Can Certain Foods Really Boost Your Immunity?
Eating Right
January 24, 2024
Can Certain Foods Really Boost Your Immunity?

During cold and flu season, it may feel like an uphill battle trying to stave off illness, especially when it seems like everyone around you has something. You know good hand hygiene, getting enough sleep and even masking up can go a long way in helping bolster your immune system, but what about food? Believe it or not, foods can play a significant role in shoring up your immune system by providing essential nutrients and antioxidants.

But first, it’s good to know how exactly our immune system works in order to better understand food’s influence on it.

The immune system is like your body's defense team against bad germs and invaders that make you sick. It has two main parts:

  1. Innate Immune System: This is your quick-response team. It includes barriers like your skin and special cells like macrophages and natural killer cells. They jump into action fast to fight off any invaders.
  2. Adaptive Immune System: This is the Special Forces of your body. It takes time to train but becomes really good at recognizing specific invaders. It includes T cells and B cells. B cells make antibodies that stick to invaders, while T cells can directly attack the bad guys.

Both teams work together to keep you healthy. They talk to each other and remember past invaders so that if they come back, your body can fight them off faster.
The immune system is super important beyond cold and flu season. It not only fights off germs but also helps keep your body free from problems like cancer by getting rid of bad cells. It's always working to protect you!

There are a lot of things that can impact your immune health, such as sudden changes in the weather. Yep, that includes both hot and cold. If you’ve ever had a summer cold, you may know all too well that colds aren’t just a wintertime nuisance. Winter tends to see more spikes in illness, though, because we are spending more time indoors than during the warmer months, making germs and viruses more likely to spread from person to person.

Another factor is stress. When you experience stress, whether it's short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic), your body undergoes various physiological changes that can impact immune function. When you’re stressed, your body releases two hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, to help your body cope. However, these hormones tend to suppress the immune system. Stress can also reduce the number and activity of immune cells, impacting the body's defense. Because the holiday season can be an especially stressful time for many, this can be another contributing factor to why we see a spike in illness during this time of year.

Last but not least, the third biggest influence on your immune health is diet. A diet lacking essential nutrients like vitamins (e.g., vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin E), minerals (e.g., zinc and selenium), and other micronutrients can weaken the immune system. These nutrients play crucial roles in supporting immune cell function and maintaining overall health. Alcohol consumption can also bring down your immune function, including white blood cells, which are crucial for fighting off infections.

Additionally, the health of your gut microbiome has a lot of influence on your immune health. In fact, the gut is home to a significant portion of the body’s immune system. Research indicates that approximately 70-80% of our immune cells are present in the gut. This emphasizes the crucial role of the gut in regulating immune function and maintaining overall health.

So what can you eat to make your gut biome happy, while also receiving the appropriate nutrients to bolster your immune system?

Increase Your Fiber Intake

One of the best ways to strengthen your immune system is by making sure you eat enough fiber regularly. Dietary fiber, found in foods like fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, contains prebiotic fibers. These fibers are like food for the good microbes in your gut, helping them stay alive and work well.

When you eat more of these prebiotic fibers, it can increase your body’s ability to produce substances like butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). These substances are crucial because they help reduce inflammation in your body, provide energy for your gut, and even affect certain genes related to inflammation and the immune system. So, including fiber-rich foods in our diet can really support our overall health.

Additionally, fiber-rich foods such as almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and spinach are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help regulate and maintain the immune system.

Keep in mind that increases in fiber should be introduced slowly and steadily over time to prevent stomach irritation.

Decrease Refined Sugars, Opt for Natural Sugars

Refined and processed sugar can have a big impact on your gut health, and ultimately your immune health, so it’s a good idea to consume as little as possible. Too much sugar, especially from processed and refined sources, can harm the balance of good microbes in the gut. Additionally, it can make the gut more permeable, meaning it's easier for harmful pathogens to get into our system.

If you still want to get that sweet fix, opt for natural sugars found in fruits, especially berries and citrus. Berries are rich in nutrients and antioxidants that can help fight infection and support heart, brain, and gut health. Citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, which supports immune cell functions and helps prevent infections.

Add Some Probiotics Into Your Diet

Because gut health and immune health tend to go hand-in-hand, adding something like a probiotic to your daily diet can help keep your microbiome flourishing, priming your immunity for a good set-up as well.

Including specific probiotics in your diet can boost your innate immunity, which, if you remember, is the first line of defense against certain harmful pathogens. Particular strains of probiotics, such as those from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium families, can strengthen this defense system. They work by reinforcing our epithelial walls (the lining of our gut) and encouraging the production of crucial cytokines (special immune cells). These cytokines are released when our body detects the presence of harmful pathogens, helping to mount a swift and effective immune response.

You can opt for a good quality probiotic supplement, but an easier, and tastier way to get these probiotic strains is to incorporate yogurt into your diet. While yogurt is naturally rich in probiotics, there are brands that include additional probiotics, such as Activia®. While most yogurts contain Lactobacillus, Activia, in particular, also includes Bifidobacterium.

Add Some Spice to Your Life

Yep, you read that right. Certain spices can have an effect on your immune system, either directly or indirectly. Garlic, ginger, and turmeric are ancient spices that have been considered to have immune-boosting properties.

Garlic is believed to improve the immune system in several ways. It is thought to help the body resist or destroy viruses and other microorganisms by boosting the immune system.

Ginger may improve the immune system due to its strong anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. It can enhance immune response and help combat inflammation, potentially boosting immune health.

Lastly, turmeric is thought to help the immune system by affecting different types of immune cells in the body. It may also improve the body's ability to produce antibodies, which are important for fighting off harmful substances. The active compound in turmeric, called curcumin, has been shown to have strong effects against viruses, bacteria, and inflammation, which can also help the immune system.

The Takeaway

Incorporating these foods into a well-balanced diet can contribute to a healthy immune system. However, it's important to note that while these foods can impact your well-being, they cannot cure or prevent disease. A varied and balanced diet, along with other healthy lifestyle choices, is essential for supporting the immune system.

As with any supplement or dietary addition, it's advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before making significant changes to your diet, especially if you have underlying health conditions or are taking medications.

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