Pantry Pharmacy: 8 Natural Immune Boosters and How to Work them Into your Everyday Diet

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With round two of cold/flu season officially underway over the last month, folks all over the world are stocking up on their favorite remedies. Here in the U.S., we tend to think first of the pharmacy; what prescription or OTC medicines do we need when the virus strikes? But in many countries around the world, it’s more common to turn first to the pantry—where a rich stock of preventive and therapeutic ingredients is standing by to help. Here are eight ways to boost your immune system with wholesome foods and herbs you already have at home.

1. Fresh Ginger

WHY: A warming spice prevalent in Asian and Indian foods, ginger has been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments. Rich in the beneficial phyochemicals gingerol and shogaol, ginger has a spicy kick that stimulates circulation, instantly increasing oxygen flow to your tissues and facilitating the release of toxins. Ginger’s natural anti-inflammatory properties make it a must for cold and flu season—it helps to reduce fever, open the sinuses and encourage lymphatic drainage to keep the immune system in fighting shape.

HOW: Grate some fresh ginger into your favorite smoothie, add a few slices of ginger root to your tea, or toss some sliced carrots with grated ginger and maple syrup, then roast at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.

2. Turmeric

WHY: Curcumin, the active ingredient in this ancient spice, has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties—it’s also anti-viral, anti-fungal and is believed to help fight cancer. Studies suggest the root of these benefits lie in turmeric’s ability to boost the production of white blood cells, which help your body fight invaders like bacteria and viruses. The spice is also known to facilitate the production of melatonin (for a good night’s sleep) and encourage healthy liver function (to help the body efficiently flush out toxins).

HOW: While turmeric is delicious with just about any roasted veggie, Ayurvedic wisdom seems to believe the most efficient delivery method for turmeric is in a warm, soothing glass of “golden milk.” Try it!

3. Coconut Oil

Rich in lauric and caprylic acids, which have been shown to fortify the immune system and boost heart and thyroid function, coconut oil is also anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-viral—making it an important diet staple not just during cold and flu season, but year-round. Lauric and caprylic acids are also known to raise good cholesterol, HDL, which of course contributes to effective weight management and heart health. That’s probably why cultures that consume more calories from coconuts are much healthier overall.

HOW: Coconut oil can be swapped for any cooking fat you’re currently using, from butter to ghee (clarified butter) to olive oil and beyond. Like ghee, it’s solid at room temperature but turns to liquid when heated.

4. Garlic

If you’re not a fan of this brisk, oniony flavor profile, you might want to skip to the next superfood—garlic loses some of its benefits when cooked, so for full immune-boosting effects, garlic should be enjoyed RAW. When you cut, chop or crush a clove of garlic, you’re releasing allicin and more than 100 other sulfuric compounds known to help kill bacteria and prevent infection. In fact, studies have shown that garlic has both preventive and therapeutic effects on just about every ailment from the common cold to cancer.

HOW: Even if you love its flavor, eating raw garlic can be a little...intense. Try mincing your garlic and mixing into a bit of softened butter, then spreading over your favorite whole-grain toast...instant healthy heaven!

5. Orange Fruits + Veggies

When you think of your immune system, your skin may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But as your largest organ, the skin is actually your first line of defense against bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. Vitamin A, which plays a major role in the production of connective tissue, is essential to maintaining healthy skin—and foods containing beta-carotene are the most efficient way to get it. Yams, carrots, orange peppers, squash, cantaloupe and even canned pumpkin are excellent nutritional sources.

HOW: To ensure your diet contains beta carotene every day, try making a batch of roasted veggies on Sunday to be enjoyed throughout the week. We love yams, butternut squash and carrots tossed with lemon juice.

6. Mushrooms

Known for their antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and pro-cardiovascular benefits, medicinal mushrooms have been in use since at least 3,000 B.C. Like turmeric, some fungi have been shown to increase both the production and activity of white blood cells, which helps your body fight off unwanted invaders—and in recent decades, researchers have found that mushrooms have profound anti-cancer properties, helping to slow the growth of tumors and even enhance the effects of chemotherapy.

HOW: While your weekly batch of orange veggies is in the oven, saute a batch of shiitake, maitake and reishi mushrooms in EVOO—then add some to your morning eggs, lunchtime salad and evening pasta sauce.

7. Yogurt

Like the skin, the gut is an unsung immune system superstar—the average person has nearly 30 feet of intestine, every inch of which needs healthy bacteria to keep the digestive tract free of disease-causing germs. These “good” bacteria, derived from lactic acid, are called probiotics, and they’re present in both yogurt and kefir. Studies have shown that regular yogurt consumption can help stimulate the immune system, preventing a variety of infections as well as gastrointestinal disorders, asthma and even cancer. Good bugs indeed!

HOW: Whether you’re adding yogurt to your morning smoothie or using it to make your lunchtime salad dressing, we’d recommend choosing a plain variety to avoid the sugars hidden in many flavored options.

8. Oats
Here’s some extra-good news: that comforting steel-cut oatmeal you’ve been enjoying every morning is actually really good for you. Oats are rich in beta glucans, which trigger a chain of microscopic events that help regulate the immune system. Beta glucans kick off the process by stimulating macrophages: versatile immunity cells that serve as the “attack dogs” of your body by demolishing pesky pathogens. The active macrophages also release cytokines: chemicals that help the rest of your immune system communicate more efficiently. 

HOW: While less-processed foods (like whole-grain oatmeal) are always a healthier choice, you can still derive many beta glucan benefits from swapping wheat flour for oat flour, or by eating an oat cereal like Cheerios.

Annette Behunin