In these uncertain times of Covid, mainstream media is regularly reminding us about steps we should take to help minimize its spread. We all know about physical distance, wearing a mask and washing our hands, along with the reasonable request to self-isolate if we’re not feeling well.
They’re good and practical points, but what we’re not hearing about nearly as often are the many other simple things we can do to help ourselves, our loved ones, and by extension, our community in general.
Since each of us is responsible for our own health, the question is, and should always be, “What can I do on a daily basis to get and stay healthy?” For those of you caring for elderly family members who may no longer be able to independently manage their own healthcare needs, this is usually a large part of your concerns.
Creating and maintaining a strong, healthy immune system is important for all of us on a regular basis, and is more so now during a pandemic. Our senior citizens tend to be at greater risk due to immune systems that are not as strong as they once were due in part to advanced age, but also to other health issues and side effects of multiple medications.
It’s critical to make sure we each have as strong an immune system as possible. While acknowledging there are people who have additional challenges to face with compromised immune systems from a number of causes, the basics discussed below are still valid.
Nutritional Tips Specifically for Seniors
Nutrition for seniors sometimes requires a bit of fine-tuning, as their digestive systems may not be able to absorb nutrients as effectively as they could when they were younger adults.
For example, after age 60, the majority of people aren’t producing as much stomach acid which can then decrease the absorption of vital nutrients that require an acidic environment to be properly broken down.
The following then is a general overview of ways to protect and strengthen you and your loved one’s immune systems.
Each of these key areas overlap and influence one another, so all must be addressed.
Here are 4 key areas of Health to improve the immune system
Let's talk about nutrition.
Approximately 70% of our immune system is in the gut, so a vital first step is to make sure we and our elderly loved ones are eating foods that provide the nutrients needed on a daily basis to strengthen and support it.
Water – Hydration is Key!
Getting enough water in the diet is critical for all functions in the body including:
The ability to properly digest and absorb water soluble nutrients
Keeping the mucus membranes of the body’s respiratory system well hydrated to capture and expel environmental irritants
Required for the proper digestion and absorption of fat-soluble nutrients such as Vitamins A, D, E and K
Critical for a number of functions that provide anti-oxidant protection, mucus membrane and immune system support, and assisting in the absorption of other nutrients
Healthy sources of fat include avocados, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and fatty wild-caught fish.
Proteins - Strength and Energy
Proteins from both animal and plant sources are essential in the:
Growth and repair of tissues in the body including muscles that in turn provide strength, range of motion
Ability to regulate body heat. Many seniors have issues with staying warm due to loss of muscle tone which is often from being less active and having a loss of appetite
Good sources of protein include meat, leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds.
For seniors who may have swallowing issues, protein, along with other nutrient dense foods can be made into smoothies which are an easier way for them to get the nutrients they need, and are more easily absorbed.
The Vitamin ABC’s for Improving Senior Health
Vitamin A – Infection Fighter
Vitamin A is known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that help support the immune system. The precursors to Vitamin A, known as carotenoids are also essential for growth and eye health. Remember the expression “eat the rainbow”? This is to encourage we’re consuming a varied and colourful diet.
Good sources of Vitamin A are carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, cantaloupe and dark, green leafy vegetables.
Vitamin B12 – Energy and Mental Function
Vitamin B12 is one of these nutrients that need enough acid in the stomach to be best absorbed. B12 is vital for a number of functions including converting food to energy, and red blood cell production and nerve conduction; both which play critical roles in cognition and memory.
Recognition of how important this vitamin is to healthy mental function is the reason why doctors often recommend that seniors daily supplement with B12, and why it is administered to the elderly in care facilities.
Vitamin B Complex Family – Supporting Health and Well Being
The Vitamin B complex is made up eight different vitamins, each of which is important in supporting the immune system to prevent infection. Amongst their various functions, they help produce red blood cells, promote healthy nerve function, and boost energy levels.
Good sources of these vitamins are dark green leafy greens, eggs, legumes, walnuts and salmon.
Vitamin C – Super Immune System Booster
Vitamin C is an essential, water soluble nutrient that is a powerful immune system booster. Our bodies can’t produce this vitamin, so we must get it from food and supplementation when needed. This is especially true for our elderly loved ones.
The more their immune systems can be strengthened, the greater the ability to fend off illness, or at the very least, lessen the severity of symptoms.
Good sources of Vitamin C are citrus fruit, bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli, potatoes and brussel sprouts.
Vitamin D3 – The “Sunshine” Vitamin
Vitamin D is actually a hormone that people normally produce when exposed to sunshine on a regular basis. Vitamin D powerfully supports the immune system by its anti-inflammatory effect, and by helping key cells fight off infection.
Unfortunately, people living in parts of the world that get less sunshine in the winter obviously have less opportunity, and so it becomes important to supplement the diet during the shorter daylight hours.
Good sources of Vitamin D are fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines. If possible, use wild caught versus farmed fish.
Note: Be sure to supplement with the D3 (natural) instead of D2 as this is the synthetic form of Vitamin D which is less readily absorbed by the body and therefore, is less effective.
Vitamin E – Fights Infections
Vitamin E is another antioxidant used to fight off infections and therefore, provides powerful support to the immune system.
Good sources of Vitamin E are healthy, high fat plant-based foods such as avocados, peanut butter, almonds, sunflower seeds, coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil.
Vitamin K2 – Assisting Immune Function
Vitamin K2 supports the immune system by inhibiting cell growth thereby helping reduce inflammation. This version of Vitamin K is better absorbed by the body.
Good sources of Vitamin K2 are: animal based foods such as meat and liver, and some forms of fermented dishes. Natto is made from fermented soybean while kimchi is made from fermented vegetables. Some aged cheeses like Munster, Camembert, Edam and aged Gouda also have varying amounts of vitamin K2.
Minerals are a Must!
Plants normally pull minerals up from the ground through their root systems. Unfortunately, many parts of the world are having a challenge with mineral-poor soils, so in many instances, we need to supplement. Aside from their important functions, minerals are needed to support the best absorption of critical vitamins.
Minerals such as Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium and Sodium are critical for good health and play double duty as both minerals and electrolytes; electrically charged to support vital functions of the heart, muscle contraction, blood pH and pressure regulation.
Good sources of Calcium are milk, yogurt, cheese, and calcium-fortified beverages such as almond milk. Calcium is also found in dark-green leafy vegetables, dried peas and beans.
Good sources of Magnesium are pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, and cashews
Good sources of Potassium are bananas, oranges, cantaloupe, honeydew, apricots, grapefruit, bean, legumes, cooked spinach, cooked broccoli, and potatoes.
Good sources of Sodium are fresh, quality meats, poultry, and seafood rather than processed varieties, salted nuts and seeds
Note: Ensure proper ratios of these minerals to one another. Too much or too little can, for instance, affect heart function.
Trace Minerals are also important in providing elderly loved ones with their nutritional needs.
Along with Vitamin B12, Folate is essential for nerve function, brain health and the production of red blood cells and DNA. Numerous studies have shown that low nutritional status of folate and B12 are linked to poor long-term health, especially among older people.
Good sources of Folate include spinach, liver, asparagus, and brussel sprouts.
Iron is essential throughout all stages of our lives to make hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen to tissues in the body. Iron also plays a role as a part of other protein function within the body.
Good sources of Iron are found in quality meats and poultry, eggs, tuna and salmon.
Selenium is important for thyroid function, DNA production, and protecting the body from damage caused by free radicals and from infection.
Good sources of selenium are brazil nuts, seafoods, organ meats, regular cuts of meat, cereals, grains and dairy products.
Zinc supports a number of functions in the human body including the support of the immune system, assists the body to make proteins and DNA, and contributes to wound healing.
Good sources of zinc are oysters, poultry, baked beans, chickpeas, and nuts such as cashews and almonds (or nut-based milks).
Ensuring a healthy sourced and balanced diet goes a long way to not only boosting the immune system’s ability to protect and fight infection, but also enhancing the function of every system in the body.
It is essential to consult with a pharmacist or a registered nutritionist to make sure any nutrients taken in supplement form will not have a negative impact on any medication your elderly loved one takes.
Have your loved one’s oral health checked as it can impact how their diet may need to be modified. This includes proper fitting of dentures, and the degree to which they can chew or safely swallow solids, liquids, medications or supplements.
Do you need help with taking care of your elderly?
Contact Nancy to inquire about a Caregiver Action Plan assessment where all aspects of care are reviewed in order to help families create a more dynamic and positive experience for the care of their loved ones.
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Nancy Glover, a healthy aging advocate, mentors extraordinary women and men who have stepped into the challenging role of caring for their elderly spouse or parent by managing their well-being in the later stages of life. Blending first-hand expertise with practical step by step systems to support the needs, goals, and desires of the elderly spouse or parent, Nancy helps caregivers maneuver the complex and often challenging role with supportive advocacy and resources that equally focus on everyone’s well-being. Learn more about her at www.agingwithgrace.ca and sign up to receive timely information and strategies to empower caregivers and families in transition.