The immune system is a remarkable defense mechanism, tirelessly working to protect us from infections, eliminate harmful cells, and maintain our well-being. And in light of the recent pandemic, it’s become even clearer that a strong immune system is crucial for our health and longevity.
“Fortunately, you can do much at home to bolster your immunity—starting with your plate,” says integrative medicine doctor, author, and healer, Tieraona Low Dog, M.D. In this article, we’ll explore the important relationship between nutrition and immunity, and cover key nutrients that will keep your immune system working properly for years to come.
Nutrition and immunity: how does nutrition affect the immune system?
Nutrition plays a pivotal role in supporting the immune system, enhancing its resilience and effectiveness, Dr. Low Dog says. The nutrients we obtain from our diet provide energy, serve as building blocks for immune cells, and act as signaling molecules to regulate immune responses.
Furthermore, the gut microbiome–the population of trillions of microbes in our digestive tract–is crucial for immune system regulation. With 80% of the immune system located in the gut, taking care of its microbiome promotes proper immune cell function, helping us fight infections.
Embracing a wholesome and nutrient-rich diet optimizes immune strength, contributing to overall health and well-being.
What foods strengthen your immune system?
Here are some nutrients and foods that build a strong immune system, and the role they play in protecting us from illnesses.
Protein serves as the foundation for a healthy immune system, Dr. Low Dog says. It consists of amino acids that activate immune cells, including “natural killer” cells (cells with enzymes that kill tumor cells and virus-infected cells), such as macrophages, and T and B lymphocytes.These cells produce antibodies that defend against bacterial and viral infections.
Protein also plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), which is vital for immune function.
Dr. Low Dog recommends the average adult aim for 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, although older adults may need slightly higher amounts (around one to 1.3 grams per kilogram of body weight per day). This means an adult woman weighing 160 pounds who’s somewhat active needs between 1.8 and 4.6 ounces daily.
Excellent sources of protein include:
- Tofu and other soy foods
- Dairy products like milk and yogurt
- Lean meats like chicken, turkey, and lean cuts of beef
Probiotics are beneficial live bacteria or yeasts that support a healthy balance of microorganisms in the body, particularly in the gut. They influence the functions of various immune cells such as dendritic cells, macrophages, and T and B lymphocytes. One way they do this is by activating toll-like receptors, which are involved in immune system regulation.
Research on probiotics has also revealed that they contain genes and compounds that positively affect our immune system. These beneficial microorganisms have been found to regulate the functions of immune cells and cells lining the intestines. As a result, probiotics have shown promise in treating immune response-related conditions like allergies, eczema, and viral infections.
Incorporate probiotic foods into your diet, such as:
- Kefir, a fermented milk drink
- Yogurt with live active cultures
- Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi
- Fermented soy products like miso and tempeh
- Kombucha tea
Dietary fiber–found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes–plays a crucial role in supporting immune health. It feeds beneficial microbes in the gut, which break down the fiber into short chain fatty acids, which stimulate immune cell activity. Referred to as prebiotics, these fibers act as nourishment for the microbes.
A high-fiber, plant-rich diet fosters the growth of beneficial microbes. Fiber also contributes to the health of the GALT, reinforcing our body’s defenses against pathogens, Dr. Low Dog says.
Aim for 25-30 grams of fiber daily, and enjoy a variety of fiber-rich foods, such as:
- Whole grains like wheat, buckwheat, and quinoa
- Chia seeds
Vitamin and mineral supplementation
While a balanced diet should be your primary source of nutrients, Dr. Low Dog says that, in certain situations, supplementation can be helpful to boost immune function. Vitamins and minerals that play a crucial role in immune health include vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc.
Dr Low Dog recommends a multivitamin that provides essential B vitamins, vitamin E, and selenium, as well as the following amounts of nutrients for immune health:
- Vitamin A: 2,000–5,000 IU per day (with 50% as beta carotene/mixed carotenoids)
- Vitamin C: 250–500 mg per day
- Vitamin D: 1,000–2,000 IU per day
- Zinc: 10–20 mg per day
For individuals aged 65 and above–or those with more risk factors for infection–higher doses of specific nutrients may be beneficial. It’s important to consult with your healthcare provider to determine appropriate supplementation guidelines based on your unique needs.
Nourishing your immune system through proper nutrition is a proactive approach to overall health and well-being. By prioritizing protein, probiotics, dietary fiber, and targeted supplementation when necessary, you can provide your immune system with the support it needs to function optimally and keep you feeling your best all year long.
Remember, a healthy immune system is a cornerstone of vitality. Embrace the power of nutrition to fuel and strengthen your body’s natural defenses.
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