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How Diet Has an Influence on the Immune System

By Martha Michael

Diet and the Immune System

If you’re among the millions who use MyFitnessPal to input your calories, you know how to take careful inventory of everything you put in your mouth. But paying attention to what you eat can do more than track your weight loss goals. Your ability to fight infection is impacted by your nutritional choices, including food and supplements.

The job of your immune system is to monitor your body for signs of invasion by dangerous cells. One of its challenges, according to the National Institutes of Health website, is to distinguish which molecules are harmful and which are necessary for survival, such as the particles in nutrition.

According to research by the University of Southampton in the U.K., nutrition stimulates immune system cells which delay the onset of immune-mediated chronic diseases. Your immune response recognizes a specific pathogen and remembers it when it’s exposed a second time, which is how inoculation works.

Anti-inflammatory Role of Nutrition

When your immune system is activated to fight infection, it needs more energy that comes from both immediate food intake and body storage. Immune cells travel to the site of the infection and cause inflammation.

Systemic inflammation is one cause of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, stroke and rheumatoid arthritis. Advancing age, obesity and health conditions can trigger chronic inflammation. Better nutrition is one way to reduce your risk of lifelong health problems due to an overactive immune system.

For cells of all kinds to function properly, we need adequate nutrition, but also the right quantity. Obesity is eroding the health of Americans as overnutrition compromises your immune system and increases your chance of stroke, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, and cardiovascular issues.

One of the problems in the Western diet is lipopolysaccharides, or LPS, because immune cells respond to it with inflammation. You can fight the inflammatory response with a diet containing long chain omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Optimum Diet

Fresh fruits and vegetables have long been touted as key ingredients in a healthy diet. Among other benefits, they are high in bioactive compounds that reduce the risk of conditions attributed to chronic inflammation such as cardiovascular disease.

Residents of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including Greece, Italy and France, typically eat meals that include fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts. As a result, studies of the area’s nutritional outcomes show they have less cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

An article on Harvard Health’s website has a list of vitamins and minerals a healthy immune system needs in order to function. They include:

  • Vitamins A, B6, C and E
  • Selenium
  • Zinc
  • Copper
  • Folic acid
  • Iron

Considered a breadbasket of the world, residents of the United States have the luxury of choosing from a huge variety of foods to deliver those nutrients.

An article in Healthline has information about the most powerful foods for boosting your immune system, which are:

  • Citrus fruits
  • Broccoli
  • Yogurt
  • Almonds
  • Ginger
  • Turmeric
  • Garlic
  • Green tea
  • Papaya
  • Kiwi
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Shellfish
  • Poultry
  • Spinach

To better fight infection, you can increase the number of white blood cells in your body by eating foods rich in Vitamin C such as oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes. But ounce for ounce, vegetables deliver more immune system boosters, the article says. Red bell peppers, which are a reliable source of Vitamins A, C and E, have twice as much Vitamin C as citrus fruits and broccoli, the latter of which is considered one of the healthiest foods available.

The Truth About Supplements

If your diet isn’t rich in vitamins and minerals, taking a supplement may have some benefits, according to Harvard Health. In addition to multivitamins for overall wellness, some Americans choose to take supplements for specific uses, including:

  • Bone health
  • Prenatal
  • Hair growth
  • Fiber supplement
  • Joint health

There is no evidence that multivitamins and minerals in supplemental form boost your immune function to protect you against disease, and the use of herbs is equally controversial. While scientists have found certain antibodies boosted by herbs, there’s no evidence of them raising overall immunity.

A Healthline article about supplements urges you to look closely at the labels. The benefit of the supplements you take depends, in part, on the quality of the manufacturer.

Don’t purchase supplements with large amounts of additives, fillers and preservatives. You can further guarantee the purity of the supplements you choose by checking for a certificate of analysis which confirms that standards of quality are met. You may also find a seal of approval on the product from third party companies such as Consumer Labs.

Watching what you eat is an American pastime, but typically a function of weight loss programs. A diet strategy aimed at boosting your immune system offers greater long-term effects than dropping a few pounds. But it can also dovetail with the success you achieve when you meet your Fitbit goals.

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