With the COVID-19 pandemic entering its third year and people being more aware and worried about their immune system, we turned to Emilia Vassilopoulou. She is Assistant Professor of Diet and Nutrition, Clinical Dietitian-Nutritionist and Psychologist at the International Hellenic University in Thessaloniki, Greece, and a pro to ask for advice on how to boost your immune system.
What are the top foods to boost your immune system?
Originating from a Mediterranean area, our field is a thesaurus of immune boosters. Oregano, thyme, cinnamon and other herbs and spices should be included during our cooking preparations instead of salt, fat or sugar. Definitely, fish and seafood are at the top of the list, as they are shown to have a strong anti-inflammatory effect in both acute infections and chronic non-communicable diseases.
Fresh seasonal fruits, which are rich in micronutrients and fiber, strengthen our immune response against viral infections and reduce the risk of complications upon infection. As such, whole-grain products and naturally fermented products such as kefir, natural yogurt and raisins enhance the immune defense system through a healthier microbiome.
Unsalted nuts combined with dry fruits are the ultimate couple for energy and avoidance of incessant snacking, which is relevant to unhealthy weight and reduced immune support.
“Fish and seafood are at the top of the list, followed by fresh seasonal fruits, whole whole-grain products and naturally fermented products.”
What is your personal go-to when you feel a cold coming?
When I feel a cold is coming, I keep my nasal mucosa clean with frequent rinses with an isotonic saline solution. I certainly remain active and hydrated by drinking a lot of water and sugar/caffeine-free warm herbals. My meals remain light, and usually I increase fruit intake.
What do you do to help your body fight the current pandemic?
The side effects of the pandemic are not limited to the ones infected; we are all suffering from the consequences, for both our somatic and mental health. Therefore, during the pandemic, I remained faithful to the principles of a balanced diet as well as home-made meals to safeguard both variety and good taste. Also, I exercised on a daily basis; due to the quarantine there were limited options although I found the one most appropriate for me and kept my body strong and flexible and my mind relaxed.
“During the pandemic, I remained faithful to the principles of a balanced diet. Also, I exercised on a daily basis.”
Do you recommend dietary supplements? If yes, which ones do you consider helpful? If no, why?
Dietary supplements can be helpful, mainly in cases where a balanced diet cannot be guaranteed. For example, vitamin D in the first months of life has been proven to enhance immune and bone health in infants. Folic acid is essential during pregnancy, and iron supplements can cure iron-deficiency anemia.
Also, in the incidence of acute infections, vitamin C, zinc and vitamin D might be protective against serious complications. So, although they cannot substitute a balanced diet, dietary supplements can be beneficial.
“Dietary supplements can be helpful.”
What role does mental health play in supporting and/or restoring your immune system?
As a clinical nutritionist and psychologist, I can reassure you that our brain can affect our body’s immune response. Nutritional psychiatry and neurology are among my research interests. There is an abundance of recent literature on the exponential role of dietary effects, through the gut-brain axis, for our mental health. Certainly, there are more foods apart from chocolate that are good for mental health. To start with, good sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as fish, flax seeds, chia, walnuts, guavas, mangos and berries modulate inflammatory processes and their direct effects on neuronal membrane fluidity and receptor function. Moreover, monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and avocado have been linked to reduced incidence of dementia and improved memory performance.
Foods rich in tryptophan, which is a serotonin precursor, have been shown to improve social interactions, decrease aggression and dominant behavior. Serotonin is important for both mood regulation and regulation of cognitive functions. Apart from chocolate, dairy products, chicken, oats and nuts are good sources of tryptophan.
Furthermore, whole-grain products and a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables as well as dried fruit enhance mental health due to their high antioxidant, anti-inflammatory activity.
“There is an abundance of recent literature on the exponential role of dietary effects, through the gut-brain axis, for our mental health.”
Apart from food, what other immune boosters do you recommend?
- Remain active: Regular physical activity can improve your muscle strength and boost your endurance. Oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the body tissues and help the cardiovascular and respiratory system work more efficiently. Everybody can identify their favorite exercise to keep their body in action
- Frequent exposure to nature: Enhances positive emotions and contributes to physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, the production of stress hormones, benefits immune response and may even reduce mortality.
- Actively cultivating positive emotions: When facing a stressful situation, actively cultivating positive emotions regulate immune response and counter depression. Studies have shown an indisputable link between having a positive outlook and cardiovascular, immune and metabolic response.
- Have a healthy self-esteem, self-worth, self-concept: These three psychological senses are important for our psychological immune system, which conserves our personal, familial and social well-being. Having self-acceptance facilitates our relationships with ourselves and others, reduces stress levels and enhances our immune system.
Many thanks for the interview!