Thursday, September 24, 2015

How to strengthen your immune system

"Let food be thy medicine"
(Hippocrates of Kos)

Today I'd like to write a special post dedicated to the food, herbs, spices and the behaviors which help improving the immune system. Autumn has come, and with it the first people with couch, flu, cold, etc... which is really unfortunate: if you get sick for a drop of temperatures from 25°C to 16°C, what will it happen when they drop to -10°C?

The following list has been compiled during the last two years (exactly, I didn't make it up for this occasion). I took ideas from other blogs and from some "heal yourself with plants" books. I also analyzed the contents of some naturopathic supplements for the immune system.

Clearly, I checked the evidence behind them and discarded those which weren't supported: you won't read many homeopathic advices in my blog. I hope it works for you just as fine as it is working for me.

Let's begin. First and probably most important point:

Heal your gut

You probably read it already, but it is worth repeating that 80% of your immune system is in your gut. People never take this seriously. If you have an unhealthy gut, you can't expect to be one-hundred-percent healthy. Let's say (ok, this is just to make a joke) that you can expect to be 20% healthy at best.

Seriously now: these foods have shown to improve the immune system and should become regular in your weekly rotation.
  • Fermented dairy, preferably from raw milk. Consider learning how to ferment milk at home and make it an habit, trust me: you don't look back anymore after it becomes an habit. Don't focus on one specific strain, you want to enjoy a variety of different fermented dairy products:
    • Yoghurt (Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Steptococcus thermophilus)
    • Bacteria from the Bifidum family
    • Milk kefir
  • Sauerkraut: that's another home made probiotic that you definitely want to learn to prepare yourself. Not only it is fun and tastes great, but it is also the real thing (what you find in supermarkets is likely to be boiled cabbage in vinegar). Fermenting cabbage and making fermented pickles with shredded roots was our grandparents' way to preserve vegetables during winter. They didn't know, but they were also keeping their guts healthy and turning on their immune system to face the cold season. There was no such thing as paracetamol, at the time.
  • Kombucha: it has recently become a trend, and I believe for a reason. My take is that, once again, you should learn to prepare kombucha at home to be sure of the final result. I personally tested some kombucha drinks I bought in health stores and tried continue their fermentation at home. I didn't succeed, meaning that the bacteria and yeasts in the bottle were pretty dead: it was just a bottle of sugary tea that, maybe, had some living organism inside. Homemade stuff is also cheaper by the way.
Good healthy bacteria don't just need to be regularly re-introduced in your GI tract, they also have to be properly nourished in order to thrive. This is were a low-carb diet or a no-carb diet shows its fallacy: you need a proper source of prebiotics, like resistant starches or soluble fiber (see my post on carbohydrates).

Bone broth

Once again, grandmothers knew it better. Bone broth is one of the foods that should become regular in your kitchen, at least during autumn and winter. Bone broth is an excellent source of:
  • Glycine (an aminoacid that is fundamental to heal the gut and maintain it healthy)
  • Easily absorbable proteins
    • they don’t stress the digestive tract and the liver, thus saving more energy to dedicate to the immune functions
    • don't forget that antibodies are made of proteins
  • Easily absorbable minerals
One error you can do with bone broth is to prepare it when it is too late, when you are already sick, that's what people usually do. Bone broth works on prevention as well and that should be your focus.

And before anybody asks me: no, dissolving gelatin sheets or chemical broth cubes in hot water is not the same. You have to start from the bones. Get you hands dirty!!!


Here is an interesting super-food. Shellfish contains ready and easily absorbable:
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (ALA, EPA, DHA)
    • Omega-3 are essential precursors of PG3, a water soluble hormone that fights inflammation
  • Zinc: it plays an important role in several metabolic reactions in the body, including digestion and the modulation of the immune system of course
  • Vit-B complex (especially B12)

Liposoluble vitamins (A, D3, E, K2)

Liposoluble vitamins are fundamental for maintaining a working immune system (and not only the immune system... but that's the focus of today). They act as anti-oxidants and immunoregulators. Vit-E also contributes to the conjugation of fatty acids into anti-inflammatory prostaglandins.

Sources that should never be missing in your weekly schedule are:
  • Eggs, with yolks of course
  • Grass-fed dairy products (especially butter), unless there are known allergies or sensitivities
  • Oily fish (mackerel, sardines, herrings, anchovies, salmon, tuna)
  • Vegetables containing beta-carotene (carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, ...)
  • Oil of olive
  • Liver, as I said in my last post, liver is the ultimate superfood

Spices, herbs and other anti-viral food

Sometimes the best defence is the attack. The following are powerful disinfectants that also taste good. It shouldn't be difficult to include some or even all of them in your recipes or daily habits.
  • Raw garlic (kills virus, bacteria, protozoa and even worms, nature's true antiseptic for excellence)
  • Ginger (another excellent anti-viral, use it pickled, tea or freshly squeezed on an indian curry)
  • Horseradish (food for though: why is sushi paired with wasabi?)
  • Propolis (a formidable anti-microbial, anti-viral and anti-mycotic, it also modulates the immune system)
  • Hot chili peppers
  • Celery, raw
  • Green tea
  • Turmeric
  • Fresh (not dried) mushrooms: maitake, reishi, shiitake
  • Raw honey


  • Iodine, is proven to support the immune system and is also an anti-bacterial and anti-viral agent
    • Seaweed (preferred)
    • Iodine supplements 
  • Selenium, supports the iodine and helps chelating heavy minerals (mercury in particular)
    • Brazilnuts
    • Kidneys

Fresh fruits and vegetables

Although I am a huge proponent of locally grown and seasonal produce, I must admit that sometimes you need to accept the compromise and buy imported food. Fresh fruits and vegetables are irrenunciable sources of essential and non-essential nutrients that support immune functions.
  • Coloured fruits and vegetables, they contain
    • Flavonoids
    • Polyphenols
  • Sources of Vit-C
    • Freshly squeezed juice of lemon, orange, grapefruit
    • Bell peppers
    • Kiwi
    • Persimmon (a late-autumn/early-winter fruit, so technically "in season")
At this point you may be tempted to get Vit-C supplements. This is a huge mistake, BigPharma knows it is a huge mistake, but has interests in having you believe that Vit-C supplements are a great idea.

The fact is that proper utilisation of Vit-C by the body requires a number of co-factors, usually found in the food containing Vit-C itself. Taking isolated Vit-C without the co-factors depletes the body's stores of these co-factors, thus making Vit-C unusable in metabolic processes.

Herbs and supplements which support the immune system

This is probably what you already read every year in the magazines and what your pharmacist will try to sell you as the panacea that will grant you total immunity against all seasonal ailments.
It is not that they don't work, they do indeed have some role in reinforcing the immune system. However that's what they are: supplements. Optimal health is always supported by the nutrients found in everyday's food, not some magic pill.
  • Echinacea
  • Astragalus
  • Codonopsis
  • Siberian ginseng
  • Catnip
  • Elder flower
  • Liquorice

Avoid things that weaken your immune system

As one of my teachers keeps saying (I hope he is reading): most of the results are from what you remove, not what you add. Here is a list of things that you may reconsider in your diet.
  • Processed food
    • Process food is deprived of nutrients; as we saw before, a working immune system cannot prescind from the nutrients that support it
    • Your focus should be on nutrient-dense whole foods, properly grown and prepared 
  • Seed oils rich in omega-6
  • Bad fatty acids
    • Trans-fatty acids
    • Hydrogenated fatty acids
    • Rancid fatty acids, for example baked seeds and nuts, especially nut flours
  • Alcohol
    • The immune-depressor action of alcohol works in multiple ways, stay away from it if your objective is avoiding cold and flu
    • The myth that some grappa "disinfects the throat" is just an excuse to drink one extra shot; not only it doesn't work, it irritates and inflames the throat even more
  • Insulin spikes
    • And therefore sugary treats, I always wondered why they are so popular during winter despite their nefast effects on the immune system...
  • Gluten
    • Inflammatory. Enough said.
  • Soy
    • This will always be in the list when I mention things to be avoided

Lifestyle changes

Some changes are everyday life's tips, some are pretty obvious but as they say in Latin: repetita juvant.
  • Wash your hands frequently
    • Although some sources advise to eat dirt to train your immune system, I definitely don't buy it
    • Not washing hands is usually the flagship of people following a primal/paleo lifestyle. I have good news for you: chimps have been seen washing their hands and I am pretty sure they are more paleo than any human has ever been ;)
  • Reduce stress, get good sleep, learn to relativize
    • The way stress impacts the immune system is very complex and  really goes beyond the scope of this already long post
  • Get a moderate and adequate amount of exercise
    • Both no exercise and excessive exercise weaken your immune system
  • Spend time outdoor
    • Pathogens thrive in closed environments, especially crowded places. Enjoy time outdoor even in cold weather: fresh, pure and oxygenated air is less likely to harm you than warm, humid and stagnating air.

Remember: it is a lifestyle

A important thing to remember is that a strong immune system is something that is cultivated all year long. You can't expect to achieve stainless-steel health in one week, just because you heard a co-worker coughing and want to avoid contagion in a desperate last-minute effort, this is not the way it works. That's why I am publishing this article in advance so that you can be ready for winter.

It is a lot of stuff and it takes some organization and some change of habits to be put it into practice... but in my opinion the reward is totally worth the effort.

More cool stuff coming soon, as I always say: stay tuned!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Recipe: liver the venetian style

After speaking about macronutrients, micronutrients, biochemical individuality, food cravings and nutrient density, the question is... how to achieve it? Some philosophical moments first.

In our society, there is a common misconception:

Food is either tasty or healthy

That's a big lie, nutrient dense food can taste good. Like in today's recipe, where the nutrient content is so high that I recomment to prepare it no more than once or twice per week to avoid an overload of vitamins.

The main protagonist is liver. Despite the bad rap, liver is the ultimate and most nutritious food you can ever imagine to introduce in your diet. Common critiques to liver include:
  • it is a filter
  • it stocks toxins
  • it contains too much Vit-A
I'll discuss better these and other common wisdom fallacies in my future articles on myth-busting. For the time being just remember this: liver is a superfood.

The recipe

This simple and quick (10 minutes max) recipe is a crossover of the liver the venetian style - a dish my grandmother used to prepare for me - and a lebanese liver recipe, which I discovered in a restaurant not long time ago.

How to proceed:

  • butter or ghee, or tallow: enough to sauté the onions
  • finely chopped shallots or onions: 2 medium or one big
In a large frying pan, sauté the onions in the fat of choice.

  • dry white wine: 1/3 glass
Add white wine and keep sautéing the onions.

  • liver (veal, rabbit, chicken), in pieces: 600 grams... makes for 3-4 servings
  • balsamic vinegar: 3 tablespoons
While the onions are frying, cut the liver into pieces. If you chose to prepare rabbit or chicken livers, it will take more time so my suggestion is to cut them in advance.

Add the liver, mix with the onions. Keep mixing in order to cook the chops from all directions.
As the liquids evaporate, add the balsamic vinegar to keep the recipe moisty. A good one is generally quite expensive, but a cheap one is just plain vinegar with added sugars and colorants: choose the good one.

  • cognac or brandy: 1/6 glass
  • lighter (???)
Pour the cognac over the liver and... flambé! (optional: you don't have to if you don't feel at ease with open flames in your kitchen, just add the cognac and let it evaporate).

  • sumac: ½ or 1 teaspoon
  • salt: to taste
  • freshly ground black peppercorn: to taste
  • freshly ground parsley: for decoration, (and for the Vitamin-C)
  • extra virgin oil of olive: for taste (and Vitamin-E, of course)
When the flames are extinguished, add the last ingredients.

To be served immediately, this recipe is not good re-heated.


As I mentioned, this dish truly is a vitamin bomb, in its disarming simplicity it is so well designed that no vitamin is missing (grandmothers knew better). I have it once or twice per week.

If you are not accustomed to eating organ meats, the best options are chicken liver or rabbit liver, thanks to their milder taste and softer consistence. In the picture I used duck liver, another excellent choice if you manage to find it. Veal and lamb liver are still good and possibly "pass the customs" of everybody. Beef and pork liver have definitely a stronger taste and fibrous consistency, I myself reserve them for other recipes (to come).

Liver, just like some other organ meats such as sweetbread or kidneys, should not be cooked too much: if you do, you destroy thermolabile nutrients and the texture becomes horrible (and that's why most people think they don't like offal meat). For this reason it is important to cut the liver into pieces so that it is possible to cook it rapidly and efficiently.

The flambé part is optional but has such a playful aspect I can't renounce to it. The advantage of doing it is that the short, but intense heat will lightly caramelize without burning the external layer of the liver chops, while keeping the core soft... yet cooked.

Sumac is a difficult spice to find but I really invite you to look for it, it has as very distinct acidic flavor and I use it in almost every middle-east recipe I do. A tagine, a hummus, just don't taste the same without it.

You'll notice that, when the recipe calls for them, I always add parsley and EVOoO at the end, to preserve their nutritional values. Peppercorn is also added at the end, in order to maintain its impressive anti-oxidant properties. Cooking peppercorn  also disperses its aroma, one additional reason to add it at the very end.