Back to School 2020: Immune Check-Up
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
I'm writing this post as families and kids try to grapple with how to be "prepared" to go back to school amidst the SARS-CoV2 / COVID-19 pandemic. Numbers are down in our area, thankfully, but we are watching projections for a fall "spike". [UPDATE: Sept 29, 2020 - We're mid-spike! Read this now, more than ever - also ask me about "Change of Season Soup" - herbs available for purchase in clinic now - to help with fall and winter season transitions]
Now is the time to take a more critical look at how we can best support immune system function, and prepare for if and when we do encounter the virus. To foster immune health:
Keep inflammation low (learn how sugar, poor sleep, & food sensitivities all contribute - and how daily outdoor exercise and sleep provide counterbalance)
Support healing & immune function nutritionally (is your diet rich in: zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin A and fish oil?)
Know & target your susceptibilities: Investigate your own personal susceptibilities and target your support accordingly (assess for chronic health conditions, infections and other risks)
My top 5 list for fostering resilient, healthy humans:
Deal with any health issues you’ve been ignoring
Get quality sleep
Eat to lower inflammation
Foods as medicine
Not all supplements are created equal
Read on below. For adults and kids alike. Book an appointment to get individualized support.
1. Deal with any health issues you’ve been ignoring
From asthma, allergies and eczema, to chronic fatigue, chronic pain and frequent infections (especially repeat/chronic infections) – you may be looking at a health issue that is affecting immune function. Any condition causing inflammation in the body will distract your immune system. Undiagnosed autoimmune conditions (where your immune system is over-reactive) are riskier than ever right now. Autoimmune conditions includes Type I diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and more. Chronic stress affects your body’s immune function and resilience. Seek balance: sleep enough and build fresh air and daily movement into your routines (even if just walking with the kids).
How do you get further information? See a naturopath for a thorough assessment and support (virtual visits available, and most insurance offers coverage) – and if you haven’t had an annual checkup with your family doctor, consider that too, as routine labs can be quite helpful.
2) Get quality sleep
Probably the first place to go for added health benefits, after removing the obstacles above, is to bed! Are you (and your little ones) getting enough sleep? Are you waking feeling rested? If kids are staying up later since COVID started, and perhaps tending to get cranky in afternoons, start winding back bed times and building structured nap/quiet time schedules to recharge mid-day. If adults are struggling with insomnia (difficulty falling asleep or maintaining sleep), let's review stress levels and discuss the best supports. Pharmaceutical medications can be helpful, but please read warnings about duration of use – most are not to be used for more than a week at a time as they can become addictive and may actually undermine quality rest.
Review sleep hygiene tips: some simple sleep hygiene practices can be so helpful – including reduced screen use (phones/computers/tablets) in the evening – or use blue light blocking filters on devices or wear blue light blocking glasses. Blue light exposure can reduce your melatonin production without you realizing it, leading to less deep and restorative sleep. Don't let working late into the evenings add more stress to your body.
For stress: add adaptogen and cortisol balancing herbs – like ashwaghanda and holy basil. Try holy basil tea at any time of day. For specific prescriptions, see a naturopath.
3) Eat to lower inflammation
So much of the ‘Standard American Diet’ is full of inflammatory foods. Even if you generally eat “healthy”, you’ll benefit from considering the following about lurking inflammatory foods. In general, I’m not a fan of “dieting” (people who feel too restricted will struggle to maintain a habit), and I prefer to think of ways to broaden the foods eaten, rather than limit them.
Foods to eat more of:
Non-starchy vegetables (my #1)! Especially garlic, onions and the brassica family (broccoli/broccoli sprouts, rapini, kale, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy, collard greens, mustard greens) - all of these foods are high in sulphur compounds that are great antibacterial and antioxidant support.
Starchy vegetables are good too, especially when used in place of a grain. Try baking butternut squash or a kabocha/hubbard squash (drier, sweeter) – skins are edible! Carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, beets, sweet potatoes and yams can also be baked (or turned into soups/stews). Aim to add one new veggie into your diet each week.
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) & healthy fats – fats are often demonized, but growing kids need calories, and fats can be anti-inflammatory! EVOO is anti-inflammatory and cardio-protective – use it for cooking and dressing daily. It’s my #1 oil (store out of sunlight in a glass bottle). Omega 3 fats are next on my list: providing important structural support for the lipid layer that surrounds all your body’s cells, they support immune health and balance other inflammatory fats. Are you getting enough? We tend to eat diets heavily weighted toward omega 6’s which can be overly inflammatory - typically from the corn, soy, sunflower, safflower and vegetable oils that sneak into our diets in many ways. Rich Omega 3 sources? Small fatty fish are an ideal source of omega 3’s - even salmon and rainbow trout work (walnuts and flax seeds are also excellent sources). If you’re concerned about heavy metals, smaller fish accumulate less, but a supplement that has been tested for heavy metals is also a good choice. See supplement tips below. If eating red meat/dairy, go for grass-fed cows (a grass-fed cow omega 6:3 ratio is 2:1, while a standard cow is up to 20:1 due to extremely low omega 3 content - and the discrepancy carries through in cow milk, with grass-fed and organic providing the best ratios). Other healthy fats: hemp seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds (ground), walnuts and almonds probably top my list for having added protein. Also try avocado and coconut (milk, manna, chips/flakes).
Protein in moderation – keep portion size in mind- generally a serving of meat can be estimated as the size of your palm (or your child’s palm). Too much protein can increase inflammation. See tips above to choose low-inflammation proteins (often heritage breeds of animals who are given large spaces to roam - from eggs, to poultry to other livestock). Remember that legumes, quinoa and other grains will provide complete proteins in aggregate and are good options even for non-vegans (soaking legumes extra long will reduce phytates and improve digestion – lentils are some of the easiest to digest).
Foods to reduce:
Sugars: including processed sugars, juices (even natural), grain flours, alcohol (try smaller portions of these, less frequently – I prefer sugar in the form of whole fresh fruits – dates are ‘fresh’, whereas other dried fruits are not and concentrate sugar even more). Occasional added honey (raw), maple syrup (dark) or blackstrap molasses have the added benefits of additional nutrients. Raw honey is antimicrobial, and particularly useful as a ‘medicine’ for upper respiratory infections.
Trans-fats/hydrogenated-fats/processed foods & inflammatory oils: these highly inflammatory fats are common in many processed foods – including ‘fries’ (whether eaten at home or a restaurant – unless you prepare your own!). Many oils are also inflammatory and best avoided or saved for occasional use: corn, soy, sunflower, safflower and vegetable oils are all inflammatory, being high in omega-6.
Other highly inflammatory foods: these tend to vary by the person, but it’s about tolerance, so use this list to be aware of your other sources of inflammation. Gluten: In general, gluten is inflammatory for everyone – taking some time (at least 3-4 weeks) off gluten can be a helpful ‘detox’. It also may shed some light on just how much gluten you consume, and help you reduce your overall gluten load. We live in a world of many gluten-free alternatives – but many are not less inflammatory, as the ‘substitutes’ are often high in sugars or other inflammatory foods. Other grains may also be inflammatory to you – it may also be a case of moderation. Try eating more ‘pseudo-grains’ like quinoa, millet or amaranth. And aim to eat all grains in their ‘whole’ form more than in flours/baked goods. Use ‘steel cut’ oats for maximal nutrients. Corn: often the base for added sugars (dextrose, maltodextrin, fructose), corn is high in sugar naturally, and is truly a grain, not a vegetable. Corn oil is highly processed, the base of many vegetable oils, and inflammatory. Many people don’t eat corn kernels often, but consume corn frequently in processed forms. Nightshades (peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes): not an issues for everyone, but for those with unexplained fatigue or joint pains, it may be particularly important to consider testing these foods. Dairy: many people’s diets are heavy on dairy right from infancy. Consider the cow that produces the milk and what they are fed. Choosing organic or grass-fed dairy sources will reduce inflammatory burden - as long as dairy sugars and proteins are tolerated! Non-dairy tips: for variety, everyone can try non-dairy milks, yogurts and cheeses – beneficial in many conditions (consider heartburn/reflux, eczema, other skin and digestive concerns and joint pains). I find coconut-based products least allergenic. You can get enough calcium without dairy! Ask me about my calcium tracker if unsure. Dairy tips: Avoid "low-fat" (Low fat dairy tends to have more sugar and additives to improve taste). The 'healthiest' dairy is perhaps organic/grass-fed plain kefir or natural yogurts which are fermented and rich in probiotics (full fat is best absorbed, and less likely to have added sugar) - add flavour with your own fruits. You may want to experiment with sheep dairy (lowest in casein – the most common allergenic dairy protein), and low-lactose dairy (mozzarella, parmesan or gouda cheeses for example) to rule out sensitivities.
4) Foods as medicine
A few foods are specifically valuable to consider in the context of supporting an immune system during times of increased exposure risks, or at the first signs of an infection. I also find a “change of season” can be a good time to add these things (ie when warm summer gives way to cooler fall days)
Shiitake mushrooms (and other mushrooms, including plain button mushrooms) are great immune balancers – not the best for anyone with a mould/fungal condition, so if you feel worse eating mushrooms, please stop and seek medical advice. Add these to broths/soup stocks, or cook into soups, scrambled eggs, or stir-frys. Shiitake are versatile, and probably the most flavourful of the mushrooms. If your child is struggling with the texture, try blending the mushroom when cooked (into a pate or a sauce you can blend into other foods) or use them in broths. Note – you can find mushrooms in a supplement form, but they must be put through a hot water extraction for the active ingredients to be available. So, cook your mushrooms, and buy quality supplements. Other powerful mushrooms include: reishi, lion’s mane, cordyceps, and maitake.
Pumpkin seeds are high in zinc, a key mineral that is not only important for neurological function (often depleted in conditions like ADHD and mood disorders), but also needed by the body during acute infections. Be sure to replenish this! Starting with food sources is easy for kids. Buy fresh/raw seeds (try the darker European variety too) – and either grind them to a powder you can shake over foods (oatmeal, cereal, dinners) or toast them lightly in a dry frying pan, with an option to add a pinch of salt, and snack on them or top salads with them. Pumpkin seed butter is also available as a nut butter alternative (thought I find it’s a little stickier and less sweet, so may be more palatable mixed with another nut/seed butter. Tip: aim to eat high iron foods at different times from your high zinc foods – to ensure the best absorption of each (they compete with each other). Consider adding a zinc supplement to your daily routine if you or anyone around you starts showing symptoms of illness. Have a chewable zinc on hand for kids.
Rosehips (in a tea) are an excellent source of vitamin C. Many foods contain vitamin C in small doses, but very few contain high vitamin C doses. Rosehip, camu camu, and acai are some of the top sources. Rosehip tea can be brewed in advance and drank cold/iced over a couple days (store in the fridge). Add other herbs as desired. Licorice soothes the throat. Ginger for digestion/upset stomach. Holy basil for stress and sleep.
Turmeric, ginger, and fresh herbs: incorporate these herbs & spices into your diet – the first two are great anti-inflammatories, turmeric can be difficult to absorb (best if cooked with black pepper and oil/butter). Fresh herbs are best added as garnish, in abundance, and can aid detoxification (cilantro, parsley) as well as provide antimicrobial support (thyme, oregano) and mood support (rosemary). All of these foods are excellent antioxidants. Eat more antioxidants wherever possible.
Castor oil – topical tummy rubs are something I often prescribe to kids up to age 7, but can be relevant at any age. Castor oil works to draw things out and gently stimulate movement. When applied over areas of the lymphatic system, this helps the immune system to move white blood cells where needed and be more effective. When applied over the liver, and over the intestines, this can aid detoxification by moving blood and helping the body to excrete stool (and toxins therein). Regular bowel movements are important to proper immune function. Immune systems are actually still developing until 7 years old, so for this age group, regular ‘tummy rubs’ can be invaluable – this may be once or twice a week, or more depending on your situation. Whenever my kids have tummy pain, they know to ask me for castor oil as a key support. How to apply: when looking at your child’s abdomen, imagine an upside down ‘U’ that traces from your left (their right hip bone), up under the ribs, to your right (their left hip bone). This ‘U’ can be traced repeatedly. Or start by first tracing an ‘I’ top to bottom on your right (the child’s left side), then an upside down ‘L’ across the bottom of the ribs and then down the same line as the ‘I’, and final the upside down ‘U’ – remember it as ‘I’, ‘L’ove, ‘U’. Repeat this 5 or 6 times or until a quarter size dollop of oil is sufficiently rubbed in. Kids can help do this. Note that the oil soaks into clothing and can stain – so do these rubs before bed and wear old clothes to bed (and even sheets).
5) Not all supplements are created equal
Many of us may have cupboards or drawers full of supplements. Some you may be taking and not remember why. In general, I always prefer a whole food approach to supplements – but that depends on your condition. Try to avoid added sugars/colours/preservatives in your supplements. Also, your supplement will ideally be in a form that is easy for your body to absorb (hence why I generally prefer food sources!).
Calcium: most people can get quite a lot from their diet, and may be getting more than they need if they consume dairy regularly. Calcium can deplete other minerals, like magnesium, if eaten/supplemented disproportionately. How to maximize dietary calcium: Calcium is best consumed away from iron-containing-foods. The highest calcium containing vegetables are spinach and collard greens – they are mild-tasting leafies that can be added to a variety of dishes. Eat these weekly. If you consume a lot of calcium (more than 1000mg daily, from diet or supplements), consider adding a magnesium supplement – magnesium bisglycinate at bed time will also support your sleep (powder or capsules).
Vitamin D is one I often discuss: this is perhaps a corollary of calcium, as vitamin D helps aid calcium absorption and supports healthy immune function. If you are prone to or have a family history of cardiovascular disease or atherosclerosis, choose a D3-K2 supplement combination. The K2 will ensure the calcium is deposited into your bones, rather than left in your arteries to calcify. Food sources of K2 include egg yolks and meat (only the MK-4 form) or natto (typically soy-derived and the primary source of the MK-7 – the preferred supplemental form). Check ingredients: choose a liquid form with a MCT oil base if possible. Fewer ingredients are better.
Fish oil: can be added in place of or in addition to dietary fish. Choose a product that is molecularly distilled and certified to be free of heavy metals. ‘High potency’ options offer better value – liquids are usually best value, but sometimes soft-gel capsules are easier for compliance. Kids do best with liquids – and I often recommend a Cod liver oil to provide high levels of DHA for brain development and additional immune support from the naturally occurring vitamin A and D. For mood and cardiovascular support, higher levels of EPA are most helpful. Most adults will benefit from a higher EPA supplement (2:1 or more).
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Disclaimer: none of the above information is intended as medical advice. This information is intended to foster general health awareness and to provide additional explanation and information in conjunction with a personalized naturopathic assessment. If you have any health conditions, please consult with a naturopathic doctor before starting new supplements.