Boost Your Immune System with Your Diet!
Your immune system is responsible for keeping you healthy. It fights infection and disease by identifying harmful germs and attacking and killing them. It also helps destroy cells that may turn into cancer. Your immune system is absolutely necessary for your health, and the great news is that you can boost your immune system with your diet!
Your immune system consists of a network of cells, tissues and organs that need to be kept healthy in order for them to do their job well. Managing stress in a healthy way, getting regular exercise (30 minutes every day), and getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night will all help your immune system. But one of the biggest ways you can boost your immune system’s function is by eating a healthful diet.
Immune function depends on many key nutrients for proper function. A deficiency in even one single nutrient can affect your immune system. Nutrients help the immune system by working as antioxidants to keep healthy cells healthy. They support the formation, growth, and function of immune cells, and they help produce antibodies. Let’s look a little more at some of these nutrients:
Vitamin C: Also known as ascorbic acid, Vitamin C is a major player in our immunity. It is a water-soluble vitamin that is a powerful antioxidant, which reduces inflammation. This is important because inflammation harms our immune system. It’s antioxidant properties also stabilize other vitamins and allow them to work as well. Citrus fruits, broccoli, and tomatoes are great sources of vitamin C.
Vitamin D: Absorbing calcium and phosphorus requires adequate levels of Vitamin D. This is important for bone health. Vitamin D itself is also important to modulate the immune system. It helps it work hard, but not so hard that we develop autoimmune problems. Vitamin D can be made in our bodies using sunlight, but sunscreen can inhibit this. Important food sources include fatty fish and fortified dairy products.
Zinc: Zinc has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It is crucial for normal development and functions of immune cells such as neutrophils and macrophages. It has also been shown to be important for cognitive function as well. Good sources of zinc include meat, poultry, seafood, beans and nuts.
Selenium: Protecting cells from damage is a key step in keeping us healthy, and that is where Selenium comes in. It is involved in the very important job of DNA repair. Selenium can be obtained through vegetables, grains, seafood, meat, dairy products, and nuts.
Iron: Iron is essential for all living organisms. We know it mostly as important for preventing anemia, but it has a big role in immunity as well. Iron can be found in meats/eggs, beans, seafood, and vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, and kale.
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Does it surprise you to know that you have trillions of microorganisms living in your body? While that may sound disturbing at first, know that they are essential to your normal gut function, to your absorption of food, and to your immune system. Probiotic and Prebiotic foods thus play key roles in our immunity.
Probiotics contain live microorganisms that help maintain proper levels of “good” bacteria that are needed in our bodies. Probiotics can be found in both foods and supplements. Probiotic foods include yogurt with live active cultures, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha tea, and miso. Supplements are also available as well. Choose a reputable brand or ask your dietician or doctor for a recommendation.
PREbiotics are non-digestible ingredients we eat that are food for these good bacteria so that they can thrive. Since we can’t digest these particular dietary fibers, they make their way to the colon where the microorganisms metabolize and ferment them and use them for food. Additionally, biproducts that result from this process, short-chain fatty acids, are good for your colon cells and aid in immunity. Examples of prebiotic foods include garlic, onions, asparagus, seaweed, and bananas.
Eating an adequate amount of protein is one way to boost your immune system with your diet. Most of our patients are VERY familiar with how important protein is for maintaining a healthy weight, but did you also know that dietary protein and amino acids are critical for proper immune function? Protein is necessary for the proper function of our T cells, B cells, Natural Killer Cells and Macrophages, thus too little protein increases our risk of infection.
The amount of protein you need depends on factors such as age, gender, muscle mass, kidney problems, etc., but a generally-accepted amount is around 60g per day. Examples of foods high in protein include seafood, pork, beef, poultry, lamb, dairy products, eggs, and beans. Choose proteins that are lower in saturated fat for heart health.
If you are concerned about your protein intake, meet with a registered dietician who can give you guidelines and education on how to get the right kinds of proteins and in the right amounts.
In some instances such as bariatric surgery patients whose absorption of vitamins has been affected or people who live in areas without access to a variety of foods, taking a multivitamin containing the RDA for these nutrients may be needed. Bariatric patients need to be especially careful about having their vitamin levels checked annually by their bariatric program.
As with many things, too much of a good thing is not usually good. The right balance of essential nutrients is critical to your health. Too little OR too much of them can cause damage to cell function and can be very harmful. It is important to consume the Recommended Dietary Allowances of these foods and supplements unless specifically instructed otherwise by a doctor who is closely monitoring your levels.
The relationship between alcohol consumption, immune response, and infectious and inflammatory processes is not completely understood. It has been clearly demonstrated, however, that consuming moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol (an average of more than one small beverage daily) is significantly linked to poor immune function and an increased risk of several cancers.
This is thought to be due to an impact on our body’s production of white blood cells and antibodies as well as damage that alcohol can cause to the lining of our gut. This makes us more prone to infection. Some data has shown that very small amounts of alcohol may have some health benefits, but more research is needed to better understand how alcohol affects our immune system and how much, if any, is considered to be safe to consume.
Water makes up about 70% of total cell mass, so it makes sense that to keep our immune system functioning well, we need to constantly supply our cells and tissues with adequate water. A plant without water becomes weak, is prone to disease, and dies. Our cells do the same. They are working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, your entire life to protect you from disease. Keep them watered!
If drinking water is not your thing, try some tricks to help you get more in. Adding lemon or lime juice to your water gives it some flavor, and you have the added bonus of getting some Vitamin C at the same time! Decaffeinated tea also is a good way to hydrate. We recommend decaffeinated because caffeine is a diuretic. It causes your kidneys to waste water. So the effect of drinking a cup of caffeinated tea or coffee is actually a DE-hydration effect. Decaffeinated tea or coffee, however, will serve to hydrate you as well as plain water.
The use of artificial sweeteners is not recommended when getting in your hydration because of the deleterious effects these chemicals can have on our gut microbiome. We talked about the importance of the microorganisms that live in our gut and of feeding them well with prebiotics. When we consume artificial sweeteners, we actually feed the bad bacteria; not the ones we want.
Western Diet: How bad is it?
The average Western diet is high in processed foods, sugary drinks, and unhealthy fats. It consists of primarily red meat, rather than a variety of protein sources, it is significantly low in vegetables and fruits, and consists of sweetened drinks and juices rather than water. These foods put our bodies in a state of inflammation, and when you eat like that regularly, your body becomes chronically inflamed. Chronic inflammation weakens the immune system and makes it harder for your body to fight infection.
Additionally, the processing of many of these foods strips them of their nutrients. That, combined with the low vegetable and fruit content of the Western diet, leaves our bodies without the critical nutrients and antioxidants it needs to keep its immune system healthy.
The Western diet is also a major contributor to obesity. The resulting excess fat cells produce pro-inflammatory molecules that impair immune cell function. And just like artificial sweeteners, this way of eating has a negative impact on the gut microbiome as well by disrupting the balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in our gut.
So what’s the perfect diet for boosting your immunity?
Variety and Balance
So how can you boost your immune system with your diet? One that includes a wide variety of high-nutrient foods that will provide you with all of these important elements. Variety and balance are key. Red meat is a good source of many nutrients, but too much of it can cause inflammation and heart disease. Fruit is full of antioxidants, but it contains a lot of sugar, and too much sugar causes weight gain and inflammation. You need to consume a variety of these foods to help your body get the different nutrients it needs without causing harm.
It is a common misconception that to eat healthfully, one needs to sacrifice good taste. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, once your body adjusts to eating healthful foods, you will find that your body will no longer want those of lesser quality. To get started, check out these excellent recipes for immunity-boosting meals.
You can boost your immune system with your diet!
A healthy immune system is crucial to a healthy person, and there are so many easy ways to boost your immune system with your diet and lifestyle. Eat a variety and balance of healthful foods, get regular exercise and adequate sleep, avoid smoking, and find effective ways to manage stress and you will be well on your way to maximizing your health.
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