How to Build a Better Immune System, One Fart at a Time [New Research!]

by Charlotte on October 4, 2011 · 47 comments

“Honey?” The other morning my darling husband rolled over in bed, looked me in straight in the eyes and with one hand on my cheek whispered, “Why don’t you ever get sick?! It’s not fair!!” Our pillow talk has really suffered since we’ve had children. While everything must be said in a whisper – they have a sex-0-meter so fine tuned that it still amazes me they have siblings – those whispers are usually more along the lines of “Why is it so hot here?!” than “Is it just me or is it hot in here? *wink wink*” (Gotta keep the thermostat up, see, since all our wee ones kick off their blankets off every five minutes and the last thing I need are little penguin toes wriggling into bed with me.) Considering that my husband was in the throes of a bad flu episode, I lovingly looked back at him and replied, “It’s all that healthy living crap I do, sucka! And no you can’t kiss me!”

Kidding. What I actually said was, “All those vegetables I eat, I guess? And no you can’t kiss me!”  But it turns out that my great immune system may have less to do with my smug chia-swilling, Tabata-running ways and more with my gender. This week scientists discovered that some micro-RNA on the X chromosomes are partly responsible for silencing immunity genes. At first glance you’d think women would be worse off since we have the double X thing going on but apparently the micro-RNAs don’t gang up and so if one is doing it’s immunosuppressing thing then other one isn’t, leaving us healthier than our XY counterparts who only have one shot.

I have to admit that this natural health advantage pleases me. I’ve long been jealous of my husband’s ability to lose 10 pounds just by cutting out his nightly bowl of ice cream and how he can outlift me on the weight floor even though he only lifts on a bi-monthly basis. And a strong immune system is like the gold medal of health! And the grand prize is my very own flu shot! I win again! (Seriously am I competing on a cellular level now? I need help.)

Honestly though I do think there’s more to it than just my XX-iness. I’ve found that when I can stick to eating mostly healthy food, getting enough sleep and exercising (moderately, natch) that I get sick less often and when I am stricken, it’s much less severe than it seems to be for other people. When you live with 4 tiny disease carriers like I do, this is a big deal.

Using Food To Heal and Strengthen Your Immune System

Of course this whole immune system thing is a very delicate balancing act with many factors that affect how well you can ward off illnesses both small and serious. But science has shown that food is powerful medicine and there are particular foods that are known to help strengthen your immune system. And these foods may surprise you.

Sure fruits, vegetables, protein and anything not labeled “serving size: 1/4 pint” are known to help build healthy immune systems but the real power players are basically the whole category of foods known as “The ones that give you awful farts.” Beans, cruciferous veggies, cabbage and mushrooms are all great for your immune system, if not your social life. In addition, one of the best things you can do for your immune system is to support your gut by populating it with healthy bacteria, like the kind that come in fermented foods.

Think beyond yogurt though and learn to love sauerkraut, kefir and kimchi. (Apparently you can make your own fermented foods pretty easily but somehow I think it involves more than just putting a pile of cabbage in a jar to rot in your cabinet for 6 months. It’s on my list of things to try…sometime.) This works out well for me since I’ve adored sauerkraut since childhood when I used to sit on my mom’s lap and inhale an entire jar with her in one sitting. She’s of German descent. Sauerkraut (the kind with caraway seeds is the best!) and pickled beets are my comfort food. I think I was 20 before I realized that other people don’t love to sit down with a big bowl of kraut and a spoon every evening. I also love kefir but you have to be careful with the sweetened varieties since sugar is a known immunosuppressant.

So what’s your verdict: Do you get sick less often than most people and if so what’s your secret? Anyone else love farty foods but fear eating them unless you know for sure that you are staying in for the rest of the day? Anyone ever tried kimchi??

{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

amber October 4, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Yours is the BEST blog ever. I think I will just follow you around the internet and say ‘Yeah! What she said!”.
I don’t get sick any more, and I eat lots of vegetables and get lots of exercise and plenty of sleep.

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Sybil October 5, 2011 at 12:15 am

Having a degree in nutrition, I used to believe this. Then I fell in love with a man who smoked, drank, never got enough sleep or exercise, only ate well when I forced him to (you see where this is going . . . ) and he got sick less than me. And I get sick less than most people.
I really think a lot of it is something we are born with, like the chromosomes you mentioned. I wish I understood this more, I do find it fascinating!

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Sue October 5, 2011 at 1:17 am

My husband is exactly that kind of person, too! He never gets sick. It’s just not fair.

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 7:17 am

Yeah, I didn’t really understand the science of it either but it does make sense that not all of our immune response is due to our choices, good or bad. Your husband’s a lucky guy!

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Casey Kay October 5, 2011 at 12:15 am

I can always tell when I haven’t been eating well by the fact that I start to get sick more easily. With three of my jobs involving young children who attend preschool part-time, I have to keep my immune system up. I think my recently found love of beans (I think I eat them at least once if not twice a day) must have something to do with my ability to keep those colds at bay a bit longer than most.

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Cheryl October 5, 2011 at 12:49 am

Oh your blog cracks me up! No wonder why you write for a living. I was wondering if it was just me that can’t eat cabbage-type foods without having an unhappy tummy. And maybe its because I avoid having an unhappy tummy that I’m sick so often (well, other than not eating enough nutrient packed foods).

Thanks for keeping me in the loop about this sort of stuff. :)

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 7:19 am

Hahah – well you can also take a probiotic supplement to help achieve the same good bacteria balance and those aren’t nearly as bad with the gas as cabbage is:) But you can’t really add caraway seeds to your pills…

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TS October 5, 2011 at 1:17 am

I’ve never really understood the whole “cabbage makes you gassy” statement. I LOVE cabbage, but I don’t toot my horn when I eat it. I’ve had fake kimchi (at a Korean food stand near college) that wasn’t fermented. I went to the local Asian store to get a jar of Kimchi…yea, I couldn’t figure out how to eat it. I eat enough spicy food as it is, so the last thing I want is to add more to my diet. Although I should try water kimchi, that recipe (saw a vid on youtube) didn’t require any chili.

As the only member in my household to have not spent a significant part of my childhood in a third world country, my immune system leaves much to be desired. I’m also too scared to strengthen it (I don’t eat off the floor, I do a good job washing veggies and preventing contamination, etc. My dad…he’ll not care whether something is clean prior to eating out of it. Of course, he has this luxury after being a “sickly child”. I dunno if I want to earn my immunity that way.) Although an argument could be made that my immune system is too good, since I have allergies. It seems my bodily defense system is an army of military elite at the command of Major Chimp.

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 7:21 am

Love the “earn my immune system” comment! And this: “my bodily defense system is an army of military elite at the command of Major Chimp.” totally made me giggle. Awesome.

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Sue October 5, 2011 at 1:27 am

I think I get sick a little less than others, and if I ever get sick, I usually recover quickly. My secret? I don’t have any children. ;)
Honestly, I assume it’s all the fresh produce I like to eat, and running outdoors as often as possible.
I’m German, too, and grew up eating plenty of sauerkraut, but also lots of junk, so I was a very sick child. Now I’m married to a Korean guy, and we always have a huge jar of home-made kimchi in our fridge. Making kimchi is much easier than I thought! And we only need to do it once a month.
And about the gassy foods: I still eat them, but I’ve learned to deal with the consequences.

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 7:22 am

Oooh now I want to try making kimchi! Do you have a particular recipe you use or should I just google it?

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Sue October 5, 2011 at 2:01 pm

This recipe is a great starting poin and very similar to ourst: http://www.maangchi.com/recipe/easy-kimchi
Just omit the squid, use soy sauce instead of fish sauce, and be carefull with the hot pepper flakes. Good luck!

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Kelly October 5, 2011 at 2:34 am

I’ve never been a sauerkraut fan – but as I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to wonder if that is because my mom insisted on cooking a jar of it in beer before feeding it to us. I like cabbage and I think I might like sauerkraut under the proper circumstances. I just don’t know what those circumstances are!

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miz October 5, 2011 at 4:25 am

yep
never get sick here at all and am married to a fellow nonkrauter who is sick 90.3232% of the time.

My secret is being around kids as much as I can :) builds the immunities up FAST :)

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 7:23 am

True – being around kids is good for you on so many levels!

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Katie October 5, 2011 at 7:13 am

I don’t want to answer the sick question for fear of being smoted in the other direction, if you catch my drift.

I will, however, use this opportunity to tell you that making sauerkraut really is as easy as you say. I buy a big cabbage, shred it, layer a handful of cabbage with a tsp or so of salt, layer repeat, etc. And then you just smash it all up until it gets watery. Put that in a jar and cover it with a cabbage leafe to keep everything under water. Put in a dark place for a few days, and that ‘s it. Truly.

Kimchi is fantastic. Try it. I’m addicted.

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 7:27 am

It’s really that easy? Really??? No water-bathing or anything? Okay now I have to try this. And I need to get me some kimchi. Like today.

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Katie @ Wellness Mama October 5, 2011 at 8:44 pm

You can make both sauerkraut and kimchi that way and it is super easy. If your want more probiotics and faster fermentation, just add some whey to the jar- 1/4 cup whey per quart of jar or approx 1/4 cup whey for every 1-2 heads of cabbage (here’s how to make whey http://wellnessmama.com/2402/how-to-make-whey-and-cream-cheese-in-one-step/) .

You can start with something easy and kid-friendly like probiotic lemonade though… just make sure you use fresh lemons http://wellnessmama.com/2883/probiotic-lemonade/

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Naomi/Dragonmamma October 5, 2011 at 7:13 am

Haven’t been sick for about 20 years, and I give credit to all the broccoli and cabbage I eat. Not fermented, though; I think I’ve eaten sauerkraut maybe 3 times. (It’s usually too salty for me; if I had good, homemade sauerkraut without tons of salt, I could probably eat it regularly.)

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 7:28 am

You would love my sister’s sauerkraut! It’s very low sodium. That is so awesome you’ve been sick-free for 20 years. I cannot say the same. Yet;)

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Lessons Learned October 5, 2011 at 7:30 am

Ironically the only time I have been truly sick in years was last year when I got my flushot – I know that may open a whole new discussion. I have had the shot before without issues but last years strain definately knocked me out. I know I didn’t really have the fl u but while my body was busy deciding what to do with the stuff in the flu shot I caught the worst cold I have ever had.
I agree with you – the better the food you eat the better you body can cope and you will not be sick as often.

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 8:40 am

Gym Buddy Allison has the same issue with the flu shot! So sorry you had a bad reaction:(

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Dr. J October 5, 2011 at 8:02 am

We hardly ever get sick also! I believe the same healthy activity such as eating well, ie low sugar, etc, and being very active does strengthen our immune systems along with keeping us trim and fit. Too bad it doesn’t prevent mental illness, lol, Then again, perhaps my mental state is the new and improved version :-(

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 8:41 am

Hahah, me too: “Too bad it doesn’t prevent mental illness, lol,”!!! I didn’t know you struggled with mental illness too – you always read so put together!

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Lauren October 6, 2011 at 9:05 am

Have you seen this article? It reports findings that healthy gut flora contribute to mental health through signalling via the vagus nerve. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/38/16050.short

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Dr. J October 6, 2011 at 10:07 am

Thanks Lauren! Not that particular one, but I know that the ntestines have been called our second brain because of findings like those! There are a lott of diseases,. but really, very few treatments because the same things treat or minimize disease. My original comment was written a bit tongue in cheek, by the way :-)

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Alyssa October 5, 2011 at 9:52 am

Between my own kids, the kids I teach, and spending lots of time with people who work in hospitals, my immune system has gotten so much stronger than it used to be.
(And last night, as I was working upstairs, I heard Hubby and our li’l guy talking. Then all I heard was li’l guy, over and over, saying “Fart!” Must’ve been quite the conversation!)

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Ah yes, the daily fart discussion – we have those at my house too;)

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Laura October 5, 2011 at 10:52 am

Seriously, I am sick all the time. I think I catch every bug that comes my way. Stress :(

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Amy October 5, 2011 at 11:32 am

Oh yes, stress doesn’t help!

You can see my stress around my waist. :/

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Amy October 5, 2011 at 11:31 am

I am rarely, if ever, sick. Usually when I’m “sick” it’s because I overate or something. Not an actual bug, virus or bacteria. I grew up in a clean, but not “super sanitized” home like many of today’s moms want to keep. My son is almost 5 and has only gotten truly sick maybe twice in his life, minus a few sniffles here and there. I let him eat Cheerios off our floor (five second rule is so not true, but I don’t care, lol) and I rinse produce but don’t scrub it down. Sometimes I think that the over cleanliness of today’s society contributes (along with other factors, of course) to people getting sick. They can’t, as others have mentioned, build up any immunity if there’s nothing to fight against. Then when they do get sick, they’re down for the count.

Of course, this is just my personal opinion, and I’m no doctor.

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 12:58 pm

You and I share similar hygiene philosophies!! Right with you on the floor-eating;)

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Jennie (the gf-gf) October 5, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Hi Charlotte,
I’m a new reader and I am a big fan of fermented foods! I can’t relate on the sauerkraut, though – to me, it is a tasty, salty condiment for meat, not something I want to sit down and eat a big bowlful of! :-)
I’ve been experimenting with coconut milk kefir lately, and what I’m struggling with is that the only ones I really like are the super sweetened variety, and I read somewhere that the sugar feeds the bacteria so it doesn’t have the same effect as sugar in candy or cookies. I’m kind of torn between gulping down plain kefir which I don’t like, or happily drinking the sweetened kind which have more sugar … it’s a conundrum!

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 12:59 pm

That is a conundrum! Especially because the sweetened versions ARE really tasty. (Have you tried “birthday cake” flavor???) I’m not up on all the science behind it so maybe the sugar is somehow mitigated by the kefir bacteria? Maybe?

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Lauren October 6, 2011 at 9:10 am

The sugar is there to feed the bacteria, so the sweeter it is, the less good guys are likely to be in it – make sense? Partly because they would have gobbled it up and farted out bubbles, (ike in wine, sweetness and alcohol content are usually inversely related) and partly because the manufacturers may have pasteurised the product to keep it sweet and unexploded on the shelf.
What about mixing half-half just before drinking?

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Shayna October 5, 2011 at 12:19 pm

I love kimchi! Here in Hawaii they put it on lots of stuff – kimchi burgers, kimchi fried rice…they also have different kinds, like cucumber kimchi. I could eat a whole jar by myself.
I think those tootie-veggies don’t strengthen your immune system as much as alienate you, lessening you chances of contracting things ;)

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Charlotte October 5, 2011 at 1:00 pm

It is my new goal in life to try kimchi now! And this: “I think those tootie-veggies don’t strengthen your immune system as much as alienate you, lessening you chances of contracting things” is awesome.

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Sylvia October 5, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Can you believe I never knew what sauerkraut was until I married my part German part Japanese Husband. Same thing with a lot of from these areas. My husband was the one blessed with an amazing immune system. I kind of think it’s because he isn’t as much of a germophobe as I am. If germs were visible to the human eye, I’d probably run off shrieking into the night. That or live as bubble boy.
I love that you take Victory even at a cellular level! I take mine with dental health! He always has to go to the dentist. I’ve never even had a cavity! VICTORY!
I don’t get sick as often as many people and usually it’s sinus related if I do. However, when I do catch a cold or flu I’m down for the count! My body goes into shut down and hibernate mode until feel better. I’m hoping with all of the working out I’m doing now and eating healthier that I might be able to get by without a cold this winter. With a toddler and an infant I highly doubt it, but we’ll see!

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meredith October 5, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I’ve been sick for the past three weeks. Coughing, snot everywhere, headache; the best. As far as being a woman and being sick though I’ve just noticed this in my four years of marriage: i can take it. my husband cannot. he whines and walks around with toilet paper in his nose, looking for chicken noodle soup and Gatorade. hello, we never have that stuff in the house. it’s crazy. no wonder we’re the baby makers in this species.

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Olivia October 5, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Just wanted to say that I found your blog today….and LOVE.IT. :)

Anywho- my husband actually gets sick way less than I do, and we have the same diet/workout routine and are both in great shape…pretty sure it’s just genes in our case. BOOOOO. One thing I can say, however…is if I do get sick, it’s usually just a head cold and only lasts a few days. I have never gotten a flu shot, and honestly don’t remember ever getting the “flu”…and I only remember getting a stomach virus maybe 2 times my entire life (I’m 25).

Watch me get the flu this year. I hear it sucks.

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Sable October 5, 2011 at 5:41 pm

Psh. This obviously skipped me. I used to have a HORRIBLE immune system (a.k.a. I got horribly sick if someone 5 miles from me crossed the street) but I also grew up pretty poor and was super picky, so I mostly subsisted on peas, potatoes, and bread until I was about 19. And then there was the eating disorder, which obviously didn’t help. Since moving to CA and discovering super awesome wonderful amazing CSA produce, I actually eat vegetables and work out often so I get sick much less often (physically.) But when I get sick, I get seriously sick, so while I spend 1-2 weeks convinced I’m dying, unable to move, and spewing *insert whatever here*, my husband contracts the same thing and goes and sleeps for ten hours. That’s it. Then he’s fine. Perfectly. It REALLY gets on my nerves, but at least after he wakes he can come take care of me! Also, referring to your children as “4 tiny disease carriers” = priceless.

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radioactivegan October 5, 2011 at 7:28 pm

I made kimchi once. It really is that easy .. cut up a bunch of vegetables, dump them in a bucket, add salt … wait. You might want to get better directions than that, but it really is that easy.

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Jody - Fit at 53 October 5, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I almost never get sick – knock on wood!!! Can’t remember the last time. I do eat healthy as you know & work out religiously. I do have probs with lots of food making me gassy & bloaty but I still eat them since I am not working right now. When I was working – it was tough due to how my bod reacts to a lot of food. Good thing I also work out when it is not that busy! ;-)

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Averie @ Love Veggies and Yoga October 5, 2011 at 9:28 pm

I think I get sick less than others and get far less sleep than they do…I eat lots of fermented foods, drink komboucha and kefir, and take probiotics. 80-90% of our immune system resides in our guts so if our gut isnt healthy, we aent going to be healthy. Learned that 8 yrs or so ago from my naturopath and once I really heard that message and healed my gut, my food allergies are way better controlled and i also get sick far less frequently.

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A-man-duh October 5, 2011 at 10:04 pm

I teach 5th grade… Being surrounded by carrier monkeys every day helps boost the immune system! I used to get sick all the time, once I started teaching, I rarely ever get sick. And I’ve had kids barf on my shoes, sneeze on me, slobber on pens then hand them to me, and all other sorts of disgusting germ-spreading behaviors. Of course, I also eat pretty well, try to get as much sleep as my two-year-old will allow, and exercise… So who knows.

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Jenn (GH) October 6, 2011 at 12:59 am

Oh my goodness I LOVE LOVE LOVE sauerkraut and other fermented foods. Making sauerkraut really is super easy. Did you ever get that book, Nourishing Traditions? She explains how and it couldn’t be easier! Seriously! It really just involves smashing some shredded cabbage with salt and water. Then letting it sit for a few days.

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John Slater October 6, 2011 at 10:00 pm

The headline had me in stitches already. But I better make sure I’m staying in or else I’ll have a fart-o-rama across the street, wouldn’t want that to happen. Thanks for these tips, Charlotte.

Anyway, I’ve been having my own weight loss wars and it’s really giving me a hard time. Previously, I’ve been doing the wrong kind of diet – something I made on my own. It didn’t entirely help, but I somehow saw progress. However, I wasn’t actually feeling kind of healthy.

Once again, thanks for the tips. Now, I’m going to get me some sweet potatoes.

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