4 ways to boost winter nutrition and immune function

During winter months, it’s more important than ever to maximize your nutrient intake to strengthen your protective immune defenses. You don’t have to go buy a bunch of expensive products to be your best. 

Here are some tried and tested immune boosters perfect for a dancer’s budget.  

fruits and vegetables for immunity

#1. Fruits, vegetables and herbs

Your grandmother already told you that eating fruits, vegetables and herbs keeps you well, but now we have a mountain of research to back her up (not that Grandma needed that). Is it any accident that citrus fruits are in season in winter? The body prefers these natural sources of vitamin C that come in moderate doses as opposed to an avalanche of that vitamin in a packet or pill. Popping mega doses of vitamin C can potentially decrease calcium stored in the bones or calcium absorption. It’s easy to get your daily requirement of this key immune vitamin through citrus and other fruits, sweet peppers, greens, broccoli and winter squash. Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron, which also affects immune function. So have some sweet peppers and a glass of orange juice with those black bean and kale tacos. Fruits and vegetables also have bioflavonoids, resveratrol, quercetin and other phytonutrients that enhance adaptive immune function, reduce oxidative stress, and may have antibacterial and antiviral effects.  

Your grandmother already told you that eating fruits, vegetables and herbs keeps you well, but now we have a mountain of research to back her up (not that Grandma needed that). Is it any accident that citrus fruits are in season in winter? The body prefers these natural sources of vitamin C that come in moderate doses as opposed to an avalanche of that vitamin in a packet or pill. Popping mega doses of vitamin C can potentially decrease calcium stored in the bones or calcium absorption. It’s easy to get your daily requirement of this key immune vitamin through citrus and other fruits, sweet peppers, greens, broccoli and winter squash. Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron, which also affects immune function. So have some sweet peppers and a glass of orange juice with those black bean and kale tacos. Fruits and vegetables also have bioflavonoids, resveratrol, quercetin and other phytonutrients that enhance adaptive immune function, reduce oxidative stress, and may have antibacterial and antiviral effects.  

There is no pill, powder or supplement that can take the place of the synergistic symphony that goes on in your body when you eat fruits and vegetables. Herbs and teas are in this same category of plant-based immunomodulators. Drinking green tea with echinachea is a good start, as is regularly cooking with rosemary, sage, oregano, turmeric and garlic. Mushrooms have long been known to be immune powerhouses and performance enhancers. Mushrooms’ medicinal properties have been known to Chinese medicine for thousands of years. These days, performance-enhancing mushrooms like cordycepts, reishi and lion’s mane are big business and can be found in powdered form in everything from coffee to hot chocolate packets. They continue to be the focus of promising cancer research. Some mushrooms exposed to UV light have some vitamin D2.  

#2. Vitamin D 

Vitamin D deficiency is extremely common among dancers, especially in the winter.  We all know how important vitamin D is for bone health because it increases calcium absorption into the bones and can help protect against stress fractures. However, this vitamin is also a major player in muscle strength. A deficiency will affect a dancer’s overall muscle tone, strength and endurance. Vitamin D deficiency also decreases immune function and is even associated with increased risk of auto-immune conditions in individuals who are genetically susceptible to them.  Recommendations are to take 600-1000 IU as a moderate dose. Talk to a dietitian or your doctor to find the right dose for you. It’s not a good idea to over-supplement this particular vitamin.  

#3. Probiotics  

kombucha

There are actually more microorganisms in your gastrointestinal tract than cells in your body, and those microbes play a major role in immune function. Eating and drinking fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut and tempeh, for example, can increase the good microbes in your body. There are many different foods now on the market that have probiotics in them, as well as foods with prebiotics, which are types of fiber that keep the good microbes happy. Some people might benefit from taking a probiotic supplement if needed. On the package, the higher the cfu number, the more microbes there are per dose.  

#4. Sleep

The connection between sleep and the regulation of the immune function is well known. During periods of deep sleep, there is an increase in T-cell activity. A good night’s sleep after getting a vaccine can actually increase the body’s immune memory of fighting that virus. Very few people are able to function with less than eight hours, and teenagers need 8-10 hours every night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. No one can function with inadequate sleep for very long, no matter what they may believe. If you feel yourself starting to come down with an illness, there is no supplement that can take the place of sleep. Give yourself those extra hours, and you’ll get better faster.  

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RDN, LDN of Nutrition for Great Performances for Dance Informa. 

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