We do not always have control of our environment, such as exposure to disease and viruses as we are experiencing with the current Covid-19 pandemic. However, we do have control of how we nourish ourselves including our food choices and lifestyle.
A well-nourished body has a remarkable ability to heal and survive
The immune system is our body’s defense system which protects against dangerous invaders that may compromise our health such as infections, pathogens, germs, toxins, parasites, viruses and other disease-causing microorganisms. The immune system is continuously “on call” and fights 24/7 to keep us healthy. There are many cells and organs that strategically work together to protect us. It is like having our own military system equipped with an intelligence system finding targets and sending defense troops to attack them. In the same way it is essential for a military system to be strong and healthy to win a battle; it is vital for our immune system to be strong and healthy to win the war against disease, infection, viruses and other invaders. Research indicates that malnourishment or lack of proper nutrition can compromise the immune system and leads to higher rates of morbidity and mortality. There is some evidence that even micronutrient deficiencies such as zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, Vitamins A, B6, and E may impact the immune system.
How can we best support a healthy and strong immune system with nutrition?
For our immune system to function well, it needs to be well nourished.
A healthy and nutrient-rich diet with a balanced mix of vitamins and minerals is essential for the immune system to function well. A whole food, plant-based approach can provide optimal nutrition supplying an abundance of essential vitamins and minerals along with important phytochemicals and antioxidants that are not found in other foods. These nutrients synergistically work together, so your immune system can function at its best.
Different vitamins and minerals play different roles in the function and strengthening of the immune system. For example, Vitamin C has several functions such as stimulating the formation of antibodies, B6 is vital to supporting biochemical reactions in the immune system, and Vitamin D plays an important role in keeping the critical balance of the immune system, much the a gymnast walking on a balance beam.
Research has shown that antioxidants can significantly improve the immune response. Antioxidants are compounds found in plants that can prevent cells and tissues from being damaged by harmful molecules called free radicals. Powerful antioxidants include vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin E, C, D and selenium, and phytochemicals, found only in plants, such as carotenoids, flavonoids, phenols, and lignans.
However, this does not suggest taking a handful of supplements. Instead, fill your plate with a rainbow of colors from handfuls of delicious, plant-based whole foods.
A study published in the 2012 edition of the the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed improved immune response in the elderly population with increased fruit and vegetable consumption. As we age, our immune response capability becomes reduced, so it especially important for older adults to include a variety of at least 5-7 servings of produce a day. A study, published in the july 2014 edition of the British Medical Journal, shows evidence that a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with lower risk of all cause of mortality. Fruits and vegetables do not need to be fresh; frozen can be an excellent option, when fresh is not available. Other plant-based, immune-supporting foods are great to keep on hand in the freezer such as cooked lentils, black-eyed peas, edamame, and whole grains such as cooked brown rice and quinoa.
The gut microbiome also plays a critical role in the immune system and its response to infection and balance. Read Ornish Living article, Your Gut and Heart Connection, to learn more. A balanced plant-based approach is the best strategy to feed a healthy and diverse microbiome to support immunity.
Key Nutrients & Plant-based Sources for a Healthy Immune System
Protein: Legumes including beans, lentils, dried peas such as split peas and black-eyed peas, soy foods such as edamame, tofu, tempeh, yuba and soymilk, and yogurt
Zinc: whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts
*Selenium: whole grains, broccoli, brazil nuts, barley, garlic
Iron: legumes, broccoli, leafy greens
Copper: mushrooms, potatoes, cocoa, tofu, chickpeas, figs, cashews, sunflower and sesame seeds
Folic acid: green vegetables such as leafy greens, green beans and broccoli, beans, peas, whole grains
*Vitamin A (beta-carotene) orange and dark green foods such as carrots, apricots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes and yams, winter squash such as pumpkin, butternut, acorn and kobocha, leafy greens such as kale, spinach and collards, broccoli, and bell peppers
Vitamin B6: green vegetables such as leafy greens and broccoli, bananas, potatoes, chickpeas,
*Vitamin C: Citrus fruits, leafy greens such as spinach and kale, bell peppers, grapefruit, brussel sprouts, strawberries, papaya and mango
*Vitamin D: Fortified foods such as oat milks and cereals, mushrooms
*Vitamin E: Nuts, seeds, leafy greens, broccoli
Omega 3: flaxseeds, walnuts
*Top antioxidant rich foods: Beets, blueberries, raspberries, goji berries, red grapes, leafy greens, red cabbage, broccoli, garlic, artichokes, walnuts, pomegranate
What foods will you eat today to support your immune system?