The Immune System
The immune system is the body’s defense against infectious organisms and other invaders. Through a series of steps called the immune response, the immune system attacks organisms and substances that invade body systems and cause disease using specialized cells such as white blood cells and antibodies. When functioning properly, the immune system identifies a variety of threats, including viruses, bacteria and parasites, and distinguishes them from the body's own healthy tissue. Once the threat has been identified, the specialized cells of the immune system work quickly to fight off the invading organism.
Nutrition and the Immune System
Proper nutrition and a well-rounded meal plan can play a vital role in the health and effectiveness of the immune system. The various specialized cells that support the immune system rely on certain nutrients and other nutritional factors, to function optimally.
In general, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean proteins provides the wide range of essential vitamins and minerals needed for a strong immune system. This well-rounded nutrition plan also naturally includes antioxidants—micronutrients that are available in both food and in supplemental form that neutralize oxidants and thus reduce free radical formation. Immune-boosting vitamins and minerals include:
-Vitamins A, B, C and E
While it may be tempting to rely on supplements for these essential nutrients, getting them from food is highly recommended for most individuals. Micronutrients, including those that support the immune system, are usually easier to absorb by the body when they come from food vs. a multivitamin. According to Nutrition.gov, “It is important to note that vitamin/mineral supplements are not a replacement for a healthful diet. Remember that in addition to vitamins and minerals, foods also contain hundreds of naturally occurring substances that can help protect your health.” It is only certain groups of individuals, such as older adults or pregnant and nursing women, who may need vitamin supplements in addition to a healthful diet.
When it comes to the immune system, it’s important to maintain a consistent healthy eating plan to avoid nutritional deficiencies. Any slight deficiency, even in just one nutrient, over time can weaken immunity. A weakened immune system leads to increased free radical formation and increases the oxidation or breakdown of cells. This is where immune system-boosting, antioxidant-rich foods can help.
Immune System-Boosting Foods
1. Wheat Germ – Not only is this food a key source of fiber, wheat germ is packed with protein and vitamins, including vitamin E, and is a great source of zinc. Add wheat germ to your bread, muffin and cookie recipes, or sprinkle it over yogurt and fresh fruit.
2. Low-Fat Yogurt - Yogurt is a great source of probiotics, a beneficial type of bacteria that helps maintain the health of the gastrointestinal tract and fight off invading organisms. Choose the low-fat or fat-free kind to reap the benefits without extra saturated fat.
3. Spinach/Kale – Dark, leafy greens such as kale and spinach contain high levels of vitamin C, which is often the first antioxidant we think of when it comes to boosting the immune system. Enjoy these leafy greens sautéed with garlic and olive oil or eat fresh as the base of a nutritious salad.
4. Mushrooms - Mushrooms may not be the first food that comes to mind when it comes to immunity but, in fact, they are a major source of the immune system-boosting mineral zinc. This mineral is essential to the proper function of cells in the immune system. Add mushrooms and spinach to omelets or try replacing the beef or turkey patty in your next burger with a portabella “burger.”
5. Ginger – Considered to be an antimicrobial, antibiotic, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory food, ginger has long been used in Eastern medicine and home remedies to prevent and reduce the effects of illness. Ginger contains vitamins A, C, E and B complex, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, calcium, beta-carotene and potassium, many of which directly support the immune system. Season veggie-rich stir-fries with ginger or add it to green tea to take advantage of the immune-boosting benefits.