When you stop to think about how hard your immune system works for you, it’s nothing short of amazing. It’s an incredibly complex system that works non-stop to protect and defend you. And it’s a system that depends on good nutrition in order to function properly.
We tend to focus on immunity more in the colder months. It seems that colder weather and illness go hand-in-hand. Part of the reason is that when the weather turns chilly, we spend more time indoors. That means we’re in closer contact with more people, and there’s less air circulating so we’ve got more exposure to the germs that can make us sick.
But that doesn’t mean our immune system isn’t on alert the rest of the year. Your built-in defence system works 24/7. In essence, your immune system is your own personal army of ‘soldiers.’ They protect your body by identifying anything foreign, from a virus to bacteria to a parasite, and then seeking it out and destroying it.
And your body depends on the proper nutrients and a healthy lifestyle to keep your defences up.
Good Nutrition and Your Immune System
Your immune system has some ‘special forces’ in the form of white blood cells. These cells produce specialised proteins called antibodies that seek out and destroy invading viruses and bacteria. As antibodies are made of proteins, you need adequate protein in the diet to ensure you’ll be able to manufacture the antibodies your body needs. Healthy protein foods, like fish, poultry, lean meats, soy foods and low-fat dairy products provide the building blocks that your body needs to make these specialized proteins.
Fruits and vegetables are key players in immune system health because they’re great sources of vitamins A and C as well as phytonutrients. Vitamin C encourages your body to produce antibodies and vitamin A supports the health of your skin and tissues of your digestive tract and respiratory system. All of these act as first lines of defence against foreign invaders. Many of the phytonutrients found in fruits and veggies act as antioxidants, which can help to reduce oxidative stress on the body that may weaken your body’s ability to fight off illness.
Keeping your digestive system healthy is also important in supporting immune function. Your digestive tract is home to trillions of bacteria that have numerous functions in promoting health. Some strains of bacteria help you digest the fibre in your foods, others consume intestinal gas, while others produce vitamins like vitamin K and vitamin B12.
When your system is populated with these “good” bacteria, they also serve to crowd out the potentially harmful bacteria that might enter your digestive tract. Some of the best sources of these friendly bacteria are cultured dairy products, like yoghurt and kefir. Whenever you’re trying something new, make sure to check with your doctor or other professionals on the amount that’s right for you.
Some people suffer medical conditions that affect the operation of their immune system. Diet alone won’t improve the function of a compromised immune system. But for healthy people, eating well can help keep your immune system healthy and strong. To help your body in the fight against foreign invaders, your internal ‘army’ needs the best nutrition possible. So call in the troops!
Written by Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training