The Key To A Healthy Immune System is At Your Fingertips

The most important thing you can do to improve your immune system is at your fingertips - more exactly, it's what's on your fork. The type of diet you consume determines the type of nutrients and fuel you feed to your immune cells. A diet deficient in certain nutrients can make you more vulnerable to infections, slow your healing time, and expose you to damage caused by free radicals, an end-product of metabolism. By adjusting your diet to include foods that support immune function and exclude those that add a toxic burden to your body, you can make significant improvements in your overall health.

For an overview of how to build a healthy immune system, check out this video.

Eat Smart

Eating smart means eating to heal inflammation by using food as your medicine. The root of many of chronic diseases is found in the gut in the form of inflammation. Food allergies or sensitivities can irritate the lining of your gut. By continuing to eat those foods, you're actually feeding the fire of chronic inflammation in your body rather than nourishing it. Chronic inflammation is a major source of stress for your immune system as it forces your immune defenses to react continually.

Eating smart means selecting the right kinds of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in order to promote health by building up your immune system. The Mediterranean diet does just that by being low in foods that promote inflammation - like dairy, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods - and high in healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, fish and high in immune-boosting fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs like garlic, basil, and oregano.

Did you know that one piece of wheat bread sends your blood sugar higher than a tablespoon of sugar? That's because the type of carbohydrates in bread and other refined or processed foods is digested quickly, causing a fast rise in your blood sugar.

Every cell in your body requires fuel to function. The sugar - called glucose - that results from digesting your food is the main source of fuel. However, high blood sugar levels have serious implications for your body:

  • Oxidative Stress: When your blood sugar is high, it sets in motion a process that forms oxygen free radicals which damage your cells in many ways. The oxidative stress caused by high levels of circulating blood sugar can lead to damage in many of your organs (heart, eyes, kidney), as well as in your blood vessels (heart disease) and joints (arthritis). The severe complications associated with diabetes (an illness characterized by high levels of blood sugar due to either a lack of insulin, insufficient amounts of insulin or a resistance to the effects of insulin on your cells) reflect the extent to which oxidative stress can destroy your tissues unless changes are made with regard to dietary habits, exercise, and - for those with diabetes - effective blood sugar control with medications and insulin. Due to the poor dietary habits of many Americans, the number of people suffering from diabetes has increased significantly in the last 15 years.

  • High Insulin Levels: Insulin is responsible for moving glucose (blood sugar) into the cells so that it can be used for fuel. High levels of blood sugar result in high levels of insulin which has been linked to the development of cancer.

  • Suppression of Immune Cells: Even short periods of high blood sugar have been found to suppress the ability of immune cells to fight bacteria and other microorganisms.

Not all carbohydrates are bad. What makes a carbohydrate bad is the glycemic index - or the speed with which it causes your blood sugar to rise - produced through digestion. Carbohydrates that contain fiber, as do many vegetables (broccoli or spinach), do not send your blood sugar levels skyrocketing because the presence of fiber slows down the speed of digestion. Good carbohydrates are found in fresh vegetables and fruit, legumes, and whole grains. Here's a brief list of carbohydrates that should feature prominently on your plate:

  • Dark, leafy greens like Spinach, kale, Swiss chard

  • Broccoli

  • Cauliflower

  • Bok choy

  • Asparagus

  • cabbage

  • Green peppers

  • Seaweed

  • Whole grains: quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and teff (all are gluten-free)

  • Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, split peas, and beans

  • Blueberries

  • Blackberries

  • Raspberries

  • Plums

  • Peaches

  • Nectarines

Protein also provides your body with fuel in the form of glucose. The difference here is that protein is digested more slowly than carbohydrates, avoiding a quick spike in blood sugar levels. The amino acids which result from the breaking down of protein are essential for the proper functioning of your entire body. Moreover, your immune system needs proteins to produce antibodies, enzymes, and immune cells.

The right amount of protein to consume is based on your age, size, and level of physical activity. If you have kidney disease, you need to be on a special diet that is low in protein and should consult your healthcare provider about your dietary regimen. The cells found in your muscles are a very important site of energy production. The less muscle mass you have, the less energy you will have to expend.

Fats play a critical role in maintaining good health. Essential fatty acids are substances derived from fat - both plant and animal - which are essential for the proper functioning of the cells throughout our bodies. Since our bodies don't produce these fatty acids, it's important to make sure you are getting enough of the right kinds of fats in your diet - chiefly, omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.

The health benefits of omega 3 fatty acids have been studied extensively and are many, with positive effects being seen in cardiovascular, neurological, and psychiatric diseases, certain cancers, and even dry eye disease. Omega 6 fatty acids aid in proper brain development and function, immune function, hormone metabolism, and in the right amount, fight inflammation.

In order for your body to obtain the benefits of good fats, you must strike the right balance of omega 3 fatty acids to omega 6 fatty acids. The average american diet provides an unhealthy amount of omega 6s, with a ratio omega 6 to omega 3 of 20:1. According to Dr. Natasha Campbell-Mcbride, "it is the excessive omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids from vegetable and cooking oils that are to a large degree causing an epidemic of inflammatory degenerative conditions in our modern world, from heart disease and various autoimmune problems to cancer." Therefore, it's important for your diet to contain fats that give you a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 that is 2:1. See our blogs on fat for more detailed information on the important fats to include in your diet.

Eat Clean

Toxins from the environment come in many forms. Air pollution, water contamination, and pesticides are just a few of the ways you come into contact with substances that can accumulate in your body, causing damaging to your health. Choosing organic fruits and vegetables is one way to minimize your overall toxic burden. Every year, the environmental working group puts out a list of the most contaminated foods and the cleanest foods. Here's the list they compiled in 2016.

The Dirty Dozen (These foods you should buy organic to avoid exposure to pesticides):

  • Strawberries

  • Apples

  • Nectarines

  • Peaches

  • Celery

  • Grapes