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In Post #51, I discussed some basic terminology of the immune systems, how immune system works, and what kinds of issues happen when it does not work. In this post the focus is what we can do to keep our immune system healthy and working as designed.

So, what can we do to optimize our immune system?

Things that are in our control to enhance our immunity and make sure that the immune system does not go haywire are the ones that you have heard about gazillions of time by now and are probably tired of hearing about: Nutrition, Exercise and Lifestyle.

Each one is a topic in itself.  In this post, let’s tackle nutrition.

Immune systems and nutrition

As Prof. Chris D’Adamo, Director of Research at Center of Integrative Medicine at University of Maryland School of Medicine, recently gave a talk summarizing research on different foods are known to have immunity enhancing properties. Lot of the content that follows is from his talk.

Mushrooms –  Over 5,000 different types of mushrooms exist in nature many of which are used in traditional medical systems.

In Shitake mushrooms Polysaccharides alpha-Glucans enhance immune system by enhancing the macrophage activity. Shitake mushrooms have been shown in research to have antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral effects. They have also been shown to offer defense against influenza virus and useful in cancer therapy.

Maitake mushrooms enhance immune activity.  While White Button mushrooms have been shown to regulate immune activity, both up and down as needed and useful against breast and prostate cancersSo, eating a variety of mushrooms can enhance and regulate the immune system. 

Cooking mushrooms is better since many contain hyrozines, a carcinogen that is deactivated by heat.

As a practical tip, just wipe mushrooms clean and not  wash in water  since mushrooms are porous and soaking may make them soggy.

If you are not the mushroom eating type, mushroom extracts are as also available that blend different varieties of mushrooms. Here are some:

Mushroom extract

Allium Vegetables –  Garlic, Onions, scallions, shallots, chives, leeks,etc.

The Allium genus includes approximately 500 species that include garlic, onion, leeks, chives, scallions which are used all over the world in different delicacies. Some allium vegetables have been employed for millenia in the traditional medical practice to treat cardiovascular diseases.  These vegetables have been shown to have applications as antimicrobial, antithrombotic, antitumor, hypolipidaemic, antiarthritic and hypoglycemic agents.

In recent years, extensive research has focused on the anticarcinogenic potential of allium vegetables and their constituents, viz., allylsulfides and flavonoids (particularly quercetin which is present abundantly in onion). Epidemiological studies have shown that higher intake of allium products is associated with reduced risk of several types of cancers. These epidemiological findings are well correlated with laboratory investigations. Organosulfur compounds present in Allium vegetables, are considered to be responsible for the beneficial effects of these herbs.

To maximize health benefits of garlic crushing or chopping garlic bulb is important since it converts sulfur compound alliin to more bioactive allicin. It is also important to leave crushed/chopped garlic for serveral minutes before cooking for enhanced activity of allinase enzymes.

And, to maximize health benefits of onions, don’t overpeel.  Flavonoid content is highest in the outermost layers.

Probiotics or Fermented Foods

Bacteria in the gut, aka Gut Biota, continues to be one of the most exciting topic in health and wellness research. Gut biota and therefore probiotics play a huge role in immunity. Some believe as much as 50% of the immunity is in the gut.  Probiotics are defined as any live microorganisms that confer health benefits.

Foods fermented with “probiotic” bacteria or yeast are therefore very important to any diet to enhance immunity.  In traditional diets, common fermented foods are:

  • Miso and natto – fermented beans/grains usually soy
  • Kimchi – fermetend cabbage, radhishes, etc.
  • Kambuch – fermented tea
  • Yogurt, lassi, kefir – fermented dairy
  • Sauerkraut – fermented cabbage
  • Ogi – fermented grains

If not chosen carefully, any of these foods can be used in a way that turns them into junk food.  For example, in the US, we have taken healthful yogurt and turned it into a junk food by adding sugar and other additives.  To figure out what yogurt to buy, check out website  http://cornucopia.org/yogurt-scorecard/.   Out of 130 yogurts, the site lists Activa, Yoplait and Dannon as numbers 124, 126, and 129.

 Sugar in yoplait

If you choose to add a probiotic as a supplement, you may also need to do some research.  You will need to look into what genus, species and strains of bacteria a product contains. It is important that the supplement is shipped on ice, since probiotics diet if exposed to high temperatures. Following brands do ship their products on ice:


Other Supplements for Enhancing Immunity

Zinc is essential to immune function.  There is over 30 years of research that shows that Zinc reduces duration, severity and incidence of common cold.  You do need to take zinc within 24 hours of symptom onset for best effect.

Vitamin C is also essential for immune function.  Research has shown that vitamin c prevents common cold and reduces duration of cold symptoms among people who exercise regularly.

Elderberry is a dark-colored berry high in anthcyannis. It is shown to relieve flu symptoms and inhibit bronchitis virus replication.

Oregano oil has very strong antimicrobial properties.  It has very strong taste and can burn in contact with skin. So, it is taken in capsules or a few drops in water. Also, being antimicrobial it is not useful to take it at the same time you are taking probiotic or eating fermented foods.

An acute prevention/treatment plan for a cold or flu

With all this knowledge, Prof D’Adamo shared how he attacks with nutrition cold or flu if he sees it coming. As soon as possible after exposure or symptoms begin…

  • 1 gram of vitamin C every 1-2 hours
  • 1 full dropper oregano oil in water in morning (with food)
  • 2 Sambucol/Sambucus tablets morning & night (with food)
  • 50 mg zinc tablet morning & night (with food)
  • 2 mushroom extract capsules (New Chapter/Stamets morning & night
  • 100 billion CFU probiotics (Natren) with yogurt before bed
  • Drink water throughout day!!!

He is a pretty big guy.  So smaller people might need less, bigger people may need more or bigger doses.

Bottom Line

To optimize immune systems, the following should be part of diet or as supplements:

  • Variety of mushrooms
  • Allium vegetables – used properly
  • Fermented foods or probiotics

It is useful to have a personal plan and kit ready for attacking common colds and flu by boosting your immune system, as soon as you see it coming.  Research shows that you can prevent and reduce severity and/or duration. Zinc, Vitamin C, elderberry extract, probiotics, mushroom extract, oregano oil and plenty of water are past folklore and are now part of evidence-based medicine.


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