Storey’s publisher shares her favorite ways to build a strong immune system for cold and flu season — beginning with the gut.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how our immune system’s ability to fend off illness begins with what we eat and drink. In late August, I attended the New England Women’s Herbal Conference with several of our authors. This vibrant, joyful annual gathering of women in New Hampshire renewed my appreciation of how food and herbs have been the peoples’ medicine for thousands of years. Food continues to be the most immediate, and powerful, way we can affect our own health.

Walking the aisles of the Natural Products Expo in Baltimore in September, I was amazed by the variety of natural food products targeted specifically at improving gut health. There were dozens of probiotic-enriched drinks and nutrition bars, along with kimchi and other fermented foods. I read recently that 80 percent of the tissue involved in our immune system is located in the digestive system. With cold and flu season approaching, here are a few ways we can use our daily diet to support a healthy gut and strengthen immunity.

1. Eat fermented foods.

Making sauerkraut

Photo © Erin Kunkel, excerpted from Fermented Vegetables

Even better — learn to make them in your own kitchen! We rely on the gut flora, or healthy bacteria, that live within our intestines to support immunity. In Fermented Vegetables, authors Kirsten K. Shockey and Christopher Shockey explain how the lacto-fermentation process that results in foods like sauerkraut and kimchi promotes the growth of good bacteria in our guts. So when we eat these foods, we’re adding good bacteria to our gut and helping to maintain a healthy balance.

2. Limit the use of antibiotic drugs.

Now that we know there’s healthy bacteria that we want to protect and maintain, we need to be wary about the effects of taking antibiotic drugs. As Stephen Harrod Buhner warns in his book Herbal Antibiotics that these drugs disturb our “body ecology” by killing off much of the “internal symbiotic microfauna” (i.e., the good bacteria) along with “pathogenic bacteria” (the ones that are making us sick). That loss of healthy bacteria can compromise the immune system further. In his book, Stephen provides in-depth profiles of many herbs that can be effective against disease-causing bacteria, offering us alternatives to try instead of antibiotic drugs.

3. Drink kombucha!

Pouring kombucha from tap

Photo © Matt Armendariz, excerpted from The Big Book of Kombucha

This bubbly fermented tea is popping up in bottles on the shelves of food co-ops grocery stores, and even in some bars. And, in The Big Book of Kombucha, authors Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory show how to brew up a gallon at home and customize the flavor to your taste. In addition to being full of the good bacteria, kombucha is rich in B-vitamins that support the immune system.

4. Chew your food well.

Digestion starts the moment we put food into our mouths. That’s easy to forget! In her book, Body into Balance, Maria Noël Groves reminds us that the simple act of chewing triggers a nuanced internal communication system. As saliva pours into the mouth, taste buds and other sensors analyze what we’re eating and send signals to the stomach and other organs to help them prepare to break down what we swallow. That early response is important in helping the body effectively absorb what it needs and eliminate what it doesn’t. Understanding how the digestive system works and being aware of our body’s responses to different foods is key to maintaining optimal health.

5. Drink a cup of ginger tea.

Ginger root

Ginger root. Photo © Winnie Au, excerpted from Herbal Goddess

I’ve learned from Herbal Goddess author Amy Jirsa that ginger’s chemical constituents and volatile oils are what make the root so warming and stimulating to the body. To improve digestion, Amy suggests combining 1 tablespoon dried ginger, 2 teaspoons fennel seeds, and 2 teaspoons dried dandelion root in a saucepan with 3 cups of water. Simmer for 10 minutes and then strain into a mug.

Now that my spice cabinet is stocked and my is kitchen equipped with a fermentation crock and a jar full of brewing kombucha, I’m ready to feed my gut — and my immune system — well this winter.

Deborah L. Balmuth

As Storey’s publisher and editorial director, Deborah heads up efforts to acquire and publish outstanding, long-lasting nonfiction books that support the company’s mission of promoting… See Bio

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