Why does it matter?
Most people in Western society are not raised or taught to fully understand how our unconscious everyday decisions directly affect our health. I am no exception. I was lucky to have somewhat health-conscious parents and a decently healthy diet while growing up under their wings. But I never learned any of the important details or compelling reasons why certain things are good for the body, and why certain things are bad for the body. Which today, seems crazy to me, considering all the research that’s been done. And so, my mindset growing up went something like this: drugs and alcohol are pretty bad for you, so I should keep that to a minimum, and as long as I exercise often, I’ll be at somewhat optimal health. I was always very physically active as a mountain biker, which gave me great benefits, but not even close to optimal. That mindset resulted from what I was taught, both from school and society. Looking back on it now, I didn’t have a clue about true health, how to achieve it, or how important it was. My mental spectrum of unhealthy to healthy was way off center, leaning towards the unhealthy end. I believe most people have a similar ideology of what it means to lead a healthy life; as if you can outrun an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle. There’s a ridiculous stigma around being healthy; you’re labeled as a “health nut” or a “hippy”, as if there is something negative or delusional about acquiring optimal functionality of the only body you have; the very body that we depend on for everything, the vessel through which we experience life. Most of us treat it like an old tool in the shed: change the oil once every five years, clean it out only when you need to use it, maintain it poorly, yet expect it to work excellently. Evidently, this is all a product of our Western cultural and societal values. Most people that are healthy, learned the ropes themselves upon their own accord, like I did. When you start to pay closer attention to your body and how it functions on a daily basis, you open up the opportunity to have more gratitude for it. The human body is nothing short of a miracle, treat it as such! Not only because it deserves gratitude, but because you just might acquire what you’ve always been looking for.
Kiwis can reduce the severity of a cold
The main point I wanted to touch on today is getting sick with the common cold. We’re just past the tail end of winter in Santa Cruz, and I’ve heard about people getting sick non-stop these past few months. Most people have this victim identity with being sick; that “why me” attitude. Meanwhile, they continue the bad habits that got them sick in the first place! I notice that some people seem to be sick every month or two. I also see these same people constantly eating meat, bread, and cheese in every meal, drinking alcohol daily, doing little to no physical exercise, spending hardly any time in the sun, and trying to function on less than enough sleep; completely unaware of the connection. There are several factors involved in getting sick, and today we’re mostly gonna take a look at the dietary aspect; one that is ubiquitously being ignored. I’m here to tell you to stop feeling sorry for yourself and start taking responsibility for your actions. If you get sick often, then the fuel that you are putting into your engine isn’t good enough. What you are doing or not doing with your body is harming it. The human immune system is extraordinary, it’s literally designed to prevent you from getting sick. But, we aren’t very good at using our bodies to their fullest potential. If you are sick, then you most likely got yourself sick by not living healthily enough. You aren’t sick because life sucks and you are destined to suffer. Of course, getting sick still sometimes happens among healthy individuals, but it happens much less often, and sometimes not at all. You have power over that fate.
The Science of Getting Sick
In medical terms, the common cold is referred to as an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI). Studies show that consuming fruits and vegetables daily can help prevent URTI’s. We have heard since day one about how eating your fruits and veggies is healthy: “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Let’s take a closer look at why that might be. The first defense mechanism in our bodies that protect us from getting sick is not our outer skin, but the lining of our intestines. This “inner skin”, only the thickness of a single cell, is infinitely important to our immune health. This microscopically thin wall has the largest surface area of the body, about the size of a tennis court. An antibody with a fancy name of secretory immunoglobulin A (SIgA), is our first line of defense at this microscopically thin barrier between our healthy body and a world full of toxins and viruses. Eating just a cup of cooked white button mushrooms a day for a single week has proven to boost our SIgA by over 50%, and stay there for a week thereafter! But that’s not all a healthy diet has to offer. Our bodies have a little receptor inside our gut, which is activated by the phytonutrients in cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, etc.) that also boosts our immune function.
What’s even more mind-boggling is the fact that there are 100 trillion bacteria that live inside your intestines that we would die without. That’s around three pounds of bacteria that line our intestines that keep diseases out, and vital nutrients in. This plethora of good bacteria has the ability to sense when there is bad bacteria infiltrating our gut, and responds accordingly by attacking it. These bacteria are living organisms that need to be fed and maintained. If we help them out, they’ll help us out. This ability of bacteria to accurately decide when and what to attack, directly depends on our fiber intake. This is what makes fiber a prebiotic. Fiber is only found in plant foods, and most Americans are only consuming about half of the recommended daily intake of fiber. You’ve probably heard about probiotics like kombucha, which contain the beneficial bacteria that helps do the job. Probiotics are great to include, but cannot cure an unhealthy diet alone!
From a more fundamental standpoint, in general, plant-based foods are much more nutrient dense than animal-based foods; meaning, they have more essential vitamins and minerals per calorie. More specifically, plant-based foods have 64 times more antioxidants than animal-based foods. What does that mean? Free radicals, created both by our own bodies and the outside world can damage our bodies right down to our DNA, if left unchecked by antioxidants. The immune system is sensitive to oxidative stress from free radicals, which need to be balanced by an adequate intake of anti-oxidants. A simple yet powerful way to attain a healthier lifestyle is to replace some (or all) of your animal-based foods (eggs, bacon, quesadillas, steaks, burgers, chicken, pizza, etc.), some of which can be pro-oxidants, with plant-based alternatives. Give it a try by having at least one meal per day completely made up of whole plant foods, and see how that feels after at least a week or two. It’s easier than you think, and you might enjoy it enough to keep the habit around. Personally, what I’ve found is that I can successfully fight off an oncoming cold with a diet consisting mostly of raw fruits and vegetables, as much as I can stand. The body will heal itself if you allow it to. Comfort foods might make you feel warm and cozy, but they won’t help your body do it’s job. P.S. I know that there are many powerful herbs that can aid with sicknesses, but it’s something I have yet to dive into, so that will have to wait for a later article.
Can’t I just swallow magical health pills?
I used to take multivitamins daily back when my diet sucked. I thought that it would be a simple and easy way to make sure I was getting what I needed. I thought, “why wouldn’t you take a multivitamin?” I didn’t know anything about any of the vitamins I was taking, I just assumed that if it listed the letters A through E, I would be really healthy. But when you think about the fact that all vitamins and minerals come from earth’s soil and plants, how could a multivitamin be a natural and healthy way to acquire them while neglected the quality of your diet? We haven’t survived as a species for millions of years because of multivitamins, we’ve survived this long because of an extremely balanced and varied diet. Although vitamin and mineral content is super important, the studies have clearly demonstrated the significant and sometimes opposite effect of consuming vitamins and minerals through food vs. through supplements. Supplementation of isolated vitamins and minerals often produce a negative effect on the body. Our bodies are not designed to consume isolated components of food by themselves. The reductionist view of food is flawed and harmful. Oranges are not just good for you because they have vitamin C. That is only part of the story. They are good for you because of the symbiotic combination of hundreds of different nutrients and phytochemicals working together that evolution has taken millions of years to design in order to deliver to you exactly what you need; many of which we haven’t even been able to study yet. In the case of certain diseases and extreme deficiencies, supplements definitely have their place, but not as a replacement for a balanced diet. However, in the vastly un-natural and toxic world we live in, there are certain exceptions to the rule, like vitamin B12. B12 is extremely important in just about every cellular process in the body, including immune health. It is created by soil-based bacteria, which used to be all over the food we ate when we pulled it out of the ground, back in our primitive days. But today, with triple washed foods and B12-deficient soil to begin with, it’s difficult to consume enough B12. Around 40% of Americans are B12 deficient. Some people lack whats called intrinsic factor, making them unable to absorb enough B12 from food. B12 is stored in vital organs, which is why some meat and dairy products naturally contain B12. What’s interesting is that nowadays, some farmed animals are having trouble getting enough B12 from such a lack of it’s availability in nature, so farmers have to supplement the animals’ feeds with B12. However, B12 is about absorption as much as it is about consumption, which is not yet fully understood. Some people don’t consume animal products or B12 supplements and still have good B12 levels. It’s something the science community is still exploring. B12 is one of the few vitamins I take, and one of the few that everyone should take, because you can’t have too much B12, and it’s vital to have enough of it. I take 500 mcg per day.
Diet is a major factor regarding immune health, but it’s certainly not the only one. Using your body as it’s supposed to be used is extremely important as well. Our bodies are designed to move. Sitting around excessively is something that humans adopted out of convenience, not out of survival technique or health benefits. Just google “sitting is the new smoking”, and you’ll see it goes beyond immune health, so I won’t get into it right now. Moderate exercise, even just a brisk daily walk, has been observed to cut the number of sick days in half in comparison to not exercising at all! This study from the Journal of Sports Medicine found similar results with mildly obese people taking brisk 45 minute walks daily. The relationship is not completely linear, though, because too much exercise, like running a marathon every other day, could leave you more susceptible to catching a cold. Include exercise in your daily routine, and you will eventually learn to love it once you experience how much better it makes you feel. Although exercise is of vast importance, the truth is, you simply cannot out-run a bad diet, like I used to believe.
Sunshine is Life
Vitamin D has been argued as the most important nutrient of all when it comes to immune health. Vitamin D is technically a hormone that our bodies can produce on it’s own without any intake of it, by utilizing UVB radiation through contact with our skin. Yet, nearly 70% of Americans are deficient. Vitamin D increases your immune function by 3 to 5 times. One study showed that children taking vitamin D supplements were 58% less likely to catch influenza A, a higher success rate than any vaccine. That’s certainly something to think about. How much D you can get from the sun depends on the time of year, time of day, the color of your skin, and the latitude of where you live. Make sure you know how to get UVB and UVA equally, it can drastically decrease your risk for cancer. Tanning does not give you skin cancer, unless you do it in the wrong way, in which case it actually destroys Vitamin D. Check the last hyperlink for more information. Where I live, in Santa Cruz, CA, at 37° latitude, is just out of the range of sufficient UVB absorption from November to February, so I take a D3 supplement during the winter months. Sunshine is life, without it, there is none!
So then, what exactly is a person to realistically do? Not everyone is going to have the time or interest to memorize all the vitamins and minerals of the food kingdom, so lets make it simple. Eat a wide variety of foods. Don’t eat the same meal everyday throughout the year. And if you do eat similarly day to day, make sure you’re including as many different foods as possible. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables and less or no animal foods. Nature has created an easy way for us to attain health, and that is color. It’s no coincidence that eyesight is a trait that separates humans from the rest. Diversify your pallete of foods. The more colors, the better.
Kale boosts production of antibodies
Foods to include
- Greens: broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, brussel sprouts, spinach, etc.
- High-vitamin C fruits: kiwi, papaya, pineapple, oranges, mango, etc.
- Antioxidant-rich berries: blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries (frozen packs for smoothies are a cheap and easy way to get them all into your day)
- Whole grains like steel cut oats, corn, quinoa, brown rice, etc.
- Beans: Lentils, pinto, black, garbanzo, kidney, etc.
- Potatoes for vitamins A and E
- Nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, walnuts, flaxseeds, hempseeds, chia seeds)
- More plant foods and less animal foods in general to boost total fiber intake. Replace animal foods with plant foods (in higher quantity), instead of just adding greens on the side
- Soy contains isoflavones with antiviral properties, which battle a wide variety of viruses, including herpes and HIV! Try out marinating some tofu or tempeh to throw into your favorite dish. Tempeh triples as a probiotic that benefits your gut flora, a concentrated protein source, and a source of fiber!
- A 500mcg Vitamin B12 supplement (methylcobalamin or cyanocobalamin)
- A 2000 IU Vitamin D supplement if you don’t get enough sun
What to avoid
- Keep wheat intake in moderation, don’t have it with every meal, and always select whole wheat in any wheat products like pasta, bread, and tortillas (enriched flour or wheat flour are tricky names trying to fool you)
- Avoid processed foods as much as you can. With processed/packaged foods, if the ingredient list is long and full of big words that don’t sound like food, stay away from it. If you do buy packaged foods, take a look at the ingredient list and steer towards simple, organic ingredients
- Many people have adverse allergenic effects from consuming dairy, beyond lactose intolerance. Humans have no need to consume baby calf growth fluid, so try taking a break from milk, cheese, butter, cream cheese, sour cream, and products that contain these ingredients, and see how you feel
- Excess inorganic sugar. Natural sugar in whole foods like fruit is great, it would be hard to eat too much of it. Stay away from desserts and foods with refined sugars added to it
What to do
- Spend a few hours in the sun each day
- Exercise moderately everyday, at least a hike, walk, or a short run
- Make a habit of examining the ingredients in the food you buy, which can be a hassle at first, but eventually you will get a feel for it
- Being healthy can be really easy. Don’t overthink it, and keep it simple so that you can sustain it. Diets yield temporary results until you quit, but a lifestyle can give you an endless source of vitality
In order to live excellently, you must FEEL excellent. That’s why I believe that diet is the baseline, the first step to both being healthy, and operating at your best. When you feel like crap, you’re not gonna go out there and give life your very best. When your body isn’t pumping with vigor and energy, you’re gonna cut things short, skip out on opportunities, sleep in longer, get sick more often, have less patience, and not be able to endure as long. Life is a strenuous and demanding process. Make sure you have the fuel you need to live to the fullest. You’ll be surprised by how much better you will feel with a healthy lifestyle including a plant-rich diet! I can tell you from experience, that the benefits go far beyond avoiding a cold. I am no doctor, but I do my research and I won’t bullshit you, so feel free to contact me with any questions.