A battleground full of first-wave defenses of thick walls, burning acid and goo, followed by a second wave of soldiers to recognize and fight the enemy. That’s the opening scene to the blockbuster movie chronicling our daily hero: the immune system. As we enter the sniffles season (and amidst a global pandemic), is there a way we can eat foods to boost our immune system? The simple answer to that? It’s complicated.
Our Immune System and “Boosting” It
Like any battleground with a multitude of moving pieces, our immune system is highly complex and constantly changing. At its core, it involves both innate immunity (think first-line defenses such as our skin acting as a barrier, our stomach acid destroying pathogens, or our mucus membranes acting as traps) and adaptive/acquired immunity (think a second-line defense of fighter cells in our bodies specifically trained to fight that type of invader). These defenses keep out hundreds of harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites daily. And you thought you were completely chill while sipping your coffee this morning, huh?
The problem with the term “boost” is that it means to elevate and go beyond the normal level. There’s no “boosting” our immune system to a level that can’t physiologically exist in our bodies because well, it doesn’t exist. However, nutrients from our food (and specifically deficiencies from these nutrients) do play vital roles in how our immune systems function on a basic level.
Nutrients to Maintain a Functional Immune System
It’s important to remember that no single food or nutrient will prevent illness or replace vaccines or medical treatments for diseases. Also, remember that you get a lot of other nutrients when you eat whole foods, so even if you’re aiming to get one nutrient from food, you’ll be getting so many other added bonuses along with it (vs. just taking a supplement, which we still don’t have consistent, reliable data on most to prove they do what they say or are worth the money). Here are a few nutrients that have been identified as having a critical role in our immune system:
- Vitamin C
- Foods/sources: oranges, peppers, strawberries, grapefruit, tomatoes
- What it does: helps produce antibodies and aids in the movement of white blood cells
- Foods/sources: red meat, beans, nuts, and fortified food products
- What it does: necessary for the production of immune cells
- Vitamin D
- Foods/sources: sunlight, fatty fish, egg yolks, fortified dairy products
- What it does: regulates inflammation and production of immune cells
- Foods/sources: beans, seeds, nuts, meats, fish, whole grains
- What it does: necessary for the production and multiplication of immune cells and other cellular processes (like wound healing)
- Vitamin E
- Foods/sources: seeds, nuts, whole grains, vegetable oils
- What it does: acts as an antioxidant to protect the walls of our cells by neutralizing radical molecules that damage cell walls
- Foods/sources: fruits, vegetables, whole grains (prebiotics) and yogurt, kimchi, tempeh, sauerkraut (probiotics)
- What it does: maintains a healthy, diverse microbiota of our gut, which supports a healthy immune system
Non-nutrients to Maintain a Functional Immune System
Now if you’re motivated enough to get to this part of the article, you’d probably like to know that while food plays a huge role in our immunity, it isn’t the only factor that you can actually control. Getting regular, consistent sleep (7-9 hours per night), managing stress (practice that breathing my friend), staying hydrated, and exercising all impact how well our immune system functions.
What to Avoid
Some things also negatively impact our immune function such as excessive alcohol, smoking, and too much sugar. Also, if caffeine keeps you up at night, you may want to avoid that past a certain time during the day as it affects your sleep and therefore, your immunity.
While certain nutrients are more directly involved in our immune function than others, our immunity depends on a wide variety of nutrients and factors, which means the best way to fight off the sniffles is to eat a well-balanced diet full of a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, and lean proteins.
If that sounds daunting (it does to a lot of us), then let us help make it easier with our cooking classes! Our virtual Salmon Teriyaki class on Thursday, October 14 at 6pm CST features fish (vitamin D, zinc), soba noodles (zinc, vitamin E, prebiotics), and broccoli (vitamin C, prebiotics). So, when you’re in the quiet of morning, remember that your body is throwing acid on invaders, targeting key enemies, and rallying thousands of troops with brave battle cries that turn to miniscule squeaks once we zoom out of the body in that opening shot in the blockbuster about the greatest hero of all time: our immune system.