A Kitchen Ecology Of Health Resilience
Fermented foods like sauerkraut are beneficial to your body’s immune-enhancing microflora.
When we find ourselves on the cusp of fall, it’s back-to-school and life seems to speed up, buckle down and get more serious again. Fall’s harbinger comes as the first crisp wind. We transition from outside to in and think of soup and tea.
If catching a cold is your back-to-school ritual, thinking about your immune ecology might help you navigate the season on your feet. The combination of resisting the temptation to overcommit, getting adequate rest, a bit of silent reflection and enjoying nutritious warming foods can go far in creating inner strength this golden harvest season.
Roots Of Immune Resilience
We all need a little protection in this life: we do get by with a little help from our friends — inside and out. The role of your immune system is to protect you from invasion (such as infection, poison, toxins) or injury.
Your immune system is fascinating, complex, and through the process of living becomes uniquely your own. When we say this or that is good for the immune system, it often depends on whose immune system we are talking about. Everyone’s system is as unique as the life they have lived thus far. The state of your overall health, infections you’ve encountered, how you “do” relationships, emotional responses and stress, the food, personal and home products you surround yourself with, all tie in to your immune health. Everything connects there. You are continuously tending your immune ecological garden through the environment and experiences of your life.
The world of nutrition often gets mistakenly reductive, over-simplified and mechanistic (another good argument for the continued education of well-trained nutritionists). So much of nutrition media coverage is single nutrient-focused: take this for that and that for this. Sadly for those seeking only simple, pill-shaped answers, it doesn’t often work that way. Nutrition is much more wondrous, complex and dynamic than that.
Reductionist thinking is critical for scientific medical advancement, but in the art-meets-science world of nutrition, it loses the forest for the trees. Your immune resilience is an ecology. Your digestive tract contains an intricate community of life — your unique microflora — that encompasses most of your immune system. Just as they feed off of and influence each other, microflora are influenced by your personal dietary and environment choices. You can boost your immunity through your choices.
Food And Inflammation
Are you officially terrified of inflammation, convinced it is connected to absolutely every chronic condition, yet can’t seem to shake it? You know how it looks and feels: when you cut your hand, it gets red, puffy, hot and gooey. That’s inflammation. In addition to being an irritation, however, inflammation is the first step of healing. We need inflammation for our bodies to be resilient when we encounter life’s bumps and bruises.
Under normal conditions when we get injured or encounter an infection, we get inflamed, and then heal with rest and nutrients. However the fast-paced busyness of modern life has interfered with the rest side of the equation, and many of us no longer have the time to rest or cook the nutritious food needed for healing and recovery.
The USDA reports that over 70% of the US food supply is refined. Refined food is more convenient. While some food industry innovators have actually succeeded in making truly nutritious convenience foods, the more a food is processed or refined between its whole state and your plate, the fewer nutrients and fiber it has, and the more chemicals not recognized by your body it is likely to contain. In addition, refined foods act like sugar in your body regardless of what they are designed to taste or smell like. Too much sugar makes you hungry, tired and wired.
Consider the gummy worm or the Twinkie sent down the plumb line of your body. “What the heck is that?! I’d better trigger some protection,” your body says. Inflammation. You need to heal from that gummy worm. A nourishing meal and a good night’s rest, and your body can actually make that gummy worm nothing but a pleasant memory.
The problem comes when the gummy worm is followed by a take out dinner, and later by a caffeinated neon colored soda and the latest so-called healthy puffed grain snack. In the morning, it’s a fast food breakfast sandwich and a variation on fries. We all find ourselves in time-crunched, nutritionally challenging food situations. When you layer on unexpected stress, lack of relaxation and low nutrients, inflammation becomes a vicious cycle. That’s how a healthy immune response becomes the chronic inflammation that leads to whatever disease propensity is in your genetic inheritance. It all adds up…and you are so worth saving.
How to keep your immune system able to meet the challenges of modern life without getting caught in a chronic response is a hot topic of research. While there’s still much mystery to immune resilience, there are many clues available, like puzzle pieces lying around just waiting for us to put them into place.
We know, for example, that people who have consistently low quality diets are more susceptible to infection. There is clear evidence that micronutrient deficiencies, specifically deficiencies of zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E, result in immune impairment. We know that gut microflora impacts everything from our immune resilience to the quality of our skin to perhaps our lovable and not-so lovable personalities.
Food Tips For Immune Resilience
Consider these three basic food tips that will help point your way toward more resilient immunity.
1. Focus on nutrient density and overall balance. Nutrient density is a measure of food quality. It is what it sounds like — bang for your buck — or nutrients per calorie. The most nutrient dense (high nutrient, low calorie) foods in our food supply are vegetables and fruits, herbs and spices. Think of the colors and flavors of what is in season now: orange squash and carrots filled with vitamin C and carotenoids that convert to vitamin A. Think of the dark green leafies in their glory: spinach, chard, and kale. Think of warm spices and tea.
Garlic and onions are the great, flavorful healers in the food world. Both contain eye-wateringly powerful phytonutrients that help cool inflammation. In garlic, it’s the antioxidant allicin. When you crush garlic, leaving it to sit for a few moments allows the allicin to become more available. If chopping onions makes you cry, then go ahead and cry, cry, cry. If you have a lemon nearby, its smell may help you.
In addition to quality, think about balance, specifically meal timing and plate composition. One of my favorite lessons from my Ayurvedic brothers and sisters is to honor the rhythms of nature and life. Eat at regular times (not at midnight nor 3 am, nor between meals unless there is health reason). Honor the seasons, eating lightly with warmer weather and with age. Let your plate be a nutrient-dense, low-chemical load, balance of vegetables, spices, clean proteins, grains you tolerate, and mostly plant fats.
2. Fermented foods provide natural inoculations. Your gut is a teeming city of microflora. Your immune resilience (and maybe psychological resilience) lies to a great extent in that city of microflora. Some folks carry a city with a high crime rate where no one catches a break, whereas others carry cities of peace, love, light and wonder. The city you carry inside depends upon…everything you ever do! You can become a fantastic, benevolent mayor of your city by growing a healthy diverse microflora and your resilient immunity will thank you for it.
Fermented foods are natural probiotics (literally “pro-life”) that populate your gut with healthy microbes through the bacterial action created in their preparation. Making fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurts, pickles, even beer, can be simple, though you need to tend them for a while. Nearly everyone can benefit from a little fermented food everyday.
3. Enjoy nature’s adaptogens. Certain foods like tulsi (also called holy basil), ginseng, ginger, plus many other herbs and some mushrooms are called adaptogens. Adaptogens work with your adrenal and immune functions to help you adapt to stress. In the season when children reunite to exchange bacteria (a group inoculation, really) they’ve collected over the summer, having these flexible protectors in your diet makes life easier for everyone.
GF (gluten free), DF (dairy free), V (vegan)
GF, DF, V, 20 minutes, serves 1
Fresh or dried herbal teas are most often infusions — steeped in hot water for 10 minutes. Be it tea bags or loose leaf, let this be your new fall ritual.
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 Tbsp fresh or dried tulsi and other complements
Here are a few combinations:
Tulsi and ginger
Tulsi, ginger, lemon and honey
Tulsi and rose petals
Tulsi, cinnamon and cardamom
In a mug, place tea (within a tea bag or tea strainer) in just-boiled water. Let sit for 10 minutes. Remove tea bag and enjoy.
Warm Coconut Chai
GF, 20 minutes, serves 6
2 cups grass-fed milk
1 cup coconut milk
1 cinnamon stick
8 whole black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
4 cardamom seeds
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
Place all ingredients in a medium saucepan and warm over medium-low heat. Strain into a mug and enjoy.
Very Simple Garlic Sauerkraut
GF, DF, V, days to weeks, many small servings
1 medium head savoy cabbage, sliced thin (about 3 pounds)
1 clove garlic, smashed and left to sit for 10 minutes
2 Tbsp caraway seeds
1 1/2 Tbsp salt
1/4 cup water (if needed to make extra briny fluid)
- Place sliced cabbage, caraway seeds and salt into a large bowl and massage it with your hands for about 10 minutes. You’ll see the cabbage releasing some of its juices.
- Tightly pack a Mason jar approximately three-quarters full with the sliced raw cabbage. Add garlic. Pour the fluid that the cabbage released into the jar to cover the cabbage. Place a smaller jar filled with clean stones as weights into the Mason jar to press the cabbage so that it is submerged under the fluid. Add a little water if needed.
- Check your jar daily, pressing any cabbage that pops up above the fluid line down. Don’t be too alarmed to find a little white mold; say hello, and skim it off.
- Begin to taste the sauerkraut at 3 days. The longer it ferments, the tangier and stronger it will taste. You can ferment it for weeks, but I find that it’s good between 6-10 days. Once it reaches the tanginess that tastes good, keep it tightly covered in the refrigerator to slow further fermentation. Uncooked fermented vegetables can keep refrigerated for up to 6 months, but enjoying within a couple months is ideal.
Warm Spinach Salad With Spicy Sweet Potatoes And Orange Vinaigrette
GF, DF, V, 40 minutes, serves 4
This is as nutrient dense as it gets.
2 sweet potatoes, cubed
2 Tbsp grape seed oil
1/4 tsp chili powder
pinch salt & pepper
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 Tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/2 tsp cumin, ground
1/2 pound fresh baby spinach
- Preheat oven to 350F.
- In a roasting pan, toss together the sweet potatoes, grapeseed oil, chili powder, salt and pepper. Roast for 30-40 minutes until tender and browned, stirring once or twice.
- Peel the oranges and slice into bite-sized pieces over a medium bowl, catching as much of the juice as you can.
- In a small saucepan, heat the olive oil, and saute the onion, ginger, and cumin until the onion is soft. Stir in the oranges and juice, and remove from heat.
- Toss the warm dressing with the spinach, and top with sweet potatoes.
Shellfish Corn Chowder
GF, possibly DF, 45 minutes, serves 6
One reason the Mediterranean pattern of eating is powerfully anti-inflammatory is because it features seafood rich in both protein and healthful oils.
1 Tbsp grape seed oil or ghee
1 large red onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 ears raw corn kernels sliced from ear
3 oz uncured Canadian bacon, sliced and cubed
1 small sweet potato, cubed
2 red potatoes, cubed
10-15 littleneck clams, steamed open
2 cups juice from steaming clams
1/2 pound shrimp, clean, deveined and chopped
1 Tbsp fresh dill, chopped
1 tsp fresh sage, chopped
1 1/2 cups unsweetened soy milk
Salt and pepper to taste
In a soup pot, heat oil or ghee over medium heat. Add onion, celery, corn and bacon, sautéing until onions are soft, 3-5 minutes. Add potatoes and clam juice, bring to a simmer and cook until sweet potato is soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in clams, shrimp, and soy milk. Gently simmer for 5-6 minutes until shrimp turns pink. Stir in herbs and season with pepper and salt.
Fall Red Curry
GF, DF, V, 45 minutes, serves 4
1 (13.5 oz) can coconut milk
2 Tbsp Thai red curry paste
1 onion, chopped
6 oz (generous 1/2 cup) raw pumpkin, chopped
12-15 fresh green beans
1 can garbanzo beans (look for brands packed in BPA-free cans)
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 small zucchini, sliced
2 Tbsp fresh Thai basil (any fresh basil will work), chopped
2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp brown rice syrup
2 cups cooked rice
Combine coconut milk and curry paste in a wok over medium-high heat, stirring for 3 minutes. Add onion, lemon juice and rice syrup. After three more minutes, add the pumpkin, green beans, garbanzos, pepper and zucchini. If the sauce is too thick, slowly stir in a little water to thin it. Stir in basil and serve over rice.
Annie B Kay, MS, RDN, E-RYT500, C-IAYT is an integrative dietitian, yoga therapist and shamanic plant alchemist who directs programs and retreats at Kripalu and internationally. She has a telehealth private practice in Western MA. www.anniebkay.com