Survival of the Healthiest
By Anne Guzman, PCG Nutritionist
Although I’m convinced some of us enjoy being served hot soup in bed when we’re sick, watching movies all day, and moaning to our spouses, “I think I’m dying” (you know who you are), at the end of the day I think we all could admit we’d rather feel alert, vibrant, and healthy. Being sick sucks!
An Immune System Primer
Your immune system generally does a remarkable job of defending you against disease-causing microorganisms, and there are some key cells that make up a large part of the immune system. These include phagocytes and lymphocytes, or white blood cells (T-cells and B-cells). Put simply, phagocytes are cells responsible for “eating” bacteria, viruses, or dead and injured body tissue. Lymphocytes, which originate in bone marrow, are specialized cells that recognize foreign substances and filter out dead cells and invading organisms. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “antibody” before, and this refers to specific proteins made from the B-cells that search out and help destroy intruders. Plasma cells make antibodies. These cells have a lot of work to do, so we must be super supportive of them.
Sometimes the immune system falters. Germs get in and invade, and you get sick. Call me crazy, but if anything is going to successfully invade this temple I call my body, I don’t want it to be germs.
Can you do anything about it? Can you take measures to make elements of your immune system stronger? What if you improve your diet? Can you make other lifestyle changes to try to create better immunity?
The immune system is precisely that—a system. It requires balance and harmony to work well. There is still much to be learned about the interconnectedness of the immune system and its response. What we do know is that the human body always works optimally when in homeostasis. The body requires nutrients to attain this balance, and diet is where they come from. Logically, if we work to balance all aspects of our bodies—such as blood sugar, stress levels, hormones, quantity of sleep, and the number of macro and micro nutrients consumed—we set ourselves up to be the healthiest versions of ourselves. The immune system can then in turn become stronger.
Nutrition and Immune Function
One area of health actively being researched is how the immune system functions as the body ages. Researchers believe that the aging process somehow leads to a reduction of immune response capability, which in turn contributes to more infections, more inflammatory diseases, and more cancer. As life expectancy in developed countries has increased, so too has the incidence of age-related conditions. Coincidentally, the elderly tend to eat less and, as a result, often lack nutrients in their diets. This is an example of how nutrition may indirectly weaken the immune system via diminished nutrient intake.
Scientists have long recognized that people who live in poverty and are malnourished are more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Whether or not the increased rate of disease is caused by malnutrition’s effect on the immune system is not certain, but we can certainly deduce that it is possible.
But malnourishment can happen right here in our own back yards, even among the more affluent and middle class. Burgers, fries, and white flour have the same effect on the body whether you live in poverty or wealth; they lack the nutrients that make building blocks for a robust and healthy immune system.
Without adequate nutrition, the immune system is clearly deprived of the components needed to generate an effective immune response. Human malnutrition is usually a complex syndrome of multiple nutrient deficiencies.
Vitamins and Minerals
There is evidence that certain vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and good bacteria can support and strengthen certain elements of the immune system. Some of these include Vitamins A, E, C, and D, along with selenium, zinc, B6, omega 3 oils, and lactobacillus. These vitamins and minerals are commonly found in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, essential fats, lean meats, and some dairy products. Taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement has health benefits, including supporting the immune system, but getting your nourishment from organic whole foods remains the best option.
I’ve created below a list of vitamins and minerals, along with top food sources for them. Be sure to include a variety of these foods in your daily nutrition plan for immune system boosting.
Selenium: Some studies have suggested that people with low selenium levels are at greater risk of bladder, breast, colon, rectum, lung, and prostate cancers. Dietary selenium is essential for an optimum immune response, although the mechanisms of this requirement are not always fully understood. Selenium can be found in Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, bran, oat or rice, pork chops, oysters, liver, lobster, shrimp, and caviar.
Omega-3 fatty acids: These help produce Series 1 and Series 3 prostaglandins, which are anti-inflammatory agents. Excessive inflammation in cells can lead to asthma, arthritis, osteoporosis, and headaches, as well as autoimmune disease. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in flaxseeds and green leafy vegetables. The omega-3 derivatives EPA and DHA are found in high-fat, cold-water fish such as albacore tuna, sardines, Atlantic halibut and salmon, Coho, pink and King salmon, Pacific and Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, and lake trout.
Lactobacillus GG has been associated with positive effects on the immune system, such as increased cytokine, phagocytic activity (the cells that eat the dead cells and bacteria), and antibody production. Supplementation is a good option, and Culturelle is a good brand.
Vitamin A plays a role in fighting infection and maintaining mucosal surfaces by influencing certain subcategories of T cells, B cells, and cytokines. Vitamin A deficiency is associated with impaired immunity and increased risk of infectious disease. Vitamin A can be found in dried apricots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, squash, liver, carrots, and lettuce.
Vitamin B6: Several studies have suggested that a Vitamin B6 deficiency can depress aspects of the immune response, such as lymphocytes’ ability to mature and spin off into various types of T and B cells. Supplementing with moderate doses to address the deficiency restores immune function, but mega doses don’t produce additional benefits. Vitamin B6 can be found in pork tenderloin, molasses, sesame seeds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, garlic, liver, and bananas.
Vitamin C is especially required for the functioning of the phagocytes and T-lymphocytes. The major role of Vitamin C is the protection of the immune cells against free radicals formed during the interaction of the immune cells with harmful microorganisms. Vitamin C can be found in oranges, cantaloupe, red peppers, kiwi, papaya, and strawberries.
Vitamin D triggers and arms the body's T cells, the cells in the body that seek out and destroy any invading bacteria and viruses. Scientists at the University of Copenhagen have discovered that Vitamin D is crucial to activating our immune defenses and that without sufficient intake of the vitamin, the killer cells of the immune system (T cells) will not be able to react to and fight off serious infections in the body. Vitamin D can be found in shitake mushrooms, salmon, catfish, soymilk, milk, sardines, eggs, and sunshine.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant, which means it neutralizes harmful free radical molecules in your body that are associated with cell damage. It also bolsters your immune system, allowing you to effectively fight off infections from bacteria or viruses. Vitamin E can be found in sunflower, safflower, and wheat germ oil; peanuts; hazelnuts; sunflower seeds; kale; spinach; and broccoli.
Zinc is a trace element essential for cells of the immune system. Zinc deficiency affects the ability of T cells and other immune cells to function as they should. Deficiency has also been shown to impair cellular mediators of innate immunity, such as phagocytosis and natural killer cell activity. A note of caution: while it’s important to have sufficient zinc in your diet (15–25 mg per day), too much zinc can inhibit the function of the immune system. Zinc can be found in wheat germ, oysters, beef, pumpkin seeds, squash seeds, watermelon, dark chocolate/cocoa, peanuts, crab.
Here are a couple of powerful smoothies that will help boost your immune system. (Don’t worry, I left out the oysters!)
1 banana (If you peel and freeze a banana in a freezer bag, it can act as your ice and make your smoothie nice and thick.)
1 cup of soymilk (add water for added fluid)
1/4 cantaloupe, chopped
1 cup strawberries
1 tablespoon Tahini (sesame seed paste)
1 tablespoon flax oil
Sprinkle with wheat germ once served in glass.
Strong Like a Bull Smoothie
2 cups watermelon
1 cup strawberries
1 cup unsweetened rice milk (add water if required)
½ cup 100% fresh orange or pineapple juice
1 scoop of organic whey protein
I’ve got a few other tips to support a stronger immune system:
- Reduce stress. Try some ten-minute meditations when you feel overwhelmed. No phone, no computer, no distractions, and some deep, full diaphragm breathing.
- Wash your hands often when around others or in public places.
- Sleep 7-9 hours a day. Sleep is king. Don’t underestimate it. (Yes, I just gave you permission to sleep in. Your spouse can call me to complain.
- Reduce toxins and anti-nutrients like trans fats and artificial sweeteners; replace them with naturally sweet, fresh fruit and essential oils or raw nuts and seeds.
- Add rest to your training schedule. Even your superhuman body needs to recover.
With the calendar full of exciting events, be sure to give yourself the gift of nourishing your body so that you will be healthy and vibrant during your time with family and friends. Even if you secretly want someone to bring you warm soup in bed and tell you that you will live.
- Harvard Health Publications – Harvard Medical School; How To Boost Your Immune System
- Web MD, Cold Flu and Cough Health Center
- JN Journal of Nutrition
- Udo Erasmus
- Linus Paulus Institute, Micro Nutrient Research for Optimum Health