Here we are, folks. It's mid-December, 2022, and people across the globe are experiencing a storm of viral and bacterial infections. The fact is that we need some options for increasing our health levels, without stress, at home.
Based on my training in Chinese Herbal Medicine, I humbly offer some resources for you and your families, to help mitigate the discomforts and weaknesses of the season. Although all preventive medicine must be individualized, general recommendations provide templates available for modification. I hope to give you some recipe inspiration for simple foods you can make to support your immune system and general health.
Healthy immune systems require the same basics as a generally healthy body. The basic goals are to reduce inflammation, provide nutrient-dense meals, and nourish positive feelings, while encouraging good habits like hydration and avoiding snacking (unless medically needed / current illness). Specific herbs and supplements can be emphasized for added benefit, and those are outlined in the next blog post.
1) Food: Basic principles: Increase prebiotic, fiber-rich foods, in cooked format if possible (recipes further down the article). Increase the amount of herbs and spices used when cooking (in a balanced way). For high-dairy or high-meat diets, decrease amount and frequency of dairy or meat. Create a set of minimally-processed snacks that fulfills your tastebuds quickly. Find a variety of organic teas that you enjoy. Don't eat too much of one thing every day (wheat, cheese, etc). Recognize that fermented foods can be very good, but can sometimes increase histamines and cause negative impact. Some people benefit from a low-histamine diet- if you react negatively to fermented foods, this is something to look into.
Although variety is really important in the diet, this variety can be had over multiple meals within a week. We don't need the entire food rainbow every day, although that would be nice. So work on identifying the colors of the food rainbow that you enjoy (or would like to try!), and then find a meal that features just one or two, such as sweet potato or red cabbage. It can cut down on food preparation time to rotate through simpler, fewer-ingredient dishes over the course of the week.
2) Mind-body: It's easy to worry. It's easy to "predict." Easy to feel shame or guilt. These things don't *feel* easy because they cause feedback cycles that impact the function of our bodies. But it can be more difficult to focus on positives when we feel the need to guard against danger, guard against shame, etc. The activation of our trauma response, vigilance, fear, worry, aggression, anxiety and similar can be necessary at times, but mostly hinder the body in times where the direct trauma has passed (or when the trauma is chronic). One way to counteract this is to observe and imagine what kind of setting or mindframe helps you enjoy your food. Or if that is impossible, try to imagine enjoying food. Then look around (in your imagination) and visualize what else you find enjoyable while you eat. Music? Quiet? Colors? Clear space? Warmth? Cool? Light?
Ideally, during meals we feel safe, heard/listened to, contented, and pleasantly stimulated. Are there aspects of the physical or mental-emotional environment around eating in your home that could be altered to align with these experiences of satisfaction? This may seem like a small thing in the face of broader problems such as pain, depression, and immune dysregulation, for example. However, the more comfortable of an environment in which we can experience our meals, the more benefit it can create in our bodies. We need to experience a predominantly parasympathetic mode of nervous system activation while eating and digesting (the "rest and digest" mode), and an actively sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze, fawn) can directly impede the digestive function. This carries over into indigestion, insomnia, blood sugar imbalances, mood dysregulation, and more.
3) Movement: Walking, yoga/qigong/taiji/hiit reps at home, dancing, shaking body gently while bouncing, jumping jacks, jump rope, and all the traditional sports/gym options... just try something. Try different things until you find one or a few you like, and can do any time. "Drop and give me 10" power poses, squats, tiptoe flexes- it can be anything- randomly to increase energy throughout your day. Make it fun. Simply try something to engage a muscle group, gently, but regularly. *The exception to this advice is that during recovery from illness, it is really important to NOT over-exert yourself. Especially in the case of C19 or ME/CFS. In those cases, simple breathing exercises and maybe a small amount of mat stretches or holds are beneficial.*
4) Breathing: Humming, singing, chanting, and simply reading out loud for a few minutes dramatically can all help you breathe more deeply in a natural way without getting bored. Or you can try one of a large number of breathing exercises. James Nestor, author of Breath, has a great gallery of how-to breathing technique videos online.
5) Self massage: I will be creating an entire journal post about this, so I will link it when it is ready! Until then, I really love using the steamed herbal compresses to do abdominal self-massage, then use them on my shoulders and upper chest, and finally roll my feet on them.
Now I will go through the food component more thoroughly, and will follow up with a separate herbs and supplements post.
Prebiotic foods. They are a bit of a trend right now but you can learn more about them in this 2019 article in the peer-reviewed journal Foods. From the article:
Prebiotics play an important role in human health. They naturally exist in different dietary food products, including asparagus, sugar beet, garlic, chicory, onion, Jerusalem artichoke, wheat, honey, banana, barley, tomato, rye, soybean, human’s and cow’s milk, peas, beans, etc., and recently, seaweeds and microalgae . Because of their low concentration in foods, they are manufactured on industrial large scales. Some of the prebiotics are produced by using lactose, sucrose, and starch as raw material [37,38]. Since most prebiotics are classified as GOS and FOS regarding industrial scale (Figure 1), there are many relevant studies on their production.
This chart summarizes many of the positive health effects of prebiotics, including improved immune system response and improved memory, among many benefits!
Prebiotics (FOS and GOS supplements) can be eaten via industrial production of supplements, but they can also comprise a fantastic and tasty part of a healthy diet. Prebiotic foods can be incorporated into nearly every meal, especially if you pick a few to always have on hand as snacks. They are most effective eaten raw. However, when cooked they still have an effect, and this may be the best way to start off if you have not been eating much fiber. Soups and sautees would be best in that case. Otherwise, snacking on fresh apples, berries, pears, carrots, cucumbers, radishes, and a variety of seeds, are all great ways to encourage a healthy microbiome. Recipes to follow will be noted when they have high-prebiotic content.
Fruits: Apple, Avocado, Banana, Berries, Cherry, Kiwi, Mango, Olive, Pear, Plantain, Tomato
Vegetables: Artichoke, Asparagus, Beet, Bell Pepper, Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Cabbage, Carrot, Cauliflower, Chicory Root, Cucumber, Daikon Radish, Dandelion Greens, Fennel Bulb, Garlic, Heart of Palm, Jicama, Konjac Root, Leek, Mushrooms, Onion, Peas, Radish, Seaweed, Sweet Potato, Yam
Others: Chia Seed, Flax Seed, Pumpkin Seed, Hemp Seed, Legumes, Quinoa, Wild Rice, Coconut Flour, Dark Chocolate, Ginger Root
Foods high in Vitamin C are also important to include in your everyday life. This means cooking with and enjoying raw:
- Citrus (oranges, kiwi, lemon, grapefruit)
- Bell peppers
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower)
- White potatoes
You can see that there is some overlap between prebiotic foods and high vitamin c foods, and that these are the foundation of some traditional diets! I cover a few different regional traditions which my family is partial to in this recipe list, but there are so many more. This is simply to give you an idea of the many options out there!
Savory soups (SE Asian style):
(sidenote for khao tom: List of condiments includes: Small bowls soy sauce, small bowl fish sauce with hot chiles, small bowl chile paste/hot salsa, 3 Tbsp dried shrimp, coarsely chopped, 3 Tbsp Chinese pickled vegetables, 1/4 C packed fresh cilantro, 1/4 cup slivered ginger, 1/4 cup finely chopped shallots, 8 cloves garlic, minced and fried in peanut oil/veggie oil until golden brown, 1/4 C raw peanuts, dry-roasted. All of these have stellar and complementary nutritional values, so you can be sure to relish the flavor while knowing you are boosting your digestive and immune system! Follow your body's lead, but try different combos to elicit feedback or you will never know what you like.)
Taiwanese style superfood vegetarian soup stock (from Alford + Duguid's Seductions of Rice)- (can be used as a stand-alone, nourishing clear broth to accompany meals):
1 Tbsp peanut or vegetable oil
1.5 pounds soy bean sprouts, thoroughly washed and drained, or 1 Cup dried soybeans or fava beans, soaked overnight in cold water
3 scallions, cut into 1" lengths
9 dried black mushrooms (approx. 1/2 oz, rinsed)
3 slices ginger (approx. size of a quarter)
8 C cold water
Heat the oil in a stockpot or other large pot and heat over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the sprouts or beans, scallions, mushrooms, and ginger and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the sprouts have changed color and become somewhat translucent. Add the water, raise the heat, and bring to a vigorous boil, then lower the heat to medium and simmer for 2 hours, partially covered. If using beans, skim them off and discard and foam during the first 10 minutes.
Pour the stock through a fine-meshed strainer or a colander lined with cheesecloth and placed over a large bowl. Discard the solids. Let the stock cool, then store, well sealed in glass containers in the refrigerator, or freeze in 2-cup plastic containers until needed. Taste and season the stock when you use it.
High-prebiotic, super simple radish sandwich: Radish Sandwich - This can also be created with very thinly sliced onion or cucumber in place of radish
High-prebiotic flavorful sandwiches, British high tea style: Afternoon Tea Sandwiches (Cucumber, Egg and Cress, Salmon and Onion)
High-prebiotic French style quick sandwich: Gloria's Sandwich, by Jaques Pepin (sweet onion, garlic, tomato, anchovy, mozzarella)
New Orleans style high-prebiotic vegetarian po boy: Crispy Cauliflower Po Boy by Love and Lemons
Delicious, prebiotic-rich vegetarian banh mi (Vietnamese): Banh Mi by Love and Lemons
Stir fried/ sauteed vegetable dishes:
These two dishes can be used as templates for stir frying and sauteeing vegetables.
Quick and Easy Chinese Greens
1/2 C chicken or veggie stock, unsalted, or water
1 Tbsp oyster sauce
1 Tbsp Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1/4 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp peanut oil / vegetable oil
1 Tbsp minced garlic
3 scallions, cut in 1" lengths
1/2 inch ginger, peeled and minced
1 pound Chinese greens, cut into 3" lengths and thickest stalks cut lengthwise in half (can use bok choy, chinese broccoli or broccoli, chinese kale or kale, flat chinese cabbage, napa cabbage, pea shoots, watercress, lettuce, spinach or chinese spinach, water spinach, collard greens, etc)
2 tsp cornstarch, dissolved in 1 Tbsp cold water
In small bowl, mix together the stock, oyster sauce, wine, soy sauce, and sugar. Place by your stove, together with all the other ingredients.
Place a wok (or pan) over high heat. When it is hot, add oil. Let heat for 20 sec, then toss in the garlic, scallions, and ginger. Stir-fry for 30 seconds, then add the greens. Stir-fry for 1.5-2 min. Add the sauce mixture and bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 3 min. Stir the cornstarch mixture, then add it to the wok and stir-fry until the sauce thickens, about 15 seconds.
Transfer to a small platter or large plate and serve hot, with rice.
Recipe from Seductions of Rice by Jeffrey Alford + Naomi Duguid, Copyright 1998, Artisan publishing.
This harmonious combination of green beans, shallots and butter is a winner. Try to get authentic haricots verts — thin, very young green beans — available in specialty food stores or at farmers' markets, or choose the smallest, firmest regular string beans you can find. Make sure to cook them fully; they should be tender, not crunchy. Too often beans are just blanched, and their taste is not what it should be.
1 pound haricots verts or very small string beans, tips removed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon peanut oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Bring 1 1⁄2 cups water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the beans and cook, covered, over high heat for 7 to 8 minutes, until they are tender but still firm to the bite. Drain the beans and spread them on a large platter to cool.
At serving time, heat the butter and oil in a large skillet. When they are hot, add the shallots and saute for about 10 seconds. Add the beans, salt and pepper and saute for about 2 minutes, until the beans are heated through. Serve.
Recipe from Essential Pepin: More than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food by Jacques Pepin. Copyright 2011 by Jacques Pepin. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Quick, Fresh, Prebiotic Salads!
These are all Japanese recipes from the site Just One Cookbook. This website by author Namiko Chen is a wealth of simple, healthy recipes with numerous substitution options if the Japanese-specific ingredients cannot be found.
This style of prebiotic-rich salad preparation can be done ahead of time easily and stored for a few days in the fridge.
Japanese Spinach Salad (Can use kale, chard, other greens too)
Hijiki Seaweed Salad (Can use other seaweeds like wakami too)
And from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat, a wonderful slaw:
Bright Cabbage Slaw
The richer the food you serve with it, the more acidic it should be.
1/2 medium head of red or green cabbage (about 1.5 pounds)
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 C lemon juice
1/2 C coarsely chopped parsley leaves
3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
6 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Quarter the cabbage through the core. Use a sharp knife to cut the core out at an angle. Thinly slice the cabbage crosswise and place in a colander set inside a large salad bowl. Season with two generous pinches of salt to help draw out water, toss the slices, and set aside.
In a small bowl, toss the sliced onion with the lemon juice and let sit 20 minutes to macerate. Set aside.
After 20 minutes, drain any water the cabbage may have given off (it's fine if there is nothing to drain off- sometimes cabbage isn't very watery). Place the cabbage in the bowl and add the parsley and the macerated onions (but not their lemony juices, yet). Dress the slaw with the vinegar and olive oil. Toss very well to combine.
Taste and adjust, adding the remaining macerating lemon juice and salt as needed. When you palate zings with pleasure, it's ready. Serve chilled or room temperature. Store leftover slaw covered, in the fridge, for up to two days.
See page 225 in Salt Fat Acid Heat for variations on this recipe.
Shaved Fennel and Radish Salad from the kitchen notebook of Farm to People, an innovative NYC farm-based food delivery company.
Best cooking ratios for grains- something simple and nutritious to go with a soup or veggie dish. From Samin Nosrat's book Salt Fat Acid Heat.
I will update this journal post with more recipes as I find especially great ones.
For those of you with an interest in eating healthy and delicious Chinese food according to principles of the five elements (and with guidance regarding common conditions like high cholesterol), you can find a great resource in Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen by Mika Ono, Yuan Wang, and Warren Sheir.
A great example is the lung health fritillaria pear recipe with honey:
Wishing you an excellent time finding new favorite, simple, nourishing recipes!
Comment below with other resources or favorite recipe links- I'm always looking for more inspiration!