.
Many nutrients are lost in the process of making fruit juice, not just the fiber. If you are a fan of juice and want to strengthen your body’s immune response, consider using a home juicer to juice your fruits, mixed with vegetables. Composting the leftover pulp and using it in a vegetable garden can boost your home-grown veggies’ nutrient content.
Coffee, tea, and other caffeinated drinks are diuretics, meaning that they cause you to have to urinate. Some people claim that drinking coffee makes them urinate more than the amount that they drank, a problem that can lead to dehydration if one consumes excessive amounts of coffee.
However, that doesn’t mean that you should avoid coffee and tea when you are sick (however, you should prevent artificially caffeinated drinks, like soda). Coffee-lovers and tea-drinkers can rest happily knowing that they do not have to forfeit their favorite beverage to feel better next time they get sick.
The antioxidants found in coffee and tea far outweigh the temporary side effect of having to urinate more frequently. Studies have shown that people who regularly consume coffee and tea (especially green tea) have improved cardiovascular health, lower rates of cancer, and better cognition (especially among Alzheimer’s patients) than those who do not.
Drinking coffee when you are under the weather is unlikely to make you feel better, beyond it being a comfort food that can provide an emotional boost. Furthermore, if you need extra sleep, you may want to reduce the caffeine. But ultimately, it will do more good than bad.
“9 Myths About Immune-Boosting Foods That Health Experts Want You to Stop Believing,” by Betty Gold. Real Simple. March 30, 2020.
“5 myths about boosting your immunity,” by Susie Burrell. MSN Health. May 29, 2020.
“The 5 biggest myths about immune system boosters,” by Jackie London. Weight Watchers Reimagined.