The COVID-19 pandemic, on top of the usual winter blues, have had a detrimental impact on our physical and mental health. As a result, many of us have searched the internet for
“immune-boosting” foods, vitamin and mineral supplements.
In September 2020, BMC, the largest UK science publisher reported that the immune-boosting trend on social media is promoting misleading and scientifically inaccurate information about immunity, and is being used to market health-related products and services. There is no doubt, promising to boost immunity sells, but do these products deliver what they promise?
Can we boost our immunity?
The answer is no. The immune system is a network of several different types of specific cells, tissues, proteins, and organs that work well together and does not need any help to protect us from various potentially damaging foreign invaders and disease. While many products claim to “boost” immunity, the concept makes little sense scientifically. If we could “boost” our immunity, which cells would we choose to boost and how many?
The truth is that even if we could, we would not want to “boost” our immunity, because an overactive immune system may cause the body mistakenly to attack and damage its own tissues (e.g. autoimmune disease).
While “boosting” immunity remains a buzz word, and there is no miracle “superfood” or supplement that can ensure we will stay healthy, several different factors do influence our immunity, such as our overall diet, physical activity, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, sleep, stress, chronic diseases and age.
The link between nutrition and immunity
Rather than one or just a few, the combination of various nutrients found in a wide range of foods (including protein, omega-3 fats, vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, D, A, E, B12, B6, folate, zinc, copper, iron, and selenium) have been identified as critical for the growth and function of immune cells, and the body’s ability to fight infections.
Having a healthy, varied and balanced diet plays a vital role in reducing inflammation, improving our gut diversity and supporting our natural immunity. A fibre-rich diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes and some healthy fats like olive oil, oily fish, nuts and seeds is the best way to get all the nutrients that our immune system needs to function well. Diets, like the Mediterranean or Japanese, are great examples to follow.
As 70-80% of immune cells are located in the gut, our gut microbiome plays an important role in regulating our immune response. Eating a diet that encourages a healthy balance of gut bacteria will support our immunity and overall health. Adding probiotic-rich foods and drinks, which are sources of “good” live microbes to our diet and limiting processed and high-sugar foods are beneficial for our gut flora and therefore supports the functioning of our immune system. The best sources of probiotic foods are kefir (fermented milk), organic live yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, aged cheeses such as cheddar, gouda or mozzarella.
Keep things simple. When it comes to food, high quality simply means real: fresh or minimally processed. Eating foods cooked from scratch is one of the best ways to get more nutrients, but it does not have to mean cutting out all of your favourite comfort foods. Think about what you can add to your diet in terms of having healthy food and drink varieties, rather than worrying too much about what you should remove. Do not try to cut out your favourite burger or pizza if you enjoy them. Instead, try to add more salad or rainbow/fermented vegetables to it.
Our team of experts at PAAR are here to help you with any dietary habits and nutrition-related questions. Book a session with one of our nutritionists to learn more.
Should we take any supplements to support healthy immunity?
Supplements do not replace a healthy diet. It is worth noting that most claims that supplement companies make are not backed up by strong, scientific evidence. In addition, having a high dose of certain supplements may be dangerous. Most people can get a wide range of nutrients that play a role in immunity from a healthy and varied diet. It is important to remember that taking supplements that are promoted as “immune-boosting” are not seen as an effective substitution for nutrient-poor processed foods.
However, people with some specific requirements may benefit from taking supplements. For example, people who are at risk of vitamin D deficiency should consider taking a vitamin D supplement, pregnant women or those who are trying to conceive can benefit from taking folate, and it is a good idea for those who are on a plant-based diet to take a vitamin B12 supplement.
If you are concerned that your diet may not provide you with all that your body needs, or if you are on multiple medications that can interfere with nutrient absorption and appetite, or suffer from malabsorption due to gastrointestinal issues, make sure to speak to a qualified medical professional before taking any supplements.
Although we may not have a lot of control over how our immune system functions, it is clear that consuming a healthy diet, regularly exercising, getting adequate sleep and effectively regulating stress all play a huge role in ensuring that our immune system functions as it should.
When considering changes to your diet and lifestyle try to be kind to yourself.
Make small changes, focusing on the habits that support you.
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