Self-Isolation & Social Distancing:
Foods for immune support

In light of the current pandemic, people all across the world are being told to social distance. This involves not gathering in large groups, avoiding cafes, restaurants, pubs, the gym and public transport and working from home where possible.  Some may also be required to go a step further and completely self-isolate at home if they are showing potential symptoms, or are elderly, vulnerable, pregnant or suffering with an underlying health condition. This is a huge change to our way of life as social creatures, used to being able to pop out to see friends, eat at restaurants and regularly pick up food and other supplies at the supermarket. As such, it’s important to be prepared, and have a plan in place as to how to keep you and your loved ones physically and mentally well during these unusual and challenging times.


Foods for immune support

It’s important to support good immune health all year round, but especially in the face of large scale infections. All of the below nutrients contribute to the normal function of the immune system.1 Click on the headings below to learn more and some common foods they are found in.


VITAMIN C

Vitamin C contributes to immune defences by supporting various cellular functions of both the innate and adaptive immune system.2 Vitamin C deficiency has been shown to result in impaired immunity and higher susceptibility to infections.2 In turn, infections significantly impact on vitamin C levels due to enhanced inflammation and metabolic requirements.2 Furthermore, supplementation with vitamin C appears to be able to both prevent and treat respiratory and systemic infections.2 It also supports the gut lining against pathogens (potential disease causing microbes such as viruses, bacteria, yeast).2 

Vitamin C rich foods include:

Yellow and red peppers, broccoli, kiwi fruit, strawberries, cauliflower, kale and citrus fruit. How about making yourself a smoothie using some of these ingredients each day. Frozen fruit and veg work just as well as fresh.  


ZINC

Zinc homeostasis is crucial for an adequate function of the immune system.3 Zinc deficiency can result in severe disturbances in immune cell numbers and activities, which can result in increased susceptibility to infections. 3

Zinc rich foods include:

Meat, shell-fish, legumes, seeds, nuts, dairy, eggs and wholegrains. Why not start adding toasted nuts and seeds to salads, stews and other dishes, making your own dairy kefir or live yoghurt and stock up on some frozen prawns and mussels and add to fish pie. Plant based sources of zinc such as legumes and wholegrains should be soaked before consuming, to deactivate their anti-nutrients that prevent zinc absorption.


VITAMIN A

Vitamin A is known as an anti-inflammation vitamin because of its critical role in enhancing immune function.4 Vitamin A is involved in the development of the immune system and plays a regulatory role in cellular immune responses and immune processes.4 It also plays an important role, supporting the health of the gut lining,4  where the majority of immune cells reside.

Vitamin A is primarily found in animal products such as meat. However, its pre-cursor beta-carotene (which turns into vitamin A by the body) is in high amounts in orange fruit and veg and dark green leafy veg. Sweet potatoes and butternut squash are great options to stock up on as they can be kept for weeks or even months. Cutting them into cubes and roasting them in olive or coconut oil with herbs and spices is a really simple option. Throw in some kale leaves 8 mins before the end for some dark greens. Orange root veg can also be added to dal and curries, or simply boiled and mashed with a little olive oil or butter and salt and served as a side dish.


SELENIUM

Selenium is an essential micronutrient that affects various aspects of human health, including optimal immune responses.5 The notion that selenium “boosts” the immune system has been evidenced in studies involving aging immunity and protection against certain pathogens.5

Selenium rich foods include:

Brazil nuts, fish, pork, eggs, brown rice and cottage cheese. If you need a snack opt for a piece of fruit and 3 brazil nuts, which should provide you with your daily selenium needs.


VITAMIN D

Receptors for vitamin D are expressed by most cells of the immune system,6 meaning this nutrient is a potent immune system modulator.7 There is considerable scientific evidence that vitamin D has a variety of effects on immune system function, which may enhance innate immunity.8 Conversely, vitamin D deficiency may compromise the integrity of the immune system and lead to inappropriate immune responses.7

Vitamin D is found naturally in only a few foods in small amounts (such as oily fish, eggs, mushrooms), and biological, environmental and cultural factors can all result in variations in vitamin D status. The majority of the vitamin D we need must therefore be synthesised by the skin upon exposure to the sun’s rays. During the winter months the strength of the sun in the UK is insufficient to synthesise vitamin D, so by the end of winter people’s stores are most likely very low. If you have a garden try and spend some time outside every day to top up your levels. If spending more time indoors due to self-isolation you should consider supplementing, for example with Bio-Kult S. Boulardii, a multi-action formulation containing Saccharmyces boulardii (a live non-colonising yeast shown in studies to help support mucosal immune responses in the gut against pathogens and reduce inflammatory pathways9), preplex prebiotics, providing a food source for beneficial gut species and vitamin D3, to contribute to the normal functioning of the immune system.1


VITAMIN B12

Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient for immune function as it is involved in DNA synthesis and deficiency has been shown to impact the ratio and activity of certain immune cells.10

Vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal based products, so top up on some high welfare meat to freeze. You also need good digestive function, especially stomach acid to adequately absorb B12 so ensure you are eating mindfully in a relaxed state, and consider having a salad of bitter leaves (such as radicchio, chicory, endives and watercress) with apple cider vinegar or lemon juice before or with B12 rich foods to help to get your digestive juices flowing.  To further support your immunity on a daily basis, consider supplementing with Bio-Kult Boosted, a multi-strain live bacteria supplement containing vitamin B12, which contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system, along with 14 strains of live bacteria.


Store cupboard ingredients

An important thing to remember when heading to the shops, is to only buy what you and your family really need. Most healthy people will only need to self-isolate for 14 days at a time, so buying months’ worth of food is likely to be wasteful and leave others without. Some people have to budget and will have to make more frequent trips to the store rather than buying in bulk. Others in high risk groups may have to self-isolate for much longer periods. Imagine if they arrived to find empty shelves and are unable to feed themselves or their family. Reach out to neighbours, donate if you take too much, and do your part to ensure we all have enough to eat.

In times like this it’s also important to be pragmatic. It’s still important to be mindful of any dietary requirements and preferences, but we also need to be flexible with how we can nourish our body, based on limited supplies that might be available. Be gentle with yourself. Do the best you can with your circumstances and skip any judgment or diet dogma.

Items which will need to be restocked most regularly are perishables such as fruit, veg, eggs, meat and fish. Prioritising space in your freezer for these nutrient dense items is much more advisable than filling it with ice-cream and frozen processed foods such as pizza, which contribute little in the way of nutrition and plenty of empty calories. You can get bags of frozen spinach, mixed veg, berries and other fruit or freeze your own from fresh.


BATCH COOK

Batch cooking big pots of soups, stews, casserole and chilli and freezing in portions for if you do get sick or need to self-isolate is a good idea. Many dishes use onions, carrots, garlic and celery as a base, so chopping and freezing some bags of these may be useful.

ROOT VEGETABLES

Root veg such as potatoes, beetroot, parsnips, carrots, turnip, squash, and swede are much longer lasting than many veg grown above the ground, especially if kept in a cool place. They also provide slow-release complex carbs for energy.  


DRIED FOODS

Dried foods are particularly useful at times like this. Beans, pulses, quinoa, whole-grain rice, lentils and oats are all great options as they are full of nutrients and fibre (to feed beneficial gut bacteria) and can be made into a huge variety of different dishes.

For dried beans, pulses and legumes, consider buying a pressure cooker to help you cook these more quickly. Otherwise, if you are working from home/self-isolating you should have plenty of time to soak them and cook them for a few hours in a pan.

TINNED FOODS

Dried items have the benefit of taking up less room in the cupboard than cans, but tinned beans and pulses are also a good long shelf-life option, and can be quicker and easier to prepare. If opting for canned vegetables, make sure to by low sodium products. Tinned fruit (in fruit juice rather than syrup) is also a good long-lasting option.

Other useful canned items includes tinned fish in spring water or olive oil. Opt for tinned oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and anchovies as these high in omega-3 fatty acids which support good health. Unfortunately tinned tuna does not contain much omega 3 due to the canning process used to turn it into chunks.


BAKING ESSENTIALS

If you have kids off school, stocking up on baking essentials such as different types of flour, baking powder and vanilla essence, and getting them baking is a good way to keep them entertained. Look up healthy low-sugar recipes, and avoid food colourings unless you want them bouncing off the walls even more whilst being cooped up!

GARNISHES

Make sure you have plenty of salt, pepper, ginger, turmeric, chilli flakes, dried herbs and spices and condiments. Jars such as preserved lemons, sun-dried tomatoes, jalapenos and pickles are also useful so that even if fresh food variety is limited you can still make simple dishes taste good. Nuts, seeds and nut butters are also packed full of healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and protein and can be used to garnish dishes to spruce them up.


FERMENTED FOODS

In addition to the above staples which should help you ensure you are eating a well-balanced, wholefoods diet, a key element of supporting immunity is to look after the community of microbes residing in our guts. Over 70% of immune cells are located in the gut,11 and research shows that they interact continuously with our gut bacteria. Traditionally fermented foods are teeming with many different beneficial strains and are a great way of preserving foods so that they have a longer shelf-life. Examples of traditionally fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi and pickles (lacto-fermented rather than in vinegar), dairy kefir and live yoghurt, water kefir and kombucha. These can all be bought from many health food shops and even some super-markets. However, given you are likely to be spending more time at home, why not start making your own? Starter kits can be easily purchased online and there are lots of instructional books and videos on youtube. Or check out our Bio-Kult Kitchen for our kefir and kombucha recipes.

COOKBOOKS

It’s a great time to dig old cookbooks you haven’t used for a while for cooking inspiration. You may need to be creative and substitute ingredients you don’t have, but self-solation doesn’t need to involve eating dried pasta every night!