Understanding how your immune system works how to manage your immune system is crucial to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Your defense mechanism consists of a complex network of organs and cells with the sole purpose of fending off viruses, bacteria or fungi that could harm you.
There aren’t many existing studies relevant for the effect of food on human immunity, so we have a long way to go before delivering any final answers. There is, however, compelling evidence of changes in immune responses due to imbalances of macronutrients and various micronutrient deficiencies. This can also be seen in the research by European journal of clinical nutrition that observed how animals deprived of a single nutrient no longer exhibit immunocompetence.
Although a single food can’t do much to improve your immunity, consistent healthy eating habits can do wonders for you. Let’s take a look at two key steps you can take to safeguard your immune system with nutritious foods!
Managing Your Immune System: Balance Your Macronutrient Intake
The three macronutrients that constitute your every meal are carbs, fats and proteins. People often overlook the importance of finding the right balance among them, especially due to our natural preference for sugary foods, which typically leads to a diet dominated by processed carbs.
It’s important, however, to distinguish between various types of these macronutrients, as their differences play a role in how much you need of each type. The most common simple carbs we can obtain from fruits, veggies and dairy products are glucose, fructose, sucrose and lactose. While we also need complex carbs such as starch and fiber found in oats, beans, quinoa, potatoes and rice.
Learning the difference and their roles will help you in deciding which carbs you need in your diet, and in what amounts. Carbs are our primary sources of energy, so it’s natural that every meal should be made up of up to 40% healthy carbs, according to Professor Berit Johansen, a biology professor at NTNU, which is significantly lower than in a typical modern diet.
According to Professor Johansen’s study, a higher intake of carbs can cause a permanent state of inflammation, putting your immune system into an overdrive and causing diseases such as type 2 diabetes, chronic heart conditions and various metabolic issues. Professor Johansen explains that this carb-induced inflammation is triggered by genes that are pushed to work overtime due to excess consumption of carbs on a regular basis. This further impedes your body’s ability to defend itself from foreign bodies.
Proteins are also known as the building blocks of life, and for a good reason. There are hundreds of types, and they have an equally impressive number of functions. They behave as enzymes, hormones, antibodies and they are used to build muscles, skin, teeth and bone alike, to name a few of their roles. They are not our main source of energy, but they are a close second, so we have a tendency to eat more protein than necessary.
All of these functions make proteins one of crucial elements of maintaining your immunity. In fact, research has shown that protein deficiency in mice makes them more prone to infections such as flu, due to lower anti-body response, meaning that they weren’t able to produce enough defensive cells to fight the disease. As soon as their diet included enough protein, their immune system was able to protect them.
Healthy fats mainly serve as our energy reserves, whether they are monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated or trans-fats, but their impact on our health greatly differs. In food, however, they always show up as a combination of different fatty acids. While the amount of any fat consumed should be moderate, the greatest danger comes from artificial trans-fats, as they pose a threat to your system in any dosages.
Essential fatty acids, cholesterol and triglycerides, all types of fat, are our main storages of energy, protect our internal organs and serve as insulation. And although everyone knows what happens when we eat too much fat, few people realize that fat controls our body’s basic processes such as energy regulation, chemical reactions that control our immune response, all the way to the molecular level of building cell membranes, thus even our immune system wouldn’t be able to operate without fats.
This is why generalization in the value of any nutrient never works – we often hear medical professionals advising us to stick to a “low fat, low carb” diet, while that is only a portion of the problem, as we should actually focus on the quality of the substance, and not only quantity.
As it turns out, healthy body fat levels are an important factor in how resistant your immune system is. This is because excess fat, just like excess carbs, puts your body into a constant state of inflammation, which then severely compromises your immune system.
Based on your body type, current weight, physical activity, and overall health, you can calculate the right balance of macronutrients your immunity needs to not be forced into hypo or hyperactivity, but a good rule of thumb for an average adult is up to 40% carbs, and up to 30% protein and fat.
Mind Your Micronutrients
Even though they are required in smaller quantities (hence the name), vitamins and minerals are essential for protecting your body from harmful substances, and our bodies cannot produce them on their own, so we need to turn to diet for supplying our bodies with all the vital micronutrients. Vitamins can be water-soluble, such as vitamin C and B-complex vitamins, making them easy to metabolize and lose through a variety of bodily fluids, while your body stores fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, which means their daily intake is not necessary.
Studies have shown that even a single vitamin deficiency can wreak havoc on your body’s immune system. For instance, a lack of carotenoids (one of the chemicals that make up vitamin A) can significantly diminish your immune capacity to protect you from cancer. Smokers who consume enough carotenoids on the other hand, are less likely to develop lung cancer that those who don’t.
Major minerals are those we need in larger amounts and they include magnesium, found in dark leafy greens, calcium from dairy, chloride and sodium which usually go together as salt, phosphorous and sulfur from protein-rich foods, and potassium from sweet potatoes and bananas.
Among many immunity-related functions of minerals, magnesium is a great example, as it has been proven to be crucial for optimal functioning of thymus, which serves to stimulate disease-fighting cells production. Magnesium-deficient mice have shown immune malfunctioning, signs of inflammation and even changes in gene expression.
Since several studies have shown that micronutrient deficiencies cause malfunctioning of your immunity, having a versatile diner table based on fruits and vegetables brimming with these micronutrients, along with protein-rich foods and healthy fats will help you maintain a healthy immune system.
Eating nutrient-dense foods will ensure that your body can protect itself from the common cold, viruses such as the flu, and many other conditions that can harm your health.
To sum up, dieting is among essential elements of optimal immune function, so be mindful of your menu, and never stop learning about which foods work best for you. Finally, have a go at this test and check your Nutrition IQ