5 Practices to Impact Immunity & Joy

Today’s practice is #3 in our series of 5Ps….Plants! Yes, it’s time to embrace and learn about whole, colorful, and fermented foods that can boost immunity

Nourishing your body with healthy food is one of the key lifestyle domains according to the Institute of Functional Medicine. New patients often come into my practice stressed and worried that they cannot get better, and they’re surprised to learn that changes in the types of food they eat can bring about almost immediate and significant improvement on so many levels.

We’ve all heard different kinds of advice on how to eat healthy, but let’s just bullet point the obvious, before we deep dive:

  • Eat whole foods, rather than packaged or processed foods
  • Shop around the perimeter of the store
  • Eat the colors of the rainbow to obtain the most phytonutrients
  • Include fermented foods for a healthy gut
  • Eat organic foods when possible
  • Eat mostly plants – and focus more on vegetables than fruits
  • When possible, eat the part of the plant that grows above (not beneath) the soil

If you haven’t tried eating only whole foods, then you can find hope and joy in the knowledge that feeling better is much closer at hand than you may realize!

A key takeaway is to eat whole foods whenever possible. Trust me, our bodies are not craving processed and packaged foods that contain additives. The pain point comes when we have lost our vitality and energy. We become overwhelmed by the sea of food available in the supermarket, at restaurants, and while traveling.

We need to take a compass heading from our bodies to understand how to nourish ourselves. You may already be eating whole foods and doing some of these things, and you may be feeling somewhat better already. If so, keep at it and push the dose – strive to improve nourishment to the next level to get that exciting extra layer of vitality!

When my patients shift to eating whole foods, they commonly experience an immediate response of, “Oh my gosh, I’m feeling better! My body is getting what it wants!” The next step is knowing how much to eat and how to choose between all the foods that are available.

Plants should take up one-half to three-quarters of your plate at every meal, whenever possible. This is mind-blowing for many of us, but it isn’t so surprising when you consider the fact that ancestral, pre-agricultural humans were doing this all day, every day. Eating a diet dominated by plants is in our genetics.

For roughly 9,000 years we humans have raised plants via agriculture, but genetic changes happen over hundreds of thousands of years. Our genetics have not caught up to our lifestyle changes. Genetically, we are pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers. Our bodies are expecting what hunter-gatherers were expecting, which is a huge variety of plants, all day, every day.

Processed foods contain synthetic substances that trick the body. They tend to be high in calories but contain very few nutrients.

Here are some easy action steps for eating quality whole foods to feel better fast:

1) Obtain nutrients from their original source. Instead of a granola bar with almonds, eat actual almonds themselves. Not a fruit roll-up, but a fruit. Not Hamburger Helper, but grass-fed beef and some vegetables. There is a lot of good information out there, such as Dr. Mark Hyman’s work on combating obesity and ‘food as medicine,’ and information provided by the Environmental Working Group.

2) Avoid processed foods and foods that contain additives. Shift from processed to high quality foods that do not contain additives, preservatives, or pesticides. These can damage our gut barrier and cause leaky gut, which allows bacteria and toxins to enter into our bloodstream. This can cause all sorts of problems including inflammation and fatigue. Research shows that your microbiome affects the ability of cells to produce mitochondria, which are the power plants of cells. [If you have time, check out Dr. Jay Davidson’s work on this topic.]

3) Eat organic foods when at all possible. If cost is a factor, try to purchase organic produce on what the Environmental Working Group describes as the Dirty Dozen. (Each year this nonprofit lists the fruits and vegetables that contain the most pesticides, so it’s important to go organic with these if you can.) They also list the Clean Fifteen, and it’s not so important that these are organic if you’re on a limited budget.

4) Eat the colors of the rainbow to maximize nutrition. Different colored foods contain distinct phytonutrients that provide unique benefits, so the more colors you eat the better. This is an easy practice to follow at the supermarket without a lot of fancy principals. When you

eat across the color and phytonutrient spectrum, you will gain as many benefits of these nutrients as possible to promote vitality and protect against disease.

For example, the phytonutrients in purple eggplant and blueberries have different benefits, even though they may seem close in color.

Note: Eating different colored fruits and vegetables can be a magical and fun activity for children. They can choose organic blueberries one day, then orange papayas the next day. It’s good for both kids and adults to be involved in nutrition decisions!

5) Eat more leafy vegetables and fewer fruits. You may know that some vegetables provide more nutrients than others, but it turns out that it matters which part of the plant you eat. One of the secrets of functional medicine is a focus on eating the leafy parts of the plant that grow above ground. Roots and tubers tend to be starchier, sweeter, and have a higher glycemic index. These starches are important for the microbiomes in our gut and are helpful in small amounts, but many of us get more carbohydrates than we need.

Fill half or most of your plate with the leafy, above-ground parts, and then add a smaller serving of the sweeter, starchier roots.

6) Eat fermented foods every day. Eating fermented food is something you can do right away to be more vital and healthy. When we eat fermented foods that contain living beneficial bacteria, we’re adding good citizens to our gut microbiome “garden”, and the benefits are off the charts!

Fermented foods help us replenish the good bacteria, and this helps our immune system, digestion, and nutrient absorption. These bacteria are not just helpers, they are traveling companions that we have spent hundreds of thousands of years coexisting with.

Without our gut microbiome, we don’t produce 80% of the serotonin in our brains, we don’t train our immune system to distinguish friend from foe, and we don’t make precursors to certain vitamins. The beneficial bacteria that are in our gut are ‘mission critical’ parts of us. The average human gut contains hundreds of species of bacteria with a total population of trillions of bacteria.

The bacterial cells that make up our microbiome outnumber our cells because they are vastly smaller than human cells in size. The actual number of bacterial genes in our body is estimated to be over 3 million, versus only 23 thousand human genes.

There is a good deal of evidence for the gut-brain connection, or what is often called our ‘second brain.’ Donna Gates has described the many anti-aging and immune boosting effects of nutritional genomics.

How do we help the good bacteria help us? We add extra ‘good citizens’ to our gut by eating lacto-fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, and certain kinds of pickling. These foods are very safe and have been part of our cultures for thousands of years. Most of us can joyfully engage with these foods with few side effects, but you should be cautious if you are immunosuppressed.

Fermented, aka “living food” calms your immune system and promotes the production of serotonin, which enhances brain function, boosts mood, accelerates healing, and much more. Eating quality fermented food is actually preferable to taking probiotic supplements. A professional grade probiotic capsule might have a billion or more organisms, but just one-half cup of properly lacto-fermented food can have over a trillion beneficial organisms in it.

Quality fermented foods will often cost a bit more. Be careful not to purchase pasteurized lacto-fermented foods that are made solely for their taste, because that process kills the bacteria.

Eating fermented foods that contain living organisms is one of the secrets to becoming more vital and healthy right away, so I hope you will get started immediately if it is something you are interested in.

Here’s one amazingly delicious, veggie-laden recipe to help you with your efforts:



  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 lb ground turkey (you can also use ground beef, pork, a vegan meat alternative, fish – or omit entirely if you are vegetarian)
  • 1/4 cup onion, sliced
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp fresh minced ginger
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce or coconut aminos
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • 1/3 cup shredded carrots
  • 1/4 cup chopped green onion
  • 4 cups shredded cabbage


  1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Cook meat and onion over medium heat until
  2. Mix in ginger, garlic, and soy sauce.
  3. Add carrots, cabbage, and mushrooms and stir until well mixed.
  4. Once all the veggies have softened remove skillet from heat.
  5. Stir in sesame oil, top with green onions. Serve.

Remember, you are living in a time of great abundance, with many food choices around you. That isn’t always the case in life – or in many areas around the world. Be grateful, enjoy the world around you, and bon appetit!

Your friend,

Dr. Rob Downey