Food As Medicine for Flu Prevention

food-as-medicine functional nutrition immune health Nov 22, 2019

It’s that time of year again. Pumpkins on the porch, a chill in the air, and a shot in the arm to keep you “healthy.”

The influenza vaccine remains a hot topic for many reasons and it seems that most of us on the receiving end find ourselves in one camp or the other—the yearly takers or the steadfast no way-ers!

Whether or not you choose to get this yearly vaccination, I hope you educate yourself as to the benefits, risks, and effectiveness of this sometimes confusing dose of prevention.

For the 2018-2019 flu season, the vaccine was only 29% effective at preventing influenza. This is partly due to a new strain that developed later in the spring after the vaccine had already been formulated. Since flu viruses constantly mutate and evolve, new vaccine combinations must be developed every year to include new strains. According to the CDC, getting the flu vaccine reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% “among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine”. That explains why the vaccine effectiveness averaged only 41% from 2004/05 through the 2018/19 seasons. Not great odds if you ask me!

To compound the problem, the upcoming season’s flu vaccine is developed at least six months prior to your receiving the shot. So, this year’s vaccine was developed back in February. If new viral strains develop after this, you won’t be protected against these missing strains.

It’s easy to see how any perceived guarantee from the flu vaccine is
no guarantee at all.

While the flu vaccine CAN prevent up to thousands of illnesses each year, it can’t give you 100% protection from getting sick. No vaccine can. So, if you choose to get the flu vaccine, don’t allow it to be your only defense against illness this year. Incorporate daily habits that keep your immune system strong and prepared to fight the incoming invaders.

Food As Medicine Every Day

Nourishing your body with a food-as-medicine lifestyle will support, strengthen, and maintain your health, with or without a shot in the arm. Food can definitely work like medicine from the end of your fork, and additional food-as-medicine lifestyle habits can keep your immune system performing at top speed this season. Let’s look at some immune-boosting foods and habits to include every day:

Real, whole, nutrient-rich foods

The more your intake is centered around whole, real, unprocessed foods, the more you can be sure you’re giving your immune system a daily dose of nutrient-based prevention. Include foods like: 

  • grass-fed and wild-caught meats and seafood
  • bright and colorful plants like dark leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, radishes, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, and dark berries. Eat the rainbow!
  • natural fats and oils from avocado, olives, coconut, nuts, and seeds

These work in synergy to provide the building blocks of protein, carbohydrates, and fat as well as the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients your immune system needs to stay strong.

Vitamin D

Every cell in your body needs Vitamin D to thrive, making this an essential nutrient for optimal immune function. It’s been used for hundreds of years to treat infections like tuberculosis and the flu since it works to activate your immune cell army so it can fight viral invaders.

Just as important as the commonly dosed Vitamin C, Vitamin D can be even more foundational to your strong and sustained immune health. It’s difficult to get enough Vitamin D from food sources and even harder to manufacture enough from the winter sun. If your levels aren’t optimal (usually at or above 50 ng/ml) you may benefit from supplementation.*


Nutrients like selenium, zinc, Vitamins A, C, and E function to protect your cells from the damage caused by free radicals—unstable molecules that damage your healthy cells and tissues. Foods rich in antioxidants include:

  • citrus fruits
  • dark berries
  • dark leafy greens
  • vibrantly colored vegetables like carrots, beets, and red cabbage
  • nuts and seeds
  • well-sourced red meat and shellfish


More than 70% of your immune system resides on the surface of your gut. That’s a community you need to protect! I’ve talked previously about leaky gut and the damage this can cause to your gut lining and your immune system. Foods naturally rich in probiotics like kefir and yogurt (dairy-free if needed) and naturally fermented sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles can boost your levels of beneficial gut bacteria that help support your thriving immune system.

Therapeutic Foods

Food can truly act as medicine when you include potent natural disease fighters like elderberry, ginger, mushrooms, and culinary herbs. These don’t just add amazing flavor to your dish, they provide a medicinal dose of prevention. A daily dose of elderberry syrup or a cup of ginger tea are food-as-medicine for sure! And get heavy-handed with adding herbs to your meals. Oregano, rosemary, basil, garlic, and thyme are just a few of the dozens that will add functional flavor to every bite!

Food As Medicine Lifestyle Habits


Sleep is a nutrient. Quality, nightly sleep is essential to maintaining your health as it strengthens your immune system, sharpens your memory, reduces food cravings, and encourages healthy food choices. Simply put, restorative sleep goes way beyond the end of your fork to keep your immune system ready to fight the ills of the season. Try to do all that you can to optimize these healing hours of your day.

Stress management

While sleep is a nutrient, stress is a toxin. Unmanaged stress will deplete your internal vitamins and minerals because of the heavy demand it puts on every cell in your body. Have you ever gotten sick right after a high-stress event or season in your life?

Practice relaxation techniques throughout your day, and especially before meals, to reset everything from your thoughts to your breathing to your digestion. Stress management is truly a way to encourage whole-body wellness.

Physical activity

More movement, more oxygen, and more “feel good” hormones all make for a healthier you! Include regular movement activity as you’re able, and spend the time outdoors in nature for a double dose of prevention.

Hand washing

Probably the number one defense against the flu, or another commonly spread virus for that matter. Wash your hands regularly with warm soapy water—no antibacterials needed. Wash for 20-30 seconds and do so frequently throughout the day.


We’re all bound to get sick, maybe even the flu, at some point. Instead of depending only on a yearly vaccine to keep you well, support your immune system every day with a food-as-medicine lifestyle. Whole, colorful, nutrient-dense foods and nourishing lifestyle habits can provide the healing power you need, so if you do find yourself cuddled up with tissues on the couch, you’ll recover more quickly and get right back to being the amazing human that you are!

What are some ways you’re naturally boosting your immune system this year?


*Never start a supplement, change a medication, or make any other modifications to your health regimen without first consulting with your physician or appropriate health practitioner. 

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