The immune system is the body's natural army that defends us from invaders such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and more. In fact, the immune system keeps a record of every germ it has ever battled, so that it will be able to recognise it and destroy that germ if it enters the body again. Maintaining a healthy immune system will help to prevent fatigue, poor mood, autoimmune disorders, as well as protect us from the threat of infection.
Many factors influence immune system health including:
- Good gut health; is extremely important for robust immune health. Health professionals now acknowledge that the gut microbiome is a major component of the immune system. In fact, it is now known that a huge proportion of the body’s immune system cells (approximately 70%) reside in the gut.
- Stress and a lack of good quality sleep are also major influencers of immune health. High stress levels can be part of daily life, but optimal nutrition and healthy lifestyle practices such as meditation and yoga can help to manage stress. Stress causes imbalances in cortisol production which over time makes the immune system less able to respond to infections. A lack of good quality sleep also impacts your immune system. Research has shown that people who do not get sufficient sleep, or good quality sleep have a greater risk of becoming ill after being exposed to a virus (2).
- Consuming a varied diet that has an optimal intake of nutrients is needed for the health, growth, and function of immune cells. Nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are crucial for the production and activity of our immune cells as well as for antibodies. Protein, vitamins C and D, zinc, selenium, and iron are examples of nutrients that are significant for immune cell health (1).
Functional foods and functional food supplements can be especially beneficial for women who:
- Struggle to maintain a healthy balanced diet
- Feel tired and run-down
- Are frequently unwell
- Have digestive complaints
- Have poor quality sleep
Functional Food Research:
Research shows that there are some specialized functional foods that when added to the diet can enhance immune function in women and are highly beneficial to overall health. Aloe vera leaf, amla, cacao, ginkgo biloba, green tea and rose hip are just some foods that have superpowers when included in the diet.
Aloe vera leaf: Contains acemannan, pronounced “ace-man-nan”, a polysaccharide that is found in the inner part of the leaves. This compound has been known to have antiviral and antitumoral activities and activate the immune system (4).
Amla: The amla fruit contains high levels of vitamin C as well as other significantly beneficial compounds such as tannins, polyphenols, fibres, minerals, proteins, and amino acids. It is well known that vitamin C boosts the immune system by stimulating white blood cells that help fight infections. The alma fruit is also potent antioxidant keeping cells healthy and is a natural immune booster that has been extensively studied for its health promoting potential (3).
Cacao: The cacao bean is rich in polyphenols making it a potent antioxidant. It has been reported that consuming cocoa can be beneficial for brain function, cardiovascular health, and even in cancer prevention. Studies show that cacao influences the cells in the immune system and is has a strong ability to reduce inflammation in the body (4).
Ginkgo biloba: Ginkgo biloba has been used for its immune stimulating activities for thousands of years. Scientific research has also shown that using a ginkgo biloba extract can enhance immune system functions and improve antioxidant status (5).
Green Tea: Green tea is loaded with compounds called flavonoids and polyphenols which are highly powerful antioxidants, that keep free radicals from damaging our cells. Researchers have found that one of the beneficial compounds found in green tea has the ability to increase the number of "regulatory T cells" that play a key role in immune functioning and the prevention of autoimmune disease (6).
- Rose Hip: The pseudo- fruit of rose hips has one of the highest vitamin C contents of all fruits and vegetables. In addition to vitamin C, rose hips also contain significant levels of vitamins A and E as well as antioxidant polyphenols. All of these are significant in helping to protect and strengthen the immune system (7).
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1. Harvard College, (2022). Nutr and Immun, accessed 12/4/2022, available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/nutrition
2. Mayo Clinic, (2022). Lack of sleep- Can it Make You Sick?, accessed 12/4/2022, available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/expert-answers/lack-of-sleep
3. Kapoor, Mahendra Parkash et al, (2019). Clinical evaluation of Emblica Officinalis Gatertn (Amla) in healthy human subjects: Health benefits and safety results from a randomized, double-blind, crossover placebo-controlled study. Contemp clin trials commun;17; 100499.
4. Pérez-Cano, Francisco J et al, (2013). The effects of cocoa on the immune system.” Front in pharma;4;71.
5. Lu S, Guo X, Zhao P, (2011). Effect of Ginkgo biloba extract 50 on immunity and antioxidant enzyme activities in ischemia reperfusion rats. Molecules;16(11):9194-206.
6. Oregon State University, (2011). Mechanism discovered for health benefit of green tea, new approach to autoimmune disease, accessed 22/4/22, available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110602143214.htm
7. Mármol I, Sánchez-de-Diego C, Jiménez-Moreno N, Ancín-Azpilicueta C, Rodríguez-Yoldi MJ, (2017). Therapeutic Applications of Rose Hips from Different Rosa Species. Int J Mol Sci;18(6):1137.