Understanding how your immune system works how to manage your immune system is crucial to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Your immune system is your body’s defense mechanism. It 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 is compelling evidence that immune responses change in response to imbalances of macronutrients and various micronutrient deficiencies. This can be seen in the research by European Journal of Clinical Nutrition that observed that animals deprived of a single nutrient are no longer able to mount an immune response.
This suggests that consistent healthy eating habits that give you the proper balance of macro- and micronutrients can do wonders for your immune system. Let’s take a look at two key steps you can take to safeguard your immune system with nutritious foods!
1. Manage Your Immune System: Balance Your Macronutrients
The three macronutrients are carbs, fats and proteins. People often overlook the importance of finding the right balance among these macronutrients. And, unfortunately, our natural preference for sugary foods means we don’t naturally gravitate towards the healthiest ratio. Rather, we gravitate towards a diet dominated by processed carbs.
Additionally, it’s important to distinguish between various types of these macronutrients, not just their ratios. This is because their different types of each macronutrient has different effects on your health.
The most common type of carbs are simple carbs. We can obtain simple carbs from fruits, veggies and dairy products. These simple carbs include glucose, fructose, sucrose and lactose.
Complex carbs, on the other hand, are found in oats, beans, quinoa, potatoes and rice. Types of complex carbs include starch and fiber.
Carbs are your 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). This is, unfortunatey, is significantly lower than in a typical modern diet.
According to Professor Johansen’s study, a higher intake of carbs, like that commonly seen in western diets, can cause a permanent state of inflammation. Constant inflammation puts your immune system into an overdrive and causes diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome.
Protein is 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 the body uses them to build muscles, skin, teeth and bone and your immune cells.
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. Basically, without enough protein, the mice weren’t able to produce enough immune cells to fight the disease. As soon as their diet included enough protein, their immune system was able to protect them.
Healthy fats serve as your most concentrated source of energy. They also act as a way to store energy when you don’t need it, protect your internal organs and serve as insulation. This is the case whether they are monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated or trans-fats, but the broader impact on your health greatly differs between these types of fats.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids protect your metabolism, heart health, nerve function and immune health. Saturated fat and, even worse, trans fat damage the function of all these organ systems.
This is why generalization in the value of any nutrient never works. You likely often hear medical professionals advising you to stick to a “low fat” diet. But that is only a portion of the problem. The quality of the fats in your diet, not only quantity, are really important for the health of your whole body, including your immune system.
Finding the Right Ratio
Based on your body type, current weight, physical activity, and overall health, you can calculate the right balance of macronutrients your immune system needs. A good rule of thumb for an average adult, though, is up to 40% carbs, and up to 30% of both protein and fat.
2. Manage Your Immune System: Mind Your Micronutrients
Even though they are required in smaller quantities (hence the name), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are essential for your immune function. What’s more, your body cannot produce them on its own. So, you need to turn to diet to supply your body with all the vital micronutrients you need to keep your immune system humming away.
Studies have shown that even a single vitamin deficiency can wreak havoc on your body’s immune system. For instance, a lack of vitamin A can diminish the ability of your immune system to protect you from cancer. And decreased vitamin C intake may make your immune system to become imbalanced, leading to a build up of cholesterol and immune cells in your artery walls, a condition that leads to heart disease.
Major minerals are those we need in larger amounts. They include:
- magnesium, found in dark leafy greens
- calcium, found in dark leafy greens, beans and dairy
- chloride and sodium, which usually come paired together together as salt
- phosphorous and sulfur, from protein-rich foods
- potassium, from leafy greens, 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 immune system, eating a a wide variety of meals centered around fruits and vegetables, which are brimming with immune-boosting micronutrients, and including portions of protein-rich and healthy fatty foods will help you maintain a healthy immune system.
Take Home Message
Diet is among essential elements of creating optimal immune function. Aim for meals full of micronutrients and a healthy ratio of healthy types of macronutrients. This type of diet will put you squarely on the path towards a healthy immune system!