As we get older, our ability to stave off infections often decreases. Nutritious foods can help. It has never been more important to avoid infections and stay healthy. Social distancing can play a hand in preventing other people’s microbes from reaching you, and washing your hands often will kill germs if they do land on you. But if you do pick up those germs despite your best efforts, what can you do to increase your body’s capability to fight them off?
The foods you eat can have a large effect on how well your immune system works. Katherine L. Tucker, Ph.D works at UMass Lowell as the director of the Center for Population Health. She says that for old people in particular, it is very important to have a nutrient-dense diet. This is because the older you get, the more your immune responses decline. Many adults who are older have low-level chronic inflammation and underlying health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. These can hinder the body’s natural defenses. Moreover, older adults may not be able to absorb minerals and vitamins that fight infections as efficiently.
You cannot get your immune system into fighting shape overnight. Philip C. Calder, PhD. of the UK’s University of Southampton teaches nutritional immunology and he believes that you cannot change your diet suddenly and then have a happy immune system the next day. However, bolstering your diet now can show returns over the long run with better health overall and less sick days.
How the Immune System Works?
People frequently refer to the immune system as similar to a police force. With a complex network of cells, molecules, organs and tissues, it is patrolling all areas of the body. One component of the ‘police’ force is the innate immune system, and it is up front and center in the skin, the respiratory and GI tracts, the saliva and other places. It acts fast to impede foreign invaders. The adaptive immune system (also called the acquired immune system) is another part that works over a number of days to locate foreign invaders that have gotten past the front-line defenders. It helps create antibodies to fight them.
The immune system’s components are quite different, so you need a variety of vitamins and minerals to keep it healthy. These frequently function together in dozens of roles that boost the immune system. For example, Vitamin A is vital for healthy skin and cells in the GI tract. Vitamins E and C work as antioxidants that bolster the tissues and cells against the onslaught of harmful free radicals that are created when the immune system is battling an invader. You need B vitamins including B12, B6, and folate to make new immune cells and trigger an immune response. Your immune system is also fueled by other nutrients including magnesium, iron, copper, protein, omega-3 fats, zinc, Vitamin D and selenium.
Why Plants are Powerful?
The ideal diet to boost defenses in the body is one that centers around minimally processed, whole foods that are mainly cooked at home. Your immunity can be weakened by eating too many foods that are high in sugars, salt and saturated fats. Besides offering numerous phytochemicals and nutrients, plant-based foods also contain fiber, which fuels your gut’s healthy bacteria. Calder says that these bacteria assist with immunity as well.
Vegetables and fruits supply the body with most of the Vitamins C and A that it needs. These are crucial for fighting germs. Produce is also typically high in antioxidants, which reduce inflammation and protect the immune cell membranes (and others) from harmful oxidation. Your goal should be to consume at least 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables every day. To get a wide range of nutrients, mix up the color and type of your produce. Dr. Tucker suggests eating at least one green vegetable per day, such as broccoli, kale, spinach, Swiss chard, cabbage, or arugula. Sweet potatoes, bell peppers, carrots, and potatoes are also high in vitamin C and/or A. Citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, and kiwifruit are high in vitamin C.
Seeds and nuts are excellent sources of important minerals and vitamins, protein, fiber and healthy fats. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, however, the majority of people don’t come near to consuming their daily requirement of 15mg. Tucker says that eating a handful of almonds or sunflower seeds per day will achieve the desired result.
Almonds contain magnesium and copper. Studies show that these contribute to antibody production and DNA repair. Sunflower seeds contain zinc, copper, folate and selenium. Zinc deficiencies are linked to 16% of lower respiratory infections worldwide. Walnuts, hazelnuts and pistachios are packed with vitamin B6.
Whole grains and beans contain fiber and provide nutrients that help restore healthy bacteria in the intestines. Lentils are a great source of iron, copper and folate. Black beans and garbanzos contain zinc, while cranberry beans have high levels of folate. Whole-grain cereals and breads, as well as whole grains in themselves, including oats, barley, quinoa, wheatberries and bulgur to name a few, provide B vitamins, iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium.
Omega-3 fats can be found in healthy oils including canola, olive and flaxseed. These help regulate the activity of immune cells and keep inflammation levels in check. One or two tablespoons of a dressing with oil as a base can help your body absorb nutrients in greens and other types of vegetables, as well as antioxidant carotenoids that your body will convert into vitamin A.
Opt for Healthy Dairy and Meat
Dr. Calder says that you need animal-based foods to supply the things that plants cannot provide sufficiently. He says that one example of this is meat, which is an excellent source of vitamin B12. Particular minerals and vitamins are more readily available in animal-based foods than plant-based foods.For example, your body absorbs more zinc from meat and seafood than from whole grains and beans. Sufficient protein builds up the immune cells.
Fish and meat supply key nutrients. That being said, you don’t need to include either on your plate for every meal. A couple of times a week is sufficient. Poultry and lean meat are high in B vitamins (particularly B12, which approximately 20% of older adults have deficiencies in), selenium, zinc and iron. Shellfish is a great source of selenium, copper and zinc. In addition, fatty fish such as tuna, salmon and mackerel offer significant amounts of B vitamins, vitamin D, omega-3 fats, and selenium. All of these may help fight off infections of the upper respiratory tract and immune system over-responses.
Dairy amps up your levels of some B vitamins, vitamin A, magnesium, selenium, and zinc. Dairy products that are fortified, like yogurt and milk, can offer vitamin D, which is often hard to get. Yogurt (the plain variety so you can steer clear of extra sugars) is also high in probiotic bacteria. This helps to maintain a healthy intestinal microbiome. Two studies involving older people who were healthy (one which lasted over eight weeks and the other lasting over 12 weeks), the people who consumed approximately three ounces of yogurt daily came down with less colds than the people who drank milk.
Can Supplements Help?
Immune system supplements have seen a significant increase in sales recently. However, experts caution against taking them in most situations because you could be consuming too much of one or more nutrients. For example, too much folate can cover up a deficiency in vitamin B12, and high levels of zinc can block the absorption of copper. Remedies that are herbal and otherwise, such as colloidal silver (molecules of silver that are suspended in liquid) and elderberry tincture, that are promoted on social media as a way to kill the coronavirus, have not been scientifically proven and can be potentially dangerous. Phytic acid, also known as IP-6, is often said to be an antioxidant, but it can result in deficiencies of zinc, iron and calcium. In addition, the polyphenols in extracts of green tea can lower your body’s ability to absorb vitamin C, iron, and folate.
Additional Tips to Boost Immune System
- Monitor Your Stress:
Mental health and immune health are strongly linked. Moyad says that when you have anxiety or experience chronic stress, your body produces stress-related hormones that subdue your immune system. A study at Carnegie Mellon University showed that stressed people are more likely to get the common cold.
One particular study that was reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences involved 276 adults who were healthy and then exposed to the virus that causes the common cold. They were placed in quarantine and monitored for five days. The people who were stressed showed a higher likelihood of producing cytokines. These are molecules that set off inflammation. These people were also twice as likely to become ill. Moreover, stressed people are less likely to focus on other healthy habits such as getting enough sleep and eating right. Lin says that this can affect the body’s immunity.
While you can’t prevent stress from happening in your life, you can take on strategies to help you handle it better. A study printed in the Annals of Internal Medicine from 2012 focused on adults 50 years and above and discovered that the people who either practised mindfulness meditation or did an exercise routine every day were less likely to come down with a respiratory infection than the people in the control group. Moreover, if they did come down with an illness, they missed less work days.
- Get Sufficient Sleep:
Sleep can also boost your immune system naturally. Moyad explains that your immune system is similar to a computer. If it doesn’t get moments of rest, it could get overheated. Sleep gives the system a reboot.
He adds that when you are deprived of sleep, your body puts out stress hormones, such as cortisol, to ensure you are alert and awake. This can bring down your immune system. A 2019 study showed that people who managed a full 8 hours of sleep had more T cells than people who got less sleep. Aim to sleep at least seven hours every night. A study published in the Sleep journal from 2015 discovered that people who got at least seven hours of sleep had four times less of a chance of getting a cold than people who slept less than six hours.