Defense Mechanisms | 5 Foods That Will Upgrade Your Immune System

Defense Mechanisms | 5 Foods That Will Upgrade Your Immune System

We are in the thick of cold and flu season, and there’s no better time to protect yourself from the germs that have invaded our space! When seeing a holistic nutritionist, one question of concern is how to stay healthy during cold and flu season. While nothing beats getting plenty of good old-fashioned sleep and hydration, the best defense is a good offense, and that’s where select foods offer an extra advantage!

When your immune system is balanced, it works like a well-oiled machine to defend you from foreign invaders - giving new meaning to ‘slay all day’! Allergies and autoimmune conditions signal an overactive immune system, while the common cold is more likely to be related to an underactive immune system. Your goal (you’ve got this - easy-peasy!) is to stay in that sweet spot between over and under.

Here are some time-tested foods you can add to your diet, in order to gently and effectively optimize your immunity:

  1. Lemon Zest | You might’ve heard that drinking a warm glass of lemon juice first thing in the morning offers all kinds of health benefits. But, did you know that lemon zest - the outer yellow part of the peel - also packs a big punch when it comes to immune health? Once upon a time, lemons were reserved for royalty. The fruit was so highly prized, in fact, that kings would offer them as precious gifts. Maybe it’s because they knew that just one medium-sized lemon is a nutritional powerhouse, containing more than half the daily recommended dose of vitamin C. As an added bonus, the zest is easier on tooth enamel, and has also been shown to promote weight loss! 

Try this: Try freezing whole, organic lemons. Then, zest the peel into a hot cup of fresh ginger-honey tea.

  1. Pepitas | Pepitas are a smaller, crunchier variety of pumpkin seed that grows without a shell. A popular ingredient in Mexican cooking dating as far back as ancient Aztec times, pepitas are traditionally blended into moles and are used to add an extra crunch to salads. The seeds have a very unique antioxidant profile, and are a rich source of immune-boosting minerals like manganese and zinc.

Try this: Try dry-roasting the pepitas at 250°F for up to 20 minutes to bring out their natural sweetness, without compromising nutrient content. They make a perfect on-the-go snack, and pair especially well with avocado salads!


  1. Miso Paste | The idea that good health begins in the gut is as old as the ancient systems of Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). And nothing beats fermented foods like miso, when it comes to keeping your gut healthy. By ingesting them, they add healthy bacteria to our gut, and we're able to reduce the bad bacteria in our digestive system, making us less susceptible to infection and inflammation. Made from fermented soybeans, miso paste can be used to make a nourishing soup you’ll want to curl up to, and sip in very slow motion.

Try this: Probiotics are heat-sensitive. Remember to remove your soup from heat before swirling in your miso paste - you’ll steer clear of compromising the active organisms and health benefits!

  1. Cordyceps Mushroom | Traditional healers in the Himalayas refer to this ancient myco-medicine as “winter worm, summer grass.” The wild-harvested version is a parasitic fungus that grows out of the head of a caterpillar, and is sold for up to $25,000 per pound. The good news? There’s a much more palatable and affordable alternative. Cultivated cordyceps have all of the same benefits in a very clean, consistent, and vegan product — whew! If that’s not impressive enough, they have a special knack for tuning in to your body’s specific needs, and regulating your immune system accordingly. Cordyceps are gentle enough for regular use, and help build up your immunity when you take them over an extended period of time.

Did you know that ‘myco’ means anything relating to fungus?

Try this: Try adding whole dried cordyceps or a powdered version to your soups and stocks. The liquid extract is also delicious in black or oolong teas!

  1. Elderberry Syrup | Elderberries are dark, blue-black berries that grow mostly in North America, and are filled with lots of good stuff like Vitamins A, C, and fiber. Hundreds of years ago, Native-American settlers used the plant for all sorts of things - including an immune-system boost! Sure enough, the evidence is now in that elderberry can prevent and fight colds and flus. 

Try this: If you want to take elderberry syrup as a preventative measure, just one teaspoon will do. Anything more could leave you with a case of disaster-pants.

This round-up of ways to boost your immune system, naturally, was contributed exclusively to Ellie by holistic nutritionist  Vivian Kanchian, BS., MPH. Instagram:  @viviankanchian