My, this is a challenging time! My heart goes out to those who are significantly impacted by our COVID-19 crisis. My husband and I have been almost exclusively at home for the past five days, and thankfully show no signs of having the virus. Globally, a growing number of critical measures (like border closures and increased testing) are being implemented to slow the spread of this disease. Or to use a now well-known term, to “flatten the curve”.

Per the World Health Organization’s advice for the public, as individuals, we’re hand washing, hand sanitizing, and maintaining social distancing. We’re practicing good respiratory hygiene (e.g. sneezing into tissues or our bent elbows), and we’re avoiding touching our eyes, nose and mouth. Aware there’s no magic bullet, I couldn’t help but wonder what else I could do to try to ward off being infected by COVID-19. Not so much for myself, but so that I don’t pass it along to multiple others, and ultimately to those who are at greater risk of developing significant complications or even dying. Our worldwide mission is to keep this virus at bay so as not to overwhelm our health care systems (especially the intensive care units where the sickest need to be treated), and to bide time for a vaccine to be developed.

So What Else Can I Do?

I already eat only plant-based foods, most of which are unprocessed. I do this in part because of the large body of evidence indicating that it is the healthiest way to eat. Can eating mostly unprocessed plant-based food help our bodies build immunity and fend off viruses and other pathogens? You bet! See examples here and here. As outlined in Health Canada’s Food Guide, eating a plant-predominant diet can decrease our risk of medical conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and diabetes which would, in turn, decrease our risk of developing a more serious response to COVID-19 (see here).

Eating plant-based means I consume fruit, vegetables, legumes (which include lentils and beans), whole grains, nuts and seeds. To maximize the health benefits, I try to ensure that most of the plant-based food is unprocessed. Unprocessed food retains it’s natural fibre and phytonutrients and doesn’t have substances like sugar, fat or salt added to it. So, for example, I routinely choose brown rice over white, fruit over fruit juice, and popcorn over potato chips and Oreos. If now’s a good time for you to start exploring online plant-based recipes, Oh She Glows and Minimalist Baker (use the filter for vegan options) are two of my favourite sources.

And Can I Dial It Up Even Further?

Absolutely I can! Getting lots of sleep is one of the simplest and easiest ways to support our immune systems. I’m totally on board with this one. Staying hydrated throughout the day is important, so I’m drinking lots of water and tea (check here to learn what’s special about green tea and immune function). I’m exercising daily…not only for my immune system and physical wellness, but also my mental health during this very stressful time. I’m also gargling daily. Next up is getting back to some mindfulness practices to help keep me a little more in the present.

As for tweaking what I eat to fend off nasty bugs, COVID-19 included…indeed, I’m focussing on some specific immune system enhancers. Starting with the humble mushroom.

1. Mushrooms

It looks like mushrooms are magical in multiple ways! Consuming them cooked has been shown to increase the secretion of our pathogen-fighting immunoglobin A (IgA) cells in our protective mucous membranes (see here). And it doesn’t stop there – check out more on Joel Fuhrman, MD’s blog.

Admittedly, I don’t eat mushrooms often. So the next time I nip out to a store, I’m picking up some mushrooms for this 30-Minute Portobello Mushroom Stir-fry, or this Quick & Easy Creamy Tomato Mushroom Pasta. They are also great in a veggie chili.

2. Cruciferous Vegetables

Broccoli, anyone? Cruciferous veggies contain compounds necessary for the maintenance of the body’s intestinal defenses (see here). I recall decades ago owning a cookbook called, “When In Doubt, Eat Broccoli”! The author was so right. We’re in the habit of buying broccoli every week. We usually steam it and enjoy it along with whatever else we’re eating. But broccoli would go fabulously well in that Portobello Mushroom Stir-fry I mentioned…

Other pro-immune function cruciferous vegetables include kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, arugula and cauliflower. I try most days to have a kale salad with a healthy dressing like this creamy but oil-free, no sugar added Sunflower Seed Ranch Dressing.

3. Beta-carotene

Again with the kale :o). Or hello, sweet potato and carrots! My husband was a reluctant sweet potato eater, but he’s much more open to them now. We made up this Oh She Glows beta carotene-rich soup this week and it was absolutely delicious: Creamy Thai Carrot Sweet Potato Soup. Our bodies convert beta-carotene into vitamin A, which is involved in immune function. To get my fill of beta-carotene, I’m looking for those leafy greens, orange and yellow vegetables, tomato products, and colourful fruit.

4. Berries

Eating blueberries has been shown to increase the number of “natural killer cells” in our bodies. Natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell that helps defend us against pathogens) are interesting in the context of COVID-19 because they don’t require previous exposure to the virus to launch an attack. In this study, athletes who ate a cup and a half of blueberries daily for six weeks doubled their natural killer cell counts! I have large bags of blueberries and raspberries in my freezer and eat some every day, either with my overnight oats or as a morning snack. Berries have so many other things going for them (see here) so there’s every reason to enjoy them regularly!

5. Adequate Selenium

One of selenium’s critical roles in our bodies is protecting us from infection. Milton Mills, MD, recently stated in this Main Street Vegan podcast on immune support that autopsies from some of the first people to die from COVID-19 showed low blood levels of selenium. The recommended intake for me is 55 mcg. By far the simplest way for me, as a plant-based eater, to get this amount is by one Brazil nut per day. However, I don’t currently have access to Brazil nuts. Grains are another decent source though. So I’m able to ensure my daily required amount through the foods I usually eat anyway:

  • Overnight oats with berries (7 mcg) for breakfast
  • A slice of whole wheat bread with peanut butter (15 mcg) as a snack
  • A cup cooked brown rice (13 mcg) together with a 1/2 cup of tofu or a cup of chickpeas or mushrooms (7-10 mcg) in a stir fry or grain bowl for lunch or dinner
  • A small handful of almonds (1-2 mcg)

Here’s an online tool to see the selenium content of various foods (you’ll find it listed under “minerals”). See it you are hitting the target on a daily basis! And by the way, we’re generally better off meeting our nutritional needs through food rather than supplements, when possible. Take care not to consume too much selenium due to the risk of toxicity.

6. Adequate Zinc

As with selenium, zinc plays an important role in our immune function. I require 8 mg per day.  Whole grains, nuts and nut butters are good sources for me. So guess what? The same foods I’m eating that cover my selenium requirements, have me covered for zinc as well. (As with selenium, be careful not to consume too much zinc.)

7. Adequate Vitamin D

One of vitamin D’s many roles is to support our immune system (see here). I’ll continue to take 2000 IU of vitamin D daily in supplement form until summer arrives. Read more on this topic in my post, The Great Supplement Debate – Part 2.

What’s Next?

After I get my mindfulness routine up and running, I’ll be tuning into Michael Greger’s April 8th How Not to Die in a Pandemic webinar (or viewing the information when he releases it on his website www.nutritionfacts.org after the webinar). And of course I’ll be closely following the news, including from the WHO, for any and all strategies to help do my part to keep this virus at bay. All the best to you and yours as we journey through this together.