The shift into autumn is a time of year we associate with a change of some kind, whether it’s her changing colours, darker evenings, early starts and school runs, cooler air that makes us reach for warmer outfits and thicker duvets, or a craving for warmer, comforting foods. It’s a change of gear that’s perhaps quieter and less dramatic than the noisy arrival of spring, but a change nonetheless. Autumn is a season I find myself settling into with increasing ease as I get older; I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for it while lying in my hammock during the blissful warm days of June and July, but by the end of August, the itch of a new season around the corner that’s still a tiny bit out of reach, is one I realise I do want to scratch.
The change in my taste for different foods at the beginning of autumn is the shift that surprises me most each year. I find it amazing how my body instinctively knows what it needs as the seasons change, and despite happily eating my own bodyweight in salad leaves all summer long, some of which I even managed to grow myself this year, as October rolls around I find myself feeling indifferent to their leafy charms. Just the thought of eating cold salad leaves even makes me shiver on some days - ‘urgh, no thanks’, I think, although with a slightly heavy heart, I realise that after months of being able to grab a handful of leaves and whizz them through the salad spinner minutes before eating, I’m back to spending more time in the kitchen preparing cooked vegetables instead.
Thankfully, I am very at home in my kitchen and it doesn’t take much persuasion to adjust to this new mindset. Being a nutritionist helps, and I feel passionately that what you eat, and how you eat, offers so many opportunities for nourishment, healing, family connection, joy and love on multiple levels. For me, food is one of the main pillars of health. It can be powerful medicine, and what we choose to eat has the potential to heal us, energise us, and support our journey through life, or slow us down, compromise our health and make life feel harder. At this time of year it feels especially important to slow down, reassess our needs, tend to ourselves and bring in the more warming, easily digested and nourishing foods that reflect the changing temperatures - think soups, stews, curries, hot chocolates, warming spices and roasted vegetables to help your body make its seasonal adjustments more gracefully.
The reemergence of coughs and colds is another change that often sneaks up and takes us by surprise as we’re still busy enjoying the last lazy days of summer. This year, while it was still warm and sunny outside midway through September, half of my daughter’s class was suddenly off school feeling sneezy and snotty. Everyone I spoke to had the snuffles or knew someone that did. Wow, I thought, already?! It seemed it was time to shift my focus towards supporting immunity and getting ready for the colder months ahead. While I am going to talk about the different nutrients and foods that can lend a hand in keeping us healthy, really we need to see the immune system as the mind-bendingly complex and beautifully intricate system that it is, comprising many physical structures, substances and chemical components that work together in harmony. My advice to you would be that instead of simply focusing on nutrients or foods in isolation, in order to really help the immune function from a grassroots level, you need to pull back and look at the bigger picture. How are you sleeping? How much stress are you under, and how do you manage it? What’s your digestion like - do you suffer with symptoms that suggest things aren’t quite right? Are you moving your body - enough, too much? Do you have enough joy and fun in your life? These factors all impact immunity in very powerful ways, and should always be the first line of consideration, and places to bring change to, if needs be. Pull back even further, and you have the energy systems of the body - systems like the meridians, chakras and especially the aura (biofield), that can show imbalance long before the physical body gets involved, and can be worked with as true preventative medicine. Well lucky you! If you’re reading this, you find yourself on Prune’s website, and you’ll be able to investigate Prune’s wonderful videos, blogs and courses to help you keep your energy systems healthy and flowing so you can protect your body from autumn and winter ailments.
Zoning back in to your diet, there are several nutrients that may help keep your immune system healthy and responsive in the face of increasing viral exposure, and while supplements can be a useful add-on when we need a boost, or if dietary preferences or sensitivities lead to avoidance of important food groups, it’s always better to think ‘food first’ when it comes to getting your vitamins and minerals. Real, unprocessed food communicates with our bodies in a deep way that can’t be made up for with manufactured supplements. It contains the nutrients we’re familiar with, but also passes to us its life force, plus the myriad co-factors, enzymes and beneficial phytochemicals that increase nutrient absorption and protect our cells. We all have different needs and preferences, but if you eat a varied, unprocessed diet that’s low in sugar and rich in colourful vegetables and fruit, nuts and seeds, healthy fats (not the ones you find in plastic bottles in the supermarket), and with some quality, chemical-free animal or plant protein of your choosing, your body will love you for it, whatever the season. I won’t go into the ins and outs of sugar here, but suffice to say the white stuff really isn’t, in any way, a friend or ally to your immune system. I’ll save that for another day, but for now, read on to discover some of the immune supportive nutrients you may want to consider, and the nutrient-dense foods they are found in that I include in my diet, and lovingly cajole my family into eating too! You'll also find a vibrant, warming soup recipe that's perfect for the colder weather to come.
Zinc is a mineral that’s crucial for your immune system’s ability to fight infection and stop a bacteria or virus from taking hold, before helping the body return to balance again. Even mild to moderate zinc deficiency can impair the activity of immune cells so it’s worth being mindful of your intake. Bear in mind that zinc from animal sources is more bioavailable than zinc from plant sources that haven’t been properly prepared (i.e. soaked / sprouted) because of the presence of phytic acid, an anti-nutrient found in plant foods that can block some of your body’s ability to absorb the mineral.
Zinc-rich foods include:
Thanks to Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel prize winning biochemist, peace activist and researcher, vitamin C is now synonymous with health and immunity. While research into vitamin C’s impact on immunity has been mixed, studies have repeatedly confirmed the immune boosting properties of vitamin C, including its ability to help shorten the duration of the common cold and relieve symptoms.
Vitamin C-rich foods include:
Baobab, camu camu or acerola cherry powders (great for smoothies)
Selenium is needed for the proper functioning of the immune system, and consuming enough naturally occurring selenium has positive antiviral effects. A word of caution, selenium can be toxic in high doses so avoid supplementing if you already eat a diet rich in selenium unless you have been advised to do so.
Selenium-rich foods include:
Brazil nuts - you only need 2-3 a day to get enough selenium!
Vitamin D has received a lot of hype, and rightly so - with many of us in the northern hemisphere being deficient due to a lack of exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D has been widely studied and found to improve overall immune function, helping to protect against the development of autoimmunity, as well as reducing the ability of some viruses to replicate and grow. Research has also found that low levels of vitamin D correlates with a higher incidence of acute respiratory infection.
Vitamin D-rich foods
Well, there aren’t really any! Exposure to sunlight between April and September on bare skin without any sun cream is the best way to increase levels. Duration of sun exposure will depend on your skin type, but you’re looking at between 10-30 minutes, several times a week. Over the colder, darker months, and depending on your vitamin D levels, you may need to supplement with an appropriate amount of vitamin D3 to prevent deficiency. Getting tested before supplementing is a good idea to find out whether you need to top up, and how much. Get tested either at your GP practice or using a finger prick test kit at home, for example https://betteryou.com/vitamin-d-test-kit or similar, depending on where you live.
A healthy ‘microbiome’ contains trillions of tiny microorganisms that make up a large part of your immune system and your ability to fight infection, as well as reducing inflammation, producing certain vitamins, balancing your mood and improving digestion. Historically we consumed plenty of beneficial microbes from the soil our food was grown in, and from the fermenting methods traditionally used for preservation. These days, as well as being exposed to medical antibiotics, our lives and our homes are increasingly sanitary, reducing our exposure to bacteria. We can make a big difference to our ecosystems, and therefore our immunity, by including fermented foods in our diet, even in small quantities. These foods are alive with meaningful levels of beneficial bacteria that help nudge our microbiomes in the right direction. If you’re sensitive to histamine, you may find fermented foods create a reaction in your body. In that case, consider trying a probiotic supplement that omits the histamine-raising strains lactobacillus casei, reuteri, bulgaricus and helveticus.
Probiotic-rich fermented foods include:
Beta glucans are a type of fibre found in the cell walls of certain plants, yeasts, bacteria and fungi. They are special because they have an array of health benefits that include supporting the immune system, and they may even defend against certain viruses, bacteria and cancer.
Beta Glucan-rich foods
Medicinal mushrooms like reishi, shiitake and maitake
Wholegrains like oats, barley and sorghum
Seaweeds and algae
Beans, peas and lentils
Edible yeasts, like baker’s yeast
While garlic is a food, not a nutrient, this incredible immune boosting powerhouse deserves a section all of its own. Garlic is renowned for its ability to fight infection, whether that infection is viral, bacterial or fungal. Garlic contains a compound called alliin, which then converts to bug-busting allicin after it is chopped, grated or chewed. Allicin has been shown to boost the disease-fighting response of some types of white blood cells in the body when they encounter viruses and other microbes. What's more, it's thought that sulphur-rich allium foods like garlic may help us absorb zinc from our food too, making garlic and zinc-rich foods a powerful pairing.
Seasonal immune-boosting recipe - beetroot and garlic soup
To celebrate the turning of the seasonal wheel, here’s a comforting, nourishing and delicious beetroot and garlic soup recipe that’s a meal in itself and perfect for autumn/winter. It's easy to make and packed full of immune-supportive ingredients. We know that garlic is great for immunity, but beets are also nutritional superstars in their own right, being rich in antioxidants, fibre, and natural dietary nitrates that can help keep blood pressure healthy and even boost athletic performance. Serve with some toasted, chopped pumpkin seeds sprinkled over and a blob of live yoghurt for an immune-boosting finishing touch.
2 red onions, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed and left to sit for 10 minutes before adding
Half a small squash, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
Chicken or vegetable stock (homemade if possible)
4 small-medium cooked, peeled beetroot, roughly chopped
¼ tsp grated nutmeg
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and black pepper to season
Toasted, chopped pumpkin seeds
Sour cream or live yoghurt
Seaweed flakes (optional)
Gently cook the onions and garlic, with a pinch of salt, in the oil for 5-10 minutes until softened but not too coloured. Add the squash, and enough stock to generously cover everything, and bring to a simmer. Cook for around 15 minutes until the squash is tender. Add the cooked beetroot and nutmeg, and blend well until completely smooth, heat through just for a few minutes, then season generously with sea salt and black pepper, add the vinegar, stir well to combine and serve with chopped chives, pumpkin seeds, sour cream or live yoghurt, and seaweed flakes sprinkled over.
Wishing you a healthy and delicious autumn and winter
This article is written by Emma Rushe. As well as being a part of the PH team supporting Prune's incredible work, Emma is a nutritionist and writer who has co-created the independent health and food magazine, Walnut, which she runs with her husband Dermot. To find out more about Emma, Walnut, and to access lots more recipes and articles, visit the Walnut website.