Eat To Keep Your Immune System (and Body) Healthy

By on April 20, 2020

Despite previous writings where I advocate for the legalization of marijuana, I don’t condone the recreational use of it or any drug. Even with marijuana, it is best used instead of pharmaceuticals — whose necessity I understand but they still intimidate me — for things like pain, anxiety, depression, stress, appetite stimulation and the other useful and corrective purposes it can serve when used correctly. On some level, though, I’d imagine many recreational users are self-medicating to some extent. Especially because many now-available strains are so strong, I am not as casual on the topic of its legalization or recreational use as I used to be. We evolve with learning. At one point I even figured legalizing cocaine would not be a bad idea, based simply on the fact that — like pot — it is derived from a plant. I thought legalising would reduce cocaine-related crime and figured the resulting tax revenues could be put to good use but it’s not that simple. I don’t think like that at all now, especially considering how intensely addictive it is and I consider my previous opinion flippant. I’m already mentally hyperactive enough that I don’t drink coffee*; I’d probably implode if I used cocaine. Even when I use matcha tea, I use barely enough to barely coat a teaspoon. I don’t need to talk about opioids, which wages-of-sin movies and TV shows have effectively prevented me from even considering. I wish I could say the same for all the people who have fallen victim to its unforgiving clutches. I never even filled vicodin prescriptions for minor surgeries I’ve had. I just told myself the discomfort was an itch that would go away. I’ve had athletic trainers tell me I have a high threshold for pain, not that I ever want to test it anymore than I have. The last prescription drugs I’ve used were antibiotics in March 2018 and April 2009. Both were for bronchitis, which I guess I could have avoided if I knew to take an anti-inflammatory (like Tylenol) at the onset of both cases. I don’t even like to take Tylenol or anything else for a headache unless it’s really bad and won’t go away, and those instances are very rare (knock on wood).

Look up articles about how many NFL players use marijuana instead of prescription medication. The foundation for their careers is frequent and intense physical and mental stress, with an emphasis on constant high-speed impact. Their opinion on the topic is valuable. For them, marijuana has little to do with “partying” or being lazy stoners. Being purposelessly inebriated isn’t something I recommend to anyone at any time for any reason. No one is more impressive in that state than when they are sober. Other than a little egg nog during the holidays or an occasional single sip of someone else’s margarita — both of which always emphasize and confirm why I stopped drinking — I have not had alcohol in more than four years and don’t miss it. I likewise rarely had it before I moved to NYC in late 2003. I also don’t miss being around heavy drinkers or anyone who is drunk. In growing up — and without putting a lot of thought into it — Prohibition seemed like a puritan-driven, weak and comical attempt at stopping other people’s fun. Now I realize the Prohibition movement was not only important, it was necessary. Alcohol’s damage is unquestionable, multi-dimensional and far-reaching. Like a lot of people, I did my heaviest drinking after high school then all but completely stopped the day I turned 21. I was glad to get that senseless rite of passage behind me. It was surprising how much more prevalent its use is in NYC than it is in Los Angeles. When I went to lunch with a co-worker when I was at Park Avenue hedge fund, he would have a shot of whiskey, a glass of wine and a beer (I had water or tea). During the workday, he constantly drank Monster energy drink. Any of that would wreak having on my body. When I socialized with co-workers or neighbors in Manhattan, they felt uncomfortable if I didn’t drink with them. I don’t miss that mindset at all. I’d have done better to have gone somewhere else while they drank.

Instead of using drugs or alcohol, make yourself feel better and healthier in ways that are more practical, accessible, sensible, substantial and beneficial by eating right and exercising regularly. There is a direct correlation between your physical health and your mental health. The first thing I’d recommend is immediately taking refined sugars out of your diet or at least significantly reducing your intake. Like with processed foods in general, refined sugars are so much part of our lives and in so many foods it’s hard to completely cut them out. I still drink watered down (from powder) Gatorade for the electrolytes every day. Full-strength Gatorade is much too sweet. The natural sugars from a few pieces of fruit every day is more than enough. We are just conditioned and spoiled to feel otherwise. For as much as I’ve read or heard that processed sugars (or processed anythings) are bad for us, it wasn’t until I took them out of my diet last summer that I got a real understanding of sugar’s detriment to my/our overall well-being. Not only did I stop having the slight perpetual congestion in my sinuses and chest that I had accepted as my norm, my entire body and head felt better. What seems to be even more noticeable than the clearness of my head and fitness of my body is that my sense of smell has improved so much it can be distracting. After we cook meals, I’m more sensitive to the residual smells — it’s still winter so we can’t freely open windows to air out the house — than I used to be. I was kept up all night recently from how strong the smell was to me and I got up to make sure the house was not smokey. I guess I was just used to having more mucus buildup in my system and sinus and throat soreness when I constantly ate refined sugars. For most of my life, I could only breathe through one side of my nose or the other at any given time. Now I regularly breathe out of both. I’ve really missed out. I pulled this excerpt about refined sugars off the internet:

  • While natural sugars, like the kind from fruits, are absolutely fine for your consumption, refined sugars from soda, candy, and other processed products are less ideal. These sugars can cause inflammation in the body, leading to an inhibition of your immune system and mucus buildup in your sinus cavities.

“Less ideal” is an understatement. It’s that last benefit of dropping sugar that I noticed most. From that blurb alone, you should be inspired to cut refined sugars out of your diet or, more realistically, reduce your intake. Other foods that can cause inflammation include alcohol/liquor, common vegetable cooking oils, dairy, wheat and red or processed meats.

This chart I pulled off the internet might be a helpful guideline to select the foods that are nutritionally sound when it comes to the war against inflammation and which foods to include and which to avoid. I posted the chart to get you thinking about what you eat. Do your own research. Several foods that may cause inflammation are good in other ways, like yogurt (probiotics) for your digestive system and oranges as a natural source of vitamin C. I worked with a super-smart guy whose hobby was fitness and nutrition and he was extremely passionate and knowledgeable about both and enjoyed sharing what he knew. In listening to him, almost everything we eat is bad for us. Where do we draw the line?

Chart Adapted and modified from the Anti-Inflammatory Diet by Andrew Weil, MD:

Besides the other ways they are bad for our health and based on this chart, common foods like pepperoni pizza, a cheeseburger and fries and chocolate ice cream are each a multiple threat to our immune systems. The importance of keeping your immune system healthy cannot be overemphasized. There are too many things that want to chip away at it as it is without our help, like the various stresses we accept as our norm. It makes sense that most of our ailments come from what we eat or don’t eat, which is something most of us adults can control. Kids are pretty much stuck with what their parents and/or schools give them. Americans eat terribly and I’m included in that grouping. When I lived in Manhattan, I fell into the New York City trap of constantly eating at or getting takeout or delivery from restaurants. It’s too easy and too inviting. Food is constantly pushed on you as you walk the city. I worked for four years at a company that paid for lunches we could order from any of hundreds of Midtown restaurants. Healthy eating not always consideration it should have been when I placed my order. On a good many number of days, I ate restaurant food twice a day. Even though I exercised regularly, my intake had to work against me and I have a lot of bad — however enjoyable at the time — eating to make up for.

Look at the food commercials you see on evening television. Food that is terrible for us is made to look irresistible. Note how often you see subliminal appetite-stimulating shades of red in those commercials. The dangers of salt and sodium are equally important as those of sugar, if not more so. Just look at all the overweight and obese people you see around you and on TV. As someone who has dramatically backed off foods not prepared in this house, I’ve realized that the magical ingredient that makes a lot of restaurant food — and most “comfort foods” — taste good is salt. For most people addicted to comfort food and averse to vegetables, their “what I like is good, what I don’t like is bad” works against them and that outlook carries over in the rest of their thinking as well. Incredibly flawed but incredibly common. This 100 year-old Penn Relays competitor’s response when asked about her longevity is in the quote in this blurb:

100-Year-Old Sets World Record at Penn Relays | Runner’s World

May 01, 2016 · 100-Year-Old Sets World Record at Penn Relays. … Ida Keeling says she exercises every day and “eats for nutritionnot for taste.” … 99-Year-Old Sets 100MeterRecord;

That’s it. That’s the rule of thumb for eating. It’s not about living forever; it’s about being disciplined in taking care of our miraculous bodies, which Americans take for granted. Look at all our body’s amazing functions; it’s muscular, skeletal, nerve and chemical abilities and reactions and it’s self-reparative abilities. Our bodies are microcosms of this planet; complex environments involving inevitable conflicts and unforeseen disasters that work to keep themselves and this our bodies balanced and healthy. Miraculous. In terms of the way flavor plays into our eating and health, a strict vegetable-heavy meal with minimal flavor (sesame oil helps a lot) and a minimal protein like a hard-boiled egg is not comfort-food satisfying but I feel great afterward. Eating a heavy everything-wrong-in-it comfort meal is satisfying (and usually quick and convenient) as I eat it, then my body feels terrible afterward. After a “satisfying” heavy meal, my heart wants to ignore other processes to devote itself to the avoidable emergency I repeatedly put my digestive system through.

I’d also recommend getting test for food (and other) allergies, which also are detrimental to our immune systems. You can’t avoid your allergens if you don’t know what they are. Your body will have a hard time fighting off other threats to your immune system if it already has its hands full with the poor choices we subject it to. I have been a lifelong chocolate lover. Every spring when I was in high school, I’d buys bags of Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips and nibble on them throughout the school day. I didn’t realize how much I was working against myself — especially since I ran track (a spring sport) and already had a bad allergy to ragweed, which seems to be the worst of my environmental allergens (which include down (like in the comforter I threw out the day of my allergy testing), some animal hair, danders, mites, and other pollens). Because the only hay fever medication I knew of at the time (actifed) made me drowsy (not good for settling into starting blocks or any aspect of running), I would cough like a lifelong smoker after each race late in the track season. It was so bad that my competitors would help me back to get my sweats. I’d lose so much weight my friends worried for me, and it wasn’t like I was a big guy to begin with. My chocolate allergy added to my allergy problems without me detecting it because the symptoms were similar to my reaction to ragweed, which was already intense. Adding all the sugar I consumed – and which further compromised my immune system — on top of the ragweed and chocolate allergies really put me in a bad way without me realizing it. My focus was on ragweed and nobody welcomed summer as much as I did back then. Once I moved from my high school town in the San Joaquin Delta (where I lived from 1972 to 1982) to Berkeley thirty miles away, my ragweed allergies vanished. No more raw noses from constant wiping and no more itchy watery eyes. Hard to imagine I went through that every spring for ten years. It was a luxury to no longer dread spring. It took decades more for me to figure out chocolate and refined sugars. Better late than never.

I took an allergy test (actually it was one test for environmental allergens and one for food allergens) around 2001 and discovered I was allergic to cacao (the basis of chocolate) and — to an extent where I cannot detect any symptoms — carrots, string beans, watermelon and peaches. I continued eating a carrot a day after those results because I figured the benefit of the nutrients for my eyes outweighed the imperceptible allergy reaction my body had. I took chocolate out of my diet (with some holiday lapses) and, combined with getting rid of processed sugars, felt better than I remember feeling in both body and mind. It was a noticeably different feeling and something I had robbed myself of by not abstaining from those two things sooner. I have been buying and eating Trader Joe’s Pound-Plus dark chocolate (a 17.6 oz bargain for $4.99 of good quality chocolate) for more than 25 years before I finally stopped eating it. Sometimes I’d eat only a square a day. Too many more days I ate much more, especially since I kept it in my office drawer for decades. Again, I was so used to the allergy symptoms I did not recognize them. Quitting chocolate was at least as impactful on my body as quitting refined sugars. Seeing the benefit of getting rid of chocolate, I likewise stopped eating carrots with no perceptible benefit, which doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. I finally realized my vegetable and fruit allergens are only effective when they are raw. Now I cut up carrots and either nuke or saute them so I’m back to getting my daily nutrients with zero concern for allergic reactions.

Here are a couple of non-immune system health-related experiences I’d like to share:

Several years ago a friend told me his trainer recommended a post-workout protein supplement called Muscle Milk. I didn’t want to gain mass, which is the product’s main purpose. I just wanted to make sure my body got nutrients lost during my workout. Instead of using the recommended two scoops, I only used 1/4 to 1/2 scoop after workouts and more recently reduced that amount to 1/5 scoop. At the time I was on a vegetable-heavy diet and my main meal was usually a combination of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, zucchini or spinach or kale along with a hard-boiled egg, along with a few pieces of fruit a day. I also ate dark chocolate, deluxe (no peanuts) nuts, dried fruit (containing sugar and sulfer dioxide) and frozen fruit juice bars (pretty much all processed sugar). Other than the nuts, I stopped eating the other things almost a year ago.

During a three-day period of strict vegetable-heavy eating and also using the supplement, I found myself constipated, which had me concerned. In researching, I discovered broccoli is difficult to digest and I attributed my problem to that and cut down my intake of that vegetable. Recently, I looked at reviews of Muscle Milk and realized that the product contained two ingredients — maltodextrin and sucralose — that, in animals, were found to inhibit the digestive system’s good bacteria and promote its bad bacteria. No tests have been made on humans. Both ingredients are FDA-approved. I threw out the rest of my Muscle Milk and shared my findings with the guy whose trainer recommended the product. He told me he discovered the same thing and is sitting on two huge containers of the product with no intention of using it.

When I was eighteen, I found a paperback book in our town library entitled “The Truth About Vitamins”, which basically said if we eat right and exercise, our bodies produce all the vitamins it needs. Sounds sensible to me. Still, for most of my adult life, I took a daily multiple vitamin. Now I take one every 2-3 days.

I am in no way a health expert, although I’ve been good at consistent exercise and I’ve been reasonably fit my entire adult life. Because of the recent change in the way my body feels after adjusting my diet (with lapses because I’m human), I wanted to share my own recent (and not-so recent) personal experiences. Also, writing all this out helps emphasize to myself the need to “eat for nutrition” and “not for taste.”

DPW April 13, 2020

*As someone who doesn’t drink coffee, I am not envious of the effort and stress coffee drinkers go through to obtain their caffeine fix. Starbucks’ means nothing to me. If not for my partner, I would not own a coffee maker or grinder. My first real experience with coffee was when, while in college, I had to fly cross-country for a week-long corporate training. Because I slept in a bed that was not mine and shared a room with someone I didn’t know, I didn’t sleep at all that first night. The training days were long and intense so, that first day, I had one cup of coffee. I was uncomfortable with the jittery feeling it gave me but I never came close to falling asleep that day. I learned how much of a potent drug coffee really is and didn’t have coffee the rest of that week. On rare occasions I’ll have a sip or two and that’s enough. The fact it is addictive is obvious by how many people can’t start their day without it and it’s even worse for people that can’t have coffee without cream or half and half. Once I backed off eating dark chocolate every day because of my allergy to cacao, my caffeine intake pretty much stopped — other than the little bit of matcha I use, I avoid caffeinated tea — and I feel better for it.

About Dan Walker

As part of an Air Force family, I went to elementary school in Great Falls, MT, junior high in Cheyenne, WY and high school and college in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in business. I was fortunate to have worked for great companies in Silicon Valley (Oracle Corp) and Hollywood (Miramax Films). I also lived and worked (primarily in financial services, which has no great companies) for eight years in Manhattan, New York City. I now reside in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley.

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