Are you tired of catching every cold and flu that you come in contact with? Do you dread the colder weather because you are afraid of getting sick? Are you obsessed with disinfecting everything to prevent illness? Although viruses and bacteria are the primary cause of illness, your diet and lifestyle may also contribute to how often you get sick and how long it takes to get better. We thought we would bring you a series on how to boost your immune system with nutrition.
The influence of diet on the immune system has been a hot topic for many years in the field of nutrition. Poor nutrition has been associated for a long time with a poorly functioning immune system. At first, the focus was more on making sure people were receiving adequate nutrition, meaning getting enough calories, protein, and other nutrients in order to support immune function. But, the research has gotten more detailed over the last few years including vitamins, minerals, and other bioactive compounds. Taking a look at your overall diet may help boost your immune system and fight off the next cold or flu you are exposed to.
Protein, carbohydrates, and fat
Getting the right balance of the macronutrients, protein, carbohydrates and fats may be the first step to helping boost your immune system. Immune cells, like all the cells in the body, are made from protein. Therefore, we need adequate protein intakes to make sure we have enough raw materials to make new cells as needed. People with malnutrition, especially when they are lacking protein, tend to have a poor immune function.
Adequate fat, specifically the healthy omega-3 fats in the diet can have an anti-inflammatory effect improving overall immune function. The benefits from omega-3s are generally not seen with supplements, but only with omega-3 rich foods such as fish, walnuts, and chia.
A diet high in sugar or refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, can reduce overall immune function and actually decrease the number of immune cells available to fight infections. If you want an immune-boosting diet, make sure you are getting adequate protein daily, are including healthy fats in your diet, and limiting the amount of refined carbohydrates you are consuming.
Vitamins, Minerals, and Immunity
There are several vitamins that play a role in proper immune function. Vitamin C is the most popular and widely used to help prevent colds. But, the research doesn’t actually support that commonly held belief. A high vitamin C intake will not prevent colds, but has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of the common cold. If you are suffering with a cold, consider increasing your intake of foods high in vitamin C such as citrus, bell peppers, and strawberries.
Another important immune-boosting vitamin is Vitamin A a fat-soluble vitamin that can help reduce the rate of viral infections. It is used to improve white blood cell function and maintain healthy mucus membranes, which help prevent infection. Since Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, it can be toxic if taken in high doses as a supplement, therefore it is best to eat vitamin A rich foods. Some foods to include are fish, especially salmon, and orange or yellow colored fruits and vegetables such as carrots or mangoes.
Certain minerals such as iron and zinc also help our bodies stay healthy. Iron deficiency may result in impaired immune function, whereas adequate intakes of iron help boost the immune cells to fight off infections. Most people do not need an iron supplement unless indicated by a doctor, instead try to increase your intake of high iron foods such as lean red meat, beans, or fortified cereals. Zinc deficiency may also suppress the immune system and increase susceptibility to infections. The best way to get adequate zinc in your diet is to eat lots of green leafy vegetables, such as spinach.
Overall an adequate diet with plenty of protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals will help you stay healthy over the flu and cold season. Make sure to include lots of green leafy vegetables, fish, and a few foods high in Vitamin C for an extra boost. In our next article in this series, we are going to address what supplements you can use to help keep your immune system healthy.