Cold, flu and COVID season has arrived and is about to cause a number of us to get sick. While vaccinations, mask-wearing, and other precautions are imperative to staying healthy, the food we eat can also help ward off infections.
Research has shown that between 70% and 80% of our immune cells reside in our gut. “In the gastrointestinal tract, we have millions of different organisms, and many of them are there because they need to regulate cellular processes in our body,” says Dr. Selvi Rajagopal, assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “And we’re learning that the more we can support a healthy bacterial environment in our gut, the better our chances of fending off many inflammatory processes.”
Food may not be medicine, but optimal nutrition is essential for healthy immune function. The gut microbiome, which refers to the trillions of bacteria that live symbiotically in our gastrointestinal tracts, depends on a diet rich in vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains and seafood. When the good bacteria in our intestines receive a variety of nutrients, immune cells respond effectively to pathogens and conclude the response as quickly as possible to avoid chronic inflammation.
“In many ways, the gut is one of our first lines of defense against invaders,” says Dr. Tim Harlan, professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and director of the GW Culinary Medicine Program.
Give your immune system a boost by choosing foods rich in these essential nutrients.
Red grapes, berries, nuts, onions, broccoli, apples, beans and legumes are an excellent source of polyphenols, which act as anti-inflammatories and help initiate an immune response, says Clara Di Vincenzo, registered dietitian at the Institute of Digestive Health. at UT Health Austin.
Prebiotics and probiotics
Prebiotics and probiotics work together to facilitate the growth of healthy gut bacteria, with the former serving as fuel for the latter to do their job. You can get prebiotics by eating garlic, onions, dandelion greens, bananas, flax seeds, cocoa, or asparagus. Probiotics are abundant in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, and tempe. Prebiotics and probiotics also have anti-inflammatory benefits.
Brazil nuts, eggs, turkey, brown rice and fortified foods provide selenium. This mineral prevents the immune system from overreacting to pathogens and potentially causing autoimmunity or chronic inflammation. (If you eat Brazil nuts, limit yourself to 1-3 a day to avoid). Zinc, which supports immune cell growth, can be obtained by eating poultry, beans, nuts, shellfish and dairy products. Additionally, omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish and chia seeds help your body produce cytokines, which help your immune cells communicate with each other.
Green leafy vegetables like collards or kale provide vitamin A, which is vital for the immune system, although scientists don’t fully understand why. Vitamin C in citrus fruits, red peppers, kiwis, strawberries, broccoli and cantaloupe works as an antioxidant to prevent cells from suffering damage. Vitamin D regulates immune cell activity, stimulates antiviral responses and reduces inflammation. Although it can be obtained from fatty fish and fortified foods, experts suggest talking with your doctor about supplementation, as it is difficult for many people to get enough from food alone. (Many of these foods are also high in fiber, which helps promote cellular processes and nurtures the environment needed to maintain optimal health.)
Should I choose a supplement?
Supplements can be useful in certain situations. Animal studies have shown that deficiencies in these key nutrients can negatively impair immune responses. Research has also found that people who are malnourished are at higher risk for bacterial and viral infections. For the more than 54 million Americans who live under food apartheid and in food deserts, workarounds like supplements are imperative.
“It’s not that supplements aren’t recommended, but we want to consider foods high in those nutrients before jumping to a magic pill or supplement, knowing those foods have been shown to be more beneficial,” says Di Vincenzo. . “And we need this healthy diet to support immune health more than just a supplement or a magic pill.”
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com
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