In a time of uncertainty, people are turning to a variety of measures to stay healthy and build their immunity.

In times of plague and pandemic, throughout history, a reaction of a frightened populace has been to place their hope in the healing powers of concoctions, soups and potions derived from natural products such as herbs. To this day, for instance, chicken soups or honey dissolved in water are among the popular remedies my grandmother uses when someone in the family has a seasonal cold. Yet there is no scientific evidence that such mixtures amount to effective treatment for any medical condition.

When I was younger, my grandmother used to make me swallow two teaspoons of a mixture of  garlic, honey and ginger every morning before I left for school. With my face grumpy after gulping down the bitter concoction, she would say to me, “this will help you to be strong.” I remain unsure though, whether my immune system was actually ‘boosted’ by the bitter liquid.

But experts say that eating certain fruits and vegetables that contain particular compounds can, in fact, boost our immune systems to help them fight infections more effectively. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has warned, that until a vaccine becomes available, “our immune systems will need to adapt unaided to covid-19.”

Dr Muzi Maseko, an associate professor and researcher at a human nutrition research laboratory at Wits University, believes that it is possible to boost the human immune system in several ways: “One way is for people to eat a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables because these types of food help the functioning of the immune system,” Maseko said.

Health experts strongly advise following a healthy eating pattern that includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, which can boost the immune system to become stronger. Photo: Zikhona Klaas

Maseko recommends a nutritious smoothie with a selection of fruits and vegetables for people who want to boost their immune systems during the pandemic, and he believes it improves energy levels instantly.

“A blend of raw purple onion, purple cabbage, black grapes, blackberries, broccoli and oranges is a great energy booster,” he said, adding that fresh vegetables help to fight inflammation and reduce the possibilities of infection, especially during this pandemic.

Inflammation plays a vital role in one’s immune system, particularly in post-covid-19 infection, which triggers an immune response against the virus that, if it is not controlled, can cause severe organ damage in the body. This is according to a study titled ‘COVID-19: The Inflammation Link and the Role of Nutrition in Potential Mitigation,’ released in May 2020.

Maseko told Wits Vuvuzela that even when people contract infections, eating fruits and vegetables reduces the chances of them developing severe symptoms because their body’s blood vessels will be better prepared to fight the infection.

This is supported by research carried out by the Harvard School of Public Health, which indicates that the immune system’s response relies on the existence of micro-nutrients for the efficient functioning of all cells. “Certain dietary patterns may better prepare the body for microbial attacks and excess inflammation,” the research indicated.

A similar view is shared by Dr Sandra Pretorius, a dietician and member of the Wits Centre for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine. She advises people to avoid eating processed foods that are frozen, dried or canned if they are able to.

“We advise people to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Stay away from processed food as, during this pandemic, we have seen an increase in chronic diseases in obesity because of the over-consumption of processed foods.” Consuming such foods does not support a healthy immune system, Pretorius said.

Natural herbs and spices such as turmeric, ginger and garlic are renowned herbs that help with colds and flu. Research says these herbs serves as anti-inflammatory agents and they have rich compounds in boosting the immune system. Photo: Zikhona Klaas.

For Pretorius, the health benefits derived from eating fresh food are far greater than those from a diet full of processed foods. She said, “Eating fermented foods such as yoghurt, inkomazi, mageu and kimchi help to boost your body to fight against bacteria.”

Pretorius also stressed that there is no one medicinal food that cures a sickness. She concluded, therefore, that a diet constituting a combination of fresh vegetables and fruits can help to develop a strong, healthy immune system.

Professor Sandy van Vuuren, from the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology at Wits University, advises a holistic approach to boosting the immune system. “Often people underestimate going outside and getting a little bit of exercise,’ she says. ‘Going outside for sunshine and getting vitamin D is good for your health.”

Because of lockdown restrictions, however, this became a challenge for people who were staying indoors, especially those in quarantine, and inadequate access to sunlight resulted in vitamin D deficiency, according to an article by Media Brief published in June 2020. The article suggested that such deficiencies in vitamins could be supplemented through a “nutritionally balanced diet including foods that provide the vitamin, such as oily fish, red meat, egg yolk and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals”. “The famous immune booster is echinacea, which you can buy from the general pharmacy and which is quite frequently taken for colds and flu,” she says. “This is also made from medicinal plants,” Van Vurren said. She also referred to the purple cornflower plant, which is scientifically proven to reduced inflammation and improves immunity.

Although health experts endorse a healthy eating pattern and regular exercise as vital to a strong immune system, could there be nutritional value in herbs that might also benefit the immune system?  Maseko, like my grandmother, does think so. He says that herbs such as garlic, ginger and turmeric are useful in helping the body fight inflammations and flu. “Garlic can even improve your breathing – that is why people use it for flu,” he concluded.

FEATURED IMAGE: The herbal tonic made from garlic, lemon, and honey is a popular natural remedy for symptoms of the flu. Photo: Zikhona Klaas.