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Immune System: The Role of Nutrition

Developing a good immune system takes months if not years to develop . Despite an overwhelming amount of misinformation floating on the internet regarding “immunity boosters” , there is no magical solution which can improve your chances of fighting an infection overnight. A long term healthy lifestyle can improve your odds. However, it should be noted that despite a healthy lifestyle some individuals are genetically more prone to infections than others. Since a good diet , regular exercise and sound sleep is likely to improve your odds of fighting an infection, a sound strategy needs to be developed to incorporate them as a lifestyle.

Previously I have covered the role of exercise and sleep for a good immune system . In this post let us take a closer look at nutritional strategies to improve the immune system. Bear in mind, none of these strategies adopted today will help you tomorrow or the week after or even by the end of this month. Just as your body responds to lifestyle changes in the long term , so does your immune system. An individual doesn’t master an academic subject overnight, nor can he become a long distance runner or a champion tennis player in matter of weeks. Likewise, patience and consistency are the keys to a strong immunity.

Before I discuss the various nutritional strategies please listen to the following video on how to tackle misinformation pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most importantly, stay safe stay indoors and help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 disease!

Do superfoods help the immune system?

The term “superfood” is purely a marketing term and not a scientific one. No matter how many oranges you eat , how much ginger or garlic you consume you will not get an “immunity boost”. However, there is fair amount of evidence to suggest that those who consume fruits , vegetables and beverages such as tea on a regular basis can reduce their chances of being infected with the common cold. This is primarily due to the presence of polyphenols which have a positive effect on the immune system.

Probiotics have been found to be effective in tackling respiratory infections. Probiotics are live bacteria which, ingested in large amounts can modify our existing gut bacteria . This modified gut microbiota might change its nature of interaction with the lymphoid tissue. Thus , a positive change in the immune system will be noticeable. Studies carried out on children, adults and athletes have demonstrated that consumption of probiotics indeed reduces the incidence and duration of respiratory tract infections.

Vitamins and micronutrients play an important role in the immune function. However, it should be noted overdosing on vitamins beyond the recommended daily intake do not have any positive effects on the immune system. Many Youtubers and pseudoscience promoters have recommended megadosing Vitamin A and C to the extent of suggesting intravenous administration. Extremely high doses of Vitamin A is associated with nausea, dizziness, kidney damage, birth defects headache , coma and in some cases death. Hence, megadosing of vitamins should be avoided at all costs. Vitamin C being water soluble is going to be flushed out if administered in large doses. A detailed take on Vitamin C and its role as an antioxidant can be found in an earlier article.

Besides the self proclaimed superfoods one should be wary of supplements such as colostrum, beta glucan and echinacea which have very poor results in prevention of infection.

Protein: Avoiding Deficiency

Protein is one of the three macronutrients along with fats and carbohydrates needed by the human body. Unlike fats and carbohydrates, our body obtains its protein requirement from external dietary sources. Body manufactures non essential amino acids from essential ones which need to be taken externally. Hence, it is crucial that protein deficiency is avoided at all costs to ensure that sufficient protein is available for the body’s immune system. A detailed understanding of how protein affects our immune system can be found here. As discussed in the article , proteins not only ensure a strong line of defense against pathogens but also prevent the immune system from going overboard and targeting the body’s healthy cells.

One should bear in mind that in the current COVID-19 pandemic, the elderly are one of the more vulnerable groups. Protein requirements for the elderly are quite different than for younger adults. Due to higher rate of muscular degradation , the elderly require greater amount of protein. Hence, ensuring sufficient dietary intake of protein for the elderly is a major challenge. Appetite and taste and smell deteriorates with age,posing an added challenge for the elderly.

The following steps can be taken to ensure sufficient protein intake across all age groups and genders:

(a) Prefer animal sources of protein over plant sources. They have superior digestibility and bioavailability. A diet rich in meat, fish ,eggs and dairy is strongly recommended. Vegetarians are recommended to depend on eggs and dairy. Whey protein powders are a great source of protein and can help you meet your protein deficiency if you cannot get sufficient protein from your diet.

(b) Vegans are recommended to supplement their diet with hydrolyzed plant protein powders. Anti nutrients which prevent the absorption of amino acids are broken down during the process of hydrolyzation. Additionally, they must continue consuming plant proteins such as peas, lentils, peanuts, almonds etc.

Vitamin D: The Underrated Micronutrient

There is sufficient research to prove that Vitamin D plays a pivotal role in a good immune system. This is particularly a concern in regions which have low availability of sunlight during the winter months. Vitamin D3 supplementation (1,000-4,000 IU/day ) may be beneficial in optimizing the individual immune response to infectious diseases from October to April in the Northern hemisphere . In addition it is always good to incorporate dietary sources of Vitamin D. Following are some of the top dietary sources of Vitamin D:

  • Omega 3 rich fish such as Salmon, Herring, Indian Salmon, mackerel.
  • Cod liver Oil
  • Whole egg, especially the egg yolks
  • Mushrooms
  • Cereals such as Muesli and Oats fortified with Vitamin D.

If you are unable to get sufficient Vitamin D from sunlight and diet, consider taking a supplement to meet your daily requirements. Vitamin D will not prevent a viral infection but will improve your odds of fighting it.

To summarize the various nutritional strategies :

  • Avoid protein deficiency
  • Ensure recommended daily intake of Vitamin A and Vitamin C are met but do not exceed it.
  • Regularly consume fruits ,vegetables and beverages rich in polyphenols such as tea
  • Probiotics and foods fortified with probiotics are beneficial in the long term.
  • Do not fall for marketing traps and quick fix supplements.Remember if it is too good to be true then it probably is.
  • Ensure sufficient Vitamin D intake.

A good nutritional strategy along with regular exercise, sound sleep and effectively dealing with stress will improve your immune system and chances of dealing with infections in the long run.

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