Your immune system is critical to your body’s functioning: it helps to protect your body from outside invaders, such as bacteria, viruses and toxins, keeping us safe from sickness and disease. It should come as no surprise, then, that it’s a complex and intricate system. It has to be strong enough to fight various diseases and infections, but not so strong that it frequently overreacts. This would lead to the development of allergies and other autoimmune conditions.
In order to achieve optimal balance, your immune system requires a mixture of conditions, which can be provided by a healthy lifestyle. Here are some top tips to ensure your immune system can thrive.
Your diet matters
Eat the rainbow
Eating a wide variety of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, such as berries, kale, carrots, and bell peppers can help lay a strong foundation for your immunity. This is because these foods are high in phytonutrients, which are natural chemicals produced by plants. While we are still learning about
the specific mechanisms of how phytochemicals work, we know that they repair DNA damage from exposure to toxins and have anti-inflammatory benefits.
Inflammation is the immune system’s response to infection and injury. When tissues are injured by outside invaders, the damaged cells release chemicals that cause swelling. This helps to isolate the invader from further contact from the body. It also attracts white blood cells which “eat” the invaders
and dead cells. However, when left unchecked, chronic inflammation can lead to conditions like cardiovascular or joint problems.
Some phytonutrients, such as carotenoids, act as antioxidants in your body. This means they help to neutralize free radicals, which are particles which can damage immune cells. Antioxidants do this by “giving away” some of their own electrons, which acts as a natural “off” switch for free radicals.
Boost your gut health
Much of our immune system resides in the gut, so ensuring you have a good amount of healthy microbes and probiotics in your diet is important to supporting our immunity. Probiotics are a “good” kind of bacteria which support your gut health. They help reduce pathogen levels, which cause infection and disease by causing tissue damage and suppressing the immune system. Dietary probiotic sources include fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, miso, and tempeh.
Probiotics combat pathogens by fostering colonization resistance, namely competing with pathogens for their food sources and space for colonization, which reduces the likelihood of the “bad” bacteria surviving. They also produce small molecules such as short-chain fatty acids, which are the main source of energy for the cells lining your colon. Their production discourages the growth of pathogens and improves the gut environment. This in turn encourages the growth of other types of “good” bacteria in the gut, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus.
Increase your fibre intake
Foods high in fibre can help to boost the production of an anti-inflammatory protein called interleukin-4, which is known for its role in converting harmful inflammatory immune cells into protective anti-inflammatory cells, thereby increasing your body’s ability to fight infections.
Fibre also encourages healthy bacteria growth in the colon. This helps with bowel movement regularity, which is the key to carrying toxins out of the body. This is because the byproducts of that good bacteria form your stool, and fibre adds more bulk, making it easier for your system to eliminate it.
Load up on those vitamins!
There are 2 main ways in which vitamins can be absorbed in the body: by being dissolved in water or fat. Water soluble vitamins are dissolved in water and readily absorbed into tissues for the body’s immediate use. They need to be replenished regularly in our diet as they are not stored in our body – excess water-soluble vitamins are excreted through urine.
Fat soluble vitamins are dissolved in fats and absorbed by fat globules which are distributed through the body in the bloodstream. Unlike water soluble vitamins, they are stored in the liver and fatty tissues for future use.
Minerals: the building blocks of your body
The body uses minerals to perform many functions, whether it be building strong bones, transmitting nerve impulses, producing hormones or maintaining a normal heartbeat.
Magnesium is a cornerstone mineral when it comes to boosting your immunity. It’s thought to be an anti-inflammatory agent because levels of magnesium in the body are inversely correlated to levels of inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP) and IL-6. It also stimulates cell activity so that
toxins are released into the bloodstream. Other benefits include its role in maintaining healthy blood pressure levels, keeping muscles functioning and relaxing muscles and the mind. This all helps to maintain your immunity, as research has shown that high blood pressure and high stress both severely weaken the immune system, making us more susceptible to infections.
Despite its wide variety of benefits, however, we have become increasingly deprived of magnesium. Even traditionally magnesium-rich foods like leafy green vegetables and whole grains may not be adequate sources of magnesium. Why? They are grown in nutrient-depleted soil, thanks to modern agricultural practices. Processed foods have even less. For example, further refining can remove up to 97% of magnesium from foods like breads and pasta. Hence, why many turn to supplements to ensure the body has enough magnesium.
Zinc is another mineral that acts as a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. Its role as an antioxidant is seen in the fact that it converts damaging superoxide free radicals into hydrogen peroxide, which is broken down into water and oxygen. It also helps to prevent rhinovirus, a common
virus, from multiplying in the upper respiratory system. Those who are deficient in zinc are known to have severe immune dysfunctions. Dietary sources of zinc include legumes, seeds, whole grains, shellfish, red meat, and eggs. Supplemental zinc is also an option for those who are not getting enough zinc-rich foods in their diet.
Sticking to the basics is key
Strengthening your immune system may seem like a complicated process, but don’t be intimidated! As long as you stick to the basics of having a healthy diet and lifestyle, in particular having a wide variety of nutrients, you’ll be able to reinforce your body’s defences against harmful pathogens.