Exploring the Connection Between Nutrition and Immunity

19th-century physiologist Claude Bernard postulated that sickness was not caused by bacteria, but rather by human beings’ internal environment. “The terrain is everything;” he wrote, “the germ is nothing.” The presence of bacteria, he maintained, is a symptom of an unhealthy environment. So the question becomes, how can we build our immunity so that we are not prone to illness? How can we nourish our terrain?

When we refer to enhancing immunity, the first logical step is to look at the food we eat. Our current intake of processed foods, sugars and commercially raised meats has drastically upset the healthy balance in our terrain. Our immune systems are taxed, trying to compensate for the toxic overload. Can you remember when not too long ago, the powers-that-be disregarded the importance of foods and health? Today, there is common agreement that we should eat at least 6 to 8 servings of vegetables per day. Unfortunately, commercial entities imply that by eating fruit bars or drinking bottled juices we can meet these needs.

Let’s face it, corporate media will continue to promote an agenda that serves their profits until we, the people, reveal the self-evident truth. It’s tougher than it seems. In September 2012, a systematic review of nutrition literature, Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives?, concluded, “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” The media reported this as, “Organic foods no healthier than conventional foods” and “Organic foods may not be healthier for you.” Alas, the corporate agenda is always hard at work.

Whole, Living Foods

That being said, selecting whole, living, organically grown produce in its most natural, raw state is still the best course of action. In Pathways No. 26, we cited the most important fruits and veggies to buy organic—the so-called “dirty dozen.” In the case of juicing fruits and vegetables, organic is a no-brainer to avoid the effects of concentrated pesticides. Even better is biodynamically grown produce. (Two recent Pathways articles— “Fence Rows and Gut Health” in No. 31, and “Beyond Sustainability” in No. 34—explore these topics in depth.)

As parents we sometimes struggle with meeting nutritional requirements for our kids (and ourselves). Juicing vegetables is a great way to meet your daily needs. For fruits, add smoothies to your families’ daily diet.

Juicing is an efficient, easy and quick way to incorporate vegetables into your diet. The darker the green, the more nourishing and cleansing the juice. When you first start juicing, it’s best to start off with the more palatable veggies: Carrots and celery are a good place to begin. Then, as your systems adapt, you can add more potent detoxifiers, such as cabbage and dark greens. For kids, start with small amounts, and dilute them with pure water. Juices can be strong detoxifiers, and kids do not need such concentrated doses.

Smoothies are a better choice for fruit than juicing, because juicing concentrates sugar intake, and an overload of sugar, even fruit sugars, is not good for us. Lisa DeNardo has provided three kid-tested smoothies on page 45. A mother of five, Lisa adds greens to these and accomplishes both the green and fruit requirements. Be creative. Let your children participate. Listen to their feedback…and then serve them daily. Water, almond milk, coconut milk, or raw dairy milk can be added, and yogurt or kefir will bring in another whole level of benefit for the gut.

A daily intake of homemade kefir from raw milk offers a more potent dosage of friendly bacteria than any probiotic supplement. You can start offering children kefir when you introduce solids. (Kefir made from grass-fed, raw milk retains all of the low-allergic reactions that raw milk offers, and often kids “allergic” to dairy do not have the same response with raw-milk products.) When moms include kefir in their diets, exclusively breastfed infants will benefit. If the infant was born vaginally, this intake is probably sufficient until they start eating other foods. For infants born by C-section, breastfed or not, infant-specific probiotic supplements are highly recommended. Numerous studies have shown that failure to go through the birth canal directly affects the gut flora of the infant.

Fermented Foods and Probiotics

Incorporating fermented foods rich in probiotics is a huge immune-system enhancer. Recent years have revealed the importance of the digestive system to immunity. Probiotics are the friendly bacteria that overcome the presence of yeast, parasites and invasive bacteria, and protect the gut lining from “leaking” undigested foods and toxins into our blood.

Yogurt is a well-known source of probiotics, but the most prolific source is kefir. Kefir was first made famous by Elie Metchnikoff, the Russian scientist who praised its values of restoring good bacteria and drank it daily. The most cost-effective, nutrient-dense kefir is homemade. Making it is a simple process: Once you obtain the kefir grains, simply feed it milk daily. The better the milk, the better the kefir, so your optimal choice would be raw, unpasteurized milk from grass-fed Jersey cows. Pathways No. 32 includes a whole article on kefir, its benefits and preparation.

Miso is another food rich in probiotics and life-enhancing enzymes. Miso is considered a “yang” food in the macrobiotic world. It is salty, soothing and warming, and works great to overcome “yin”-like symptoms of runny noses and scratchy throats. It can be used medicinally much the same way chicken soup is used, and is simple and quick to prepare. A mild and kid-friendly choice is brown-rice “white” miso. Start by sautéing a finely chopped onion, carrot and a dark green, such as kale. Then add 2 to 3 cups of pure water and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and pour the broth/vegetable mixture in a bowl. Mix in a teaspoon of miso per bowl. Do not add the miso directly to the boiling water: The temperature will kill its beneficial properties.

As you bring more fermented, microbe-rich food sources and their friendly bacteria into your diet, expect your immunity to improve.

Immunity-Strengthening Herbs and Spices

Onions and garlic have been used medicinally since ancient times, and should be a regular, daily item in your meals. Both have strong, natural antibiotic and antiviral properties and continuously strengthen your immune system.

Garlic contains hundreds of active compounds, of which allicin appears to be the most potent. For garlic, the least amount of cooking provides the best medicinal value, so if you are cooking it, chop it finely, let it sit for a few minutes and then add it as one of the last ingredients to your dishes. To engage kids in eating more garlic, baking whole cloves softens and sweetens them to be used as a delightful spread.

Onions contain potent antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory, antibiotic and antiviral. As with all paper-skinned vegetables, onions retain their nutritional value when baked or cooked on low heat. You can add caramelized onions to sweeten sautéed greens.

When your immune system becomes overtaxed, herbs can offer a boost to support healing. Unlike drugs, herbs are foods that nourish the body. They also stimulate a healing response and support the immune system, rather than suppressing symptoms and wreaking havoc on normal function.

Although all of these herbs can be purchased, they are also easy (and beautiful) to grow. Susun Weed shares how you can harvest them and make your own tinctures. To make your own Echinacea antibiotic tincture: Put 4 ounces, or 115 grams, of Echinacea cut root in a quart jar. Fill the jar to the top with 100-proof vodka. Cap tightly, and be sure to label it and keep it safely out of children’s reach. Wait at least 6 weeks before use. This tincture is even more potent after 1 year. Photo By Tia Ohm.

Master herbalist Susun Weed lists the most common herbs with antimicrobial properties: Calendula, chaparral, goldenseal, myrrh, poke, usnea and yarrow, with her favorite being Echinacea. She says: “I find Echinacea as effective as (and dare I say, sometimes better than!) antibiotics if E. angustifolia/augustifolia—but not E. purpurea—is used when you make your own tincture. Tincture, not capsules or teas, is used; the root, and only the root, is used; and very large doses are taken very frequently. To determine your dose of Echinacea, divide your body weight by 2; take that many drops per dose. There are about 25 drops in a dropperful; round up to full droppers. For example, if you weigh 180 pounds, take 90 drops/4 droppersful. There is no known overdose of Echinacea tincture. With acute infection, I take a full dose every 2–3 hours. When the infection is chronic, I take a full dose every 4–6 hours.”

Drinks to Warm Up Your Immunity

In the cold, winter months we welcome warm beverages to sit and relax with. There are numerous herbal teas that boost immunity; once again, organic is best. Herbal teas include varieties like rose hips, lemongrass, red clover, spearmint, wintergreen and a selection of berry teas. They can be consumed hot or cold. For younger children, dilute the teas. A teaspoon of coconut oil adds a touch of sweetness, as well as essential fatty acids found in high amounts in breast milk, such as lauric acid. This gives another boost to your immunity. Another warming beverage is white pine tea, a vitamin C booster that has been used for centuries. Susun Weed has a wonderful write-up about white pine and its gifts, and we share her link in our resources.

Eliminating Toxins

As you increase your intake of nutrient-dense foods and your cells are becoming more nourished, you may notice two things: 1) improved bowel function; and 2) an adversity to more processed foods. This means your body is eliminating more efficiently, appreciating real foods, and teaching you what’s best for you.

This is a good time to actively eliminate classic offenders to your immune system.

Sugar: Sugar suppresses immune system function. It weakens the terrain and creates numerous imbalances in the body. It is in almost every store-bought product. Sometimes it is replaced with substitutes like “beet sugar,” which is made from genetically modified beets and has its own set of toxic effects. Also, don’t be fooled that fructose is any better than sucrose. It’s worse, in fact, because it requires conversion by the liver before it can be absorbed. Both are immune suppressors. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is used in packaged foods because it is sweeter than sugar, so less is needed. HFCS is also cheaper, but realize it is certainly coming from GMO corn, Round-Up–ready crops loaded with pesticides. Educated consumers laugh at the new commercials coming out with farmer Joan walking through “nature’s” corn fields. The consumer is becoming informed, and Big Agra is in active defense. Also, don’t be fooled by the big organic brands replacing HFCS with agave syrup. Agave has more fructose than HFCS.

If you have a young child who hasn’t yet been introduced to sugar—don’t! It can be that simple. That means when you wean, avoid all sugars and juices, especially concentrates. Those of us who have lived on sugar for many years have it tougher. Sugar is addictive and not so easy to eliminate, but it is doable. While you’re at it, you might as well eliminate processed white flours. They break down to simple sugar, and have the same adverse effects on our digestive and immune systems.

Making Pine Needle Tea: Collect the youngest pine needles available from an area free of pesticide. Wash the needles. Then you can either steep them whole in a cup and drink when they get a bit pale, or you can boil water, add the chopped needles, and simmer for 20 minutes. (Heating any longer may diminish the effects of the high amounts of vitamin C.) The tea should get a red tinge to it. Taste the tea before adding your favorite sweetener: The younger needles have a sweetness of their own. Please note before making this tea: It has been observed that pregnant cows who eat pine needles have spontaneous miscarriages. As with all herbs, check with your naturopath if you are pregnant. Photo By Tia Ohm

Commercially Grown Meats, Dairy, Fish: All meats from commercial livestock are a huge source of toxins. Raised in unhealthy, miserable conditions and fed pesticide-laden, GMO, inflammatory grains, these animals are pumped with antibiotics and hormones to compensate. This includes cows, poultry and pigs. Their meats are colored and frequently processed with chemicals. Consuming these meats is a toxic overload. In issue No. 25 we suggested watching the 2008 documentary, Food, Inc. If you are a meat eater, you may have found it depressing. We have written about the importance of locating sources of meats from pastured animals, optimally raised on biodynamic farms. If you do begin to incorporate this healthy meat into your diet, you may find when you do eat the other, less nutritious meat you can feel the toxic effects.

If you drink milk, switch to raw, unpasteurized, wholesome milk from grass-fed cows and get the healthy probiotic benefits. Pathways has had some articles on the benefits of raw milk (in issue Nos. 28 & 34). Eggs from pastured chickens (see issue No. 27), supplemented with organic and soy-free grains, are ideal. As for fish, it must be wild. Yep, skip the tilapia (which is almost always farm-raised), and check your labels. Anything that does not specify “wild” is probably farmed. Farmraised fish are often grown in a sea of antibiotics, and ingesting these is a true deficit to our healthy immune system function.

Also, it’s important to watch out for high mercury levels. To keep this to a minimum, try to choose smaller fish, like sardines.

Tap and Bottled Water

We need to drink ample, purified (not bottled) water to aid in this elimination process. If you don’t have a water filter in your home, getting one should be your next priority. A reverse osmosis (RO) filter will provide the purest water. Their costs have gone down considerably from when they were first made. An investment of $150 should buy a six-stage RO system with a 3-gallon storage tank. All components fit under your sink. Detoxing our bodies with sufficient, purified water is a must.

Nourishing the Terrain: Exploring the Connection between Nutrition and Immunity was written by Jeanne Ohm, D.C., with grateful appreciation for content gleaned from Maureen McDonald, B.S., R.N. (sokhop.com); Susun Weed (susunweed.com); The International Wellness Directory (mnweldir.org); and Justin Ohm, D.C. (ohmchiropractic.com).

Information provided by Drs C Gus & Jacqueline Tsiapalis, D.C. Great Life Chiropractic, Deerfield Beach, FL

This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #36.