Nutrition and the Immune System

Poor nutrition is considered the most common cause of a weakened immune response. As the saying goes, ”you are what you eat”. The foods we consume will significantly impact how we feel and function.

Unfortunately, to meet the demands of the fast-paced life, most of us rely on convenience and packaged foods to form our staple diet. Basically, foods that are not in their natural whole food state. Convenience foods tend to consist of highly refined and heavily processed ingredients, often depleted of essential nutrients. To make matters worse, the body must work harder to break these foods down, further depleting vital nutrients. In addition, these foods often contain added or unwanted ingredients such as hidden fats, sugar, salt & chemical additives, which may be potentially harmful to health.

Here are seven nutritional ways to support your immune system.

Ditch the Sugar

Sugar interferes with immune function. Research on human subjects is scant, but animal studies have shown that sugar suppresses the immune response. More research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms. However, we know that bacteria and yeast feed on sugar and that infections and illness are more likely when these organisms get out of balance in the body. Unfortunately, sugar is found in many foods these days; it is not just the food that we consider ”junk food” that contains it. It is commonly found in sweetened fruit juices, bottles of flavoured water, low-fat foods, such as low-fat yoghurt, salad dressing, tomato ketchup, fizzy carbonated drinks, tinned soups, sports drinks, etc. Working out how much sugar is in your food or drink can be confusing, as it appears in many different guises, such as sucrose, glucose, fructose and honey. Therefore, it is necessary to be aware of quantities in food by checking food labels for anything ending in ”ose”, for example.

Minimise Caffeine and Alcohol

Caffeine and alcohol are stimulants that activate an internal stress response. Consuming regular stimulants can result in dysfunction and ultimately fatigue of the glands (adrenal) responsible for producing stress hormones. Adrenal fatigue is associated with suppressed immunity, increasing susceptibility to illness and infections. Caffeine is also a diuretic and depletes the body of vital nutrients needed for a healthy immune system. Therefore, limiting tea and coffee to just one to two cups per day is recommended. Herbal and fruit teas are good alternatives and count towards water intake. Consume alcohol in moderation and in line with current government guidelines.

Eliminate Refined Carbohydrates and Processed Foods

Highly refined or processed foods cause the body to work harder to break them down, depleting vital nutrients. Often, these foods contain added or unwanted ingredients such as hidden fats, sugar, salt & chemical additives which may be potentially harmful to health. Aim to base your diet around whole foods. Foods that are in their natural state and minimally processed. An example would be to switch from white bread or pasta to wholemeal varieties.

Look after your Digestion System

Beneficial gut bacteria (bifidobacteria and acidophilus) are considered one of the first lines of defence against ”bad” bacteria, viruses and fungi. Specific strains such as Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus reuteri are scientifically shown to prevent colds and improve the immune response. Beneficial bacteria are found in food sources such as yoghurts and kefir, which can be included in the diet daily. However, taking a good quality probiotic supplement is also an excellent option to ensure you get good ”good” bacteria levels.

Stay Hydrated

Every single bodily process relies on water. It helps the body absorb nutrients and maintain hydration. Herbal and fruit teas also contribute to water intake, as do fresh fruits and vegetables, consisting mainly of water. Carbonated and other fizzy drinks should be eliminated as they deplete nutrients needed for immunity and can sometimes be high in sugar, artificial sweeteners and chemical additives.

Adequate Protein

The importance of adequate protein intake to proper immune function has been extensively studied. Adequate protein intake is essential for optimum immune function as many aspects of immune function are affected if the body lacks sufficient amounts. Deficiency is associated with a compromised immune system and poor resistance to infection. In addition, protein helps form the antibodies required to attack viruses when we are exposed to a potential threat of infection or disease. Therefore, protein should form the basis of every meal and snack and account for one-third of your dinner plate. Good protein sources include lean white meat such as turkey and chicken, fish, eggs, legumes, lentils, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds. Tofu, quinoa and all of the above plant-based sources are good options for vegetarians.

Decrease Saturated Fat

One of the main action areas of the immune system is the Lymphatic System. The lymphatic system also transports fat around the body to the liver. So, if it gets too clogged up with fat, the immune system is weakened.

When lymph nodes are overworking, they become lumpy and swollen; this is often noticed in the neck and is often painful to touch.

Practising deep breathing, exercise and ensuring you get enough sleep can all help to ensure the lymphatic system works optimally too. Avoid foods high in saturated fat, such as red meat and dairy. Opt for polyunsaturated fats instead, particularly essential fats such as omega 3, which have shown to play a vital role in immune health. Sources of omega 3 include oily fish, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed and seed oils.