By Abi Bistany
Dr. Amanda Tracy is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor and owner of Advanced Health & Wellness in Andover, MA. With over 15 years of experience as an integrative doctor, she combines medical knowledge with a holistic approach and her passion for plant based living to improve the lives of women managing autoimmune conditions, hormone imbalances and stress-related illnesses.
Immune health has become a pressing point of conversation in the age of Covid-19. With heightened awareness of what we can do to protect ourselves from catching a virus and fighting off its effects, there seems to be an overwhelming amount of information on keeping ourselves healthy in a time of uncertainty.
The CDC emphasises the scientifically-proven effectiveness of wearing a mask and getting vaccinated to protect ourselves against the Covid-19 virus, but with new guidelines allowing those who are fully vaccinated to not have to wear a mask in most indoor and outdoor settings, one may feel nervous of potential viral and infectious health risks that may arise as we transition into a mask-optional phase of the pandemic. Dr. Amanda Tracy, ND, of Advanced Health and Wellness located in Andover, MA, offers her expertise on how to strengthen your immune health to defend yourself against Covid-19, as well as other viral infections that attack your immune system, with a whole foods, plant-based diet.
Within her naturopathic practice, Dr. Tracy advocates for a vegan diet for many reasons. Citing a reduction in both inflammation and obesity, and an improvement in blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, Dr. Tracy believes a whole foods, plant-based diet can play an integral role in reducing the effects of the Covid-19 virus. “With the infection of the Sars Covid-2 you are more likely to have more severe outcomes if you are overweight, have asthma, have high blood pressure, lung disease, and type-two diabetes and blood sugar irregularities. A plant-based diet is very effective in addressing those underlying conditions. So it’s definitely more important to make the switch to a plant based diet now more than ever,” said Dr. Tracy.
It is important to understand how our immune system functions in regards to our own efforts to protect ourselves. According to Dr. Tracy, an effective immune response begins with a healthy gut.
“When thinking of our immunity, there are basically three phases you want to look at and the first is immune protection and our signalling system for our immune system to let our immune system know to be on alert, and a big part of that happens in our respiratory tract and the lining of our gut,” said Dr. Tracy. “That’s where we have specific antibodies that are primed to notice infections, then once those are primed, that tells the second phase of our immune system, like our white blood cells, to take action. So you want to have healthy digestion and a healthy lining of your gut to have those antibodies be strong to then get the immune system to start working against the infection.”
Feeding your gut healthy bacteria through prebiotic and probiotic foods is a great step in reducing inflammation and creating an environment for a strong immune response. According to Dr. Tracy, it is not beneficial enough to only incorporate high-fiber, plant-based foods into your diet. It is important to remove high-inflammatory foods from your diet as well. Dr. Tracy said, “Besides having higher fiber plant foods that are feeding your good gut bacteria with probiotic bacteria that are creating biotin, vitamin K and vitamin D, and other immune factors, you do want to reduce those high inflammatory foods or avoid them overall, such as meat, dairy and eggs, particularly because they can be difficult to digest…if you’re taking long to digest those foods, they’re creating inflammation as they’re going through your gut, and you are not able to fight infections as well. If you are fighting an infection, you’re going to have more of an inflammatory response, and more illness and more symptoms.” Dr. Tracy also warns that corn and soy, though plant-based, should be avoided and only eaten if from a non-gmo and organic source.
According to Dr. Tracy, inflammation is a part of our immune system. Specifically, it is a tool that our immune system uses. She states that we do need to have some inflammation-circulating cells that carry out inflammation as a form of communication in the body, to alert us that there is something wrong that we have to fight against or just expel from the body.
“We do need to have a healthy level of inflammation and that’s where omega-3 fats come in, because the more omega-3 fats that you have, [such fat] that is in chia, hemp and flax seeds, the more omega-3s that are in your cells, whenever you have a trigger for inflammation, you’ll form a more beneficial inflammation versus damaging inflammation,” explained Dr. Tracy. “On a standard American diet that has high saturated fats and proteins that are high in arachidonic acid like meats, if you have more of that arachidonic acid in your cells, even if you had the same trigger for inflammation from the beginning, the outcome will be worse, that’s why you want to have less of the arachidonic acid animal products and more of the omega 3’s.”
There are many plant-based immune-boosting foods to incorporate into our diets. Dr. Tracy stresses the importance of phyto-nutrients found in fruits and vegetables, which have been shown to lessen the severity of symptoms in infections and viruses. When we are thinking of the three phases of the immune system, different vitamins and phytonutrients play specific roles in defense and management of our immune health. Dr. Tracy recommends mushrooms to be included in a plant based diet for this reason: “Mushrooms have beta glucans in them, a compound that can increase those antibodies that are our first defense in our immune system…Mushrooms are also a vegan source of vitamin D. If you put mushrooms in the sun for fifteen minutes to an hour, they actually manufacture more vitamin D, so mushrooms can be a really good source of vitamin D as a vegan.”
Other than mushrooms, Dr. Tracy recommends focusing on foods that are brightly colored, she said, “Things that are bright orange and bright red are high in vitamin C and beta carotene which is really good at reducing inflammation and cleaning up the mess after you’ve had an infection with all of those antioxidants.”
Dr. Tracy continued, “I would also focus on nuts and seeds to make sure you’re getting the micronutrients such as selenium, chromium and zinc, which are partners to all the vitamins when you’re fighting infections.” Dr. Tracy states that inflammation, when you are “killing” the infection, causes free radicals, and in turn, free radicals cause damage not only to the infection you are trying to kill but also your own cells. According to Dr. Tracy, anti-oxidants, such as beta carotene and vitamin E get rid of and neutralize the free radicals, and clean up the debris of the attack.
There are also nutrients that may relieve the symptoms associated with Covid-19 once someone has already been infected by the virus, and for those who are feeling the long term effects. Dr. Tracy states that the severe cases of the Covid-19 virus are related to the inflammation that is carried out after the infection takes hold, “This has more to do with not having enough selenium, zinc, beta carotene, and vitamin E to quell that inflammation. There is also a second level of damage that happens in the lungs, and the lungs start filling up with a gel like mucus, and if you have a diet that is high in nutrients, like Bromelain, that’s in pineapple, and quercetin, that’s in garlic, onions, apples and pears, the quercetin has been shown to improve lung health and decrease that mucus gel formation, and the Bromelain also helps to break up that inflammation in the lungs and respiratory tract,” said Dr. Tracy
While the new CDC guidelines put into effect have allowed those who have been fully vaccinated to live a less restricted life, this isn’t a good enough reason to abandon personal health measures. Having a healthy gut, and in turn a strong immune defense helps to prevent many viral infections from causing significant harm to our bodies.
Dr. Tracy demonstrates why making a switch from the standard American diet to a diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps with overall and long-term immune defense:
“[The secretory IGA] is the phase of the immune system that’s kicking in between 24-48 hours after you’ve been in contact with the virus, so before you even know you have symptoms. This is the part of the immune system that needs to work before you even start having a runny nose or a sore throat, so it’s important to have a low fat, vegetarian diet to boost your immune systems response…It’s also been found that people who are on a lower fat, high fiber vegetarian or vegan diet are actually able to mobilize their white blood cells faster to an infection, so the second part of their immune system works faster than those on a standard American diet.”
To find other helpful advice on naturopathic health and wellness, you can find Dr. Tracy on instagram @AmandaTracyND.
Abi (she/her) has been vegan for 5 years and recently graduated from Boston University. Abi is a writer as well as a member and social media coordinator for 100 American Lebanese Who Care, a charity organization raising money for non-profits in Lebanon working on the ground to provide relief for the Lebanese civilians recovering from the August 4 2020 Beirut Blast.
You can follow Abi on Instagram @abibistany!