During the winter flu season, people commonly seek out specialised foods or vitamin supplements to assists in boosting their immunity. The design of the immune system is complex and influenced by a balance of many factors, including a varied diet that includes of a range of vitamins and minerals to ensure nutrient needs are met. Other healthy lifestyle factors such as ensuring sufficient sleep, regular exercise, and stress management, primes the body to combat infection and disease.
Nutrition and Immune Health:
Making sure that we eat enough nutrients is essential for the health and function of all cells in the body, including immune cells. When the daily diet is varied and balanced, this can help prepare the body for any microbial attacks from outside pathogens as well as prevent inflammation.
The immune systems protective response to outside invaders such as bacteria or viruses relies on the presence of numerous micronutrients. Diets that lack variety and have a reduced level of nutrients, such as those high in processed foods can negatively impact a healthy immune system.
Scientists have shown that some nutrients have been identified as particularly critical for the growth and function of immune cells including vitamins C and D, iron, selenium, zinc, iron, and protein (including the amino acid glutamine) (1, 2).
Numerous studies are also showing that a Western diet, being typically high in refined sugar, processed foods and red meat and low in fresh fruits and vegetables can negatively disturb the healthy intestinal microorganisms that make up the microbiome. This can result in chronic inflammation of the gut, and suppression of immunity that accompanies it (3).
The Microbiome and Immunity
The microbiome is the collection of trillions of microbes that naturally live on and in our bodies, mostly in the intestines. Although these microbes (bacteria, fungi, viruses and their genes) are so tiny they require a microscope to view them, they contribute significantly to overall health. This is currently an area of intense research, as scientists are discovering that the intestines are a primary site of immune activity, and that the microbiome plays a huge role in immune health (4).
The food that we consume plays a fundamental part in determining what kinds of microbes reside in our intestines. Research shows that a diet high in fibre-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains will stimulate growth and support the functions of beneficial microbes. Several beneficial microbes break down fibres into what is known as short chain fatty acids, and these promote activity of immune cells.
These fibres are also called prebiotics because they can “feed” the friendly microbes in the gut. Therefore, a diet that contains both prebiotic and probiotic foods is advantageous. Probiotic foods contain live, friendly bacteria, and prebiotic foods contain fibres and oligosaccharides that feed, protect and maintain healthy colonies of these beneficial bacteria.
- Prebiotic foods include asparagus, chicory, garlic, onions, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion greens, bananas, barley, oats, apples and seaweed. Eating a varied diet with ample fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes will ensure an optimal intake of dietary prebiotics.
- Probiotic foods include sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, tempeh, fermented vegetables, natto, cabbage, sourdough bread, tempeh, miso and yogurt containing live cultures.
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1.Guillin OM, Vindry C, Ohlmann T, Chavatte L, (2019). Selenium, selenoproteins and viral infection. Nutrients;11(9):2101.
2. Wessels I, Maywald M, Rink L, (2017). Zinc as a gatekeeper of immune function. Nutrients;9(12):1286.
3. Molendijk I, van der Marel S, Maljaars PW, (2019). Towards a Food Pharmacy: Immunologic Modulation through Diet. Nutrients,11(6):1239.
4. Caballero S, Pamer EG, (2015). Microbiota-mediated inflammation and antimicrobial defense in the intestine. Annual review of immunology;21;33:227-56.