Supporting Immunity with Food
The immune systems purpose is to protect us from harmful microbes, pathogens and viruses. It's a network of staged defenses set up to recognize foreign bodies and take immediate action. Our bodies have two types of immunity: innate and adaptive.
Innate Immunity is the primary, first-line of defense against harmful pathogens. Our innate immune system consists of protective barriers like our skin, mucus, stomach acid and enzymes that help crate anti-bacterial compounds.
Adaptive (or Acquired) Immunity is the part of the immune system that has "seen" a pathogen in the past and is able to recognize it. Cells and certain organs, like the spleen, thymus, bone marrow and lymph nodes are involved in adaptive immunity. When a foreign substance enters the body this is the system that creates antibodies specific to that harmful substance and destroys it. The next time that substance is encountered the antibodies and cells are more efficient and destroy it more quickly.
Both the innate and adaptive immune systems can vary in how well, or efficient, they function. This functionality can be impacted by our lifestyle choices, including our diet.
Toxins like smoke, air pollution and excessive alcohol can impair or suppress the normal activity of immune cells.
With age our internal organs may become less efficient; organs like the thymus and bone marrow actually produce less immune cells to fight off infections. Micronutrient deficiencies more common in older adults may also impact immunity.
Excess adipose tissue is associated with increased chronic inflammation due to the production of adipocytokines which can lower the function of the immune system. Early research also connects overweight to the impairment of T-cells, a type of white blood cell needed in the immune response.
Malnutrition can impair immune cells and antibodies.
Autoimmune and immunodeficiency disorders interrupt the functionality of immune cells.
Chronic Mental Stress
Stress releases hormones like cortisol that inhibits the processes needed during the immune response. It also suppresses the action of white blood cells.
Lack of Sleep and Rest
Too little sleep lowers the amount of immune cells available for a proper immune response.
A varied diet full of nutrient-dense foods is needed for proper function of all cells, including immune cells. While research hasn't shown specific foods can individually impact immune function, certain dietary patterns can enhance the systems response. A high quality diet can reduce the risk of micronutrient deficiencies, which has been shown to alter immune function.
Whole Food Focus
Whole, unprocessed foods provide micronutrients which help the immune system function. Swapping processed and enriched foods for fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and proteins can help you achieve a nutrient dense diet.
Eat the Rainbow
In addition to moving to more whole foods, a diet with plenty of color diversity will support the immune system better. This is due to the variety of plant compounds. Aim for foods that are naturally red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white and brown!
It's no surprise the gut impacts immunity. The microbiome housed in the intestinal tract produces antimicrobial proteins and helps the immune system communications. Eat plenty of fiber and probiotic-containing foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut to support the gut.
Vitamin C & Vitamin D
Vitamin C is a known antioxidant, helping to reduce inflammation and support a healthy immune system. Getting enough vitamin C may reduce the duration of a cold. Find it in citrus, tomatoes, strawberries, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kiwifruit.
Vitamin D helps the immune system stay balanced. Since many foods are naturally high in vitamin D, supplementing the recommended 600 IU per day can help ensure adequate intake.
Make shifts in your everyday habits that will support immunity. Choose from the ideas here or come up with your own. Remember, changing one habit, just one time may not impact immune function, but consistent healthy shifts over time will move the needle.
Aim for 3 colors of fruits and vegetables each day.
Impact Your Iron
Add iron-rich spinach to a meal everyday for a week. Try wilting into eggs, chopping into a salad or blending into a smoothie.
Add a serving of yogurt, kefir, kimchi or miso to one meal each day.
Focus on Zinc
Increase zinc by planning a meal with beans, like a soup or stir fry.
Or set a goal in another category that will impact immunity, like getting more sleep, hydrating well or moving more often.