Six easy recipes for optimal immune health
Updated: Mar 18
Last week I wrote about some practical steps we can take to boost our defences during the current COVID-19 pandemic. In this article I want to share some “kitchen witch” wisdom with you all - in other words, the many ways we can take our immunity into our own hands by making use of one of our most underrated yet valuable skills: cooking.
And what better way to spend our time in self-isolation than making nutritious, immune-modulating soups, snacks, drinks and herbal tonics for ourselves and our families?
There are so many easy recipes and versatile ingredients that promise to boost immunity by providing nutrition, supporting the gut flora, stimulating lymphatic clearance, providing antimicrobial activity, calming frazzled nerves and directly strengthening the immune response.
I’ll be sharing lots of links here to recipes on other websites as well as past articles of mine, and giving some background on each of the main ingredients, explaining how they benefit the immune system.
Immunity-boosting chicken and turmeric soup
Soup is food for the soul. Chicken soup is also a classic recipe for immune health - it’s incredibly nutritious, especially if made with homemade bone broth. However, I usually just use veg or chicken stock and it still does the trick. This particular recipe contains turmeric and ginger - two powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, warming spices - so important when fighting infection.
To make this recipe more specifically antiviral, I would replace the dried turmeric and ginger with fresh, grating or chopping them finely and adding them near the end of the cooking process.
As for the site The Roasted Root, it’s one of my favourite go-to food blogs for easy veggie, vegan and paleo-type meals. Well worth a browse!
I’m a bit mad about mushrooms, and for a good reason. All mushrooms contain immuno-modulating polysaccharides, even your standard chestnut or button mushrooms - and, if you leave them in the sun for a few minutes before you cook with them, they actually produce vitamin D and can therefore act as a natural vitamin D supplement!
Shiitake mushrooms are among the most powerful medicinal mushrooms available to us in supermarkets - Aldi do organic ones for a very reasonable price. One 2015 study showed that consumption of shiitake mushrooms in 52 healthy men & women aged 21-41 years improved cell effector function and enhanced gut immunity, as well as having an overall anti-inflammatory effect. This was a 4 week trial where participants consumed 5-10g of mushrooms daily.
I make Asian soups with shiitake mushrooms - this one is my favourite at the moment - and add them to stir-fries, eggy breakfasts or just eat them on sourdough toast with local avocados and miso paste.
I have written all about the benefits of fermented foods before. They nourish the gut microbiome both by providing fibre and beneficial bacteria - in other words, they are both pre- and pro-biotic. Having a healthy, diverse microbial environment in our gut is essential to proper immune function, since about 70% of immune tissue resides in the gut.
Sauerkraut is one of the easiest, cheapest ways to incorporate fermented foods into your diet - all you need is a nice big organic cabbage and some salt. Have a look at my article for a basic recipe, and you’ll find many more ideas for different flavourings etc. online.
Sauerkraut is both pre and probiotic
Ginger & liquorice tea
Word on the herbalist’s grapevine is that this simple tea recipe is what the Chinese are using as COVID-19 prevention, and I’m sipping on the delicious brew as I write.
Fresh ginger is not only antiviral, it is a wonderfully heating circulatory stimulant - it gets the blood moving which helps prevent infection by mobilising immune cells, keeping tissues nourished and keeping body temperature up.
Liquorice root is an Eastern adaptogen which I’ve written about before in relation to adrenal fatigue (now more commonly known as HPA-axis dysfunction). It is also a fantastic antiviral and immune amphoteric - meaning it stimulates immune function if depleted, and reduces it if overstimulated. It is also gently stimulating, helping to relieve fatigue, and very soothing, helping to relieve a sore throat or dry cough. All in all, it seems a very relevant herb for the current COVID-19 crisis.
Liquorice is a fantastic antiviral and immune 'amphoteric'
To make ginger & liquorice tea, you’ll need fresh ginger and dried cut liquorice root, which you’ll find at Harmony Earth in Praia da Luz, online at Chas do Mundo or possibly at the health shop Naturboticae in Lagos. For each litre of water (3-4 cups of tea) I use a nice fat index finger-sized piece of fresh ginger, chopped roughly and then crushed, using a metal spoon against a chopping board. No need to peel. Then add 2-3 tablespoons of liquorice root and simmer for 10 minutes, before turning off the heat and letting it sit for another 10.
Don't make this tea if you have high blood pressure, fluid retention or are on corticosteroid medication.
Astragalus membranaceus is another Chinese herb I am using personally for COVID-19 prevention, and it can also be bought in 100g bags at Harmony Earth in Praia da Luz or online at Baldwin’s UK.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Astragalus strengthens the ‘lung qi’ (the vital energy governing the lungs) and the ‘wei qi’, the protective energy that helps prevent illness caused by external pernicious influences. It is another immune amphoteric and can be used for immune dysregulation and hyperactivity, such as hay fever and allergic asthma. It enhances resistance and so helps prevent colds, flu, bronchitis and other infections, but should not be used during an acute infection as it may prolong the illness. A 2002 study showed how Astragalus controls T-helper cells 1 and 2, regulating the immune response.
According to TCM, Astragalus strengthens the ‘wei qi’, the protective energy that helps prevent illness
Use dried Astragalus root to make tea (simmering 1-2 tablespoons per cup for 10 minutes) or add it to soups or Asian broths along with your shiitake mushrooms.
The berries, flowers and leaves of the Elder tree are all fantastic herbal allies to have in the fight against COVID-19. They have long been used in traditional medicine as reliable antivirals, circulatory stimulants and fever-reducing remedies, and one study showed a reduced duration and severity of upper respiratory infections in air travelers who took elderberry extract compared to those who didn’t.
There has been a lot of misinformation circulating about elderberries and cytokine storms in connection to COVID-19. A cytokine storm is a potentially fatal complication of infectious disease, where the immune response is so strong that it mobilises huge numbers of immune cells and causes organ damage. This is a serious complication of COVID-19 and the likelihood is that the patient would already be in intensive care or at least hospitalised - they would not be sitting at home sipping elderberry syrup. The connection between the two is therefore based on theory alone - elder medicine is completely safe when taken as prevention or treatment for flu-like illness.
For the syrup I prefer the flowers, which are delicious and a bit stronger in terms of antiviral effect than the berries. You can buy elderflowers online from Bristol Botanicals in the UK - all you need apart from that is sugar. This is a great one for kids as it tastes sweet, and tinctures like echinacea, ivy leaf or elecampane can be added to the syrup later on for extra medicinal potency.
Elderflower syrup is a great antiviral remedy for kids
To make the syrup, infuse 100-150g dried elderflowers in 1 litre of freshly boiled water for half an hour. Strain, then place the infusion in a saucepan and bring to a simmering point. Add 2kg of sugar and stir, dissolving the sugar completely in the infusion, and return the liquid to a simmering point. As soon as it reaches this point, remove from the heat and leave to cool. Bottle into sterilised containers when cool. Use 3-5 tsp per day for flu prevention, and in the first 72 hours of flu symptoms setting it.
You can use this recipe to make any other herbal syrup, provided you’re using flowers or leaves and not roots, berries or barks (in which case you’d have to make a ‘decoction’ first, simmering the plant matter instead of just infusing). You may choose to use something more local, like Cistus (rock rose) or some local thyme! Both of these would be great substitutes.