After three years of trying to stay healthy during the pandemic, most of us understand the importance of having a strong immune system. But, many of us may not understand how the immune system works, and the role it plays in our everyday health and wellness. This complex network of organs, tissues and cells work together to protect us from infection, injury and disease. People with immune systems that are compromised due to cancer, immunodeficiency or other chronic illnesses are especially vulnerable to contracting communicable illnesses, such as COVID-19, colds and flu.
Knowing how important a strong immune system is to overall health, it makes sense to take steps to protect it now, so it can protect you when you need it most. Our immune system generally does a remarkable job of defending us against disease-causing microorganisms. When it's busy fighting an infection, it produces byproducts called free radicals. These accumulate over time and can eventually damage healthy cells. Antioxidants – important nutrients that we need in our diet such as iron, zinc, copper, vitamin C and vitamin E – can help protect immune cells and reduce potential damage from free radicals.
Inflammation is an immune reaction that isolates an injury or infected area. When we are injured or infected, the immune system focuses on delivering immune cells, chemical messengers and antibodies to that area. Prolonged inflammation can damage tissue and lead to other diseases. In fact, chronic inflammation is linked to cancer, diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and many other conditions. Fortunately, there are ways to control inflammation with your diet. If you are recovering from an illness or injury, modifying your diet to reduce inflammation is a good idea. Eliminate or reduce your consumption of saturated fat, including whole fat dairy and fatty cuts of meat. Processed and junk food is filled with sugar and refined carbohydrates, which can raise insulin levels and increase inflammation. Instead, focus on a diet that is rich in antioxidants and other nutrients that will help your immune system do its job. This is especially important as we age, as there's some evidence that shows a connection between declining nutrition and lowered immunity in the elderly. Aim for a diet that's filled with colorful fruits and vegetables, lean protein such as seafood, poultry, eggs, beans and legumes, and nuts. It's also helpful to know what nutrients different foods provide such as:
- Vitamin C: citrus fruits, strawberries and red bell peppers
- Vitamin A: eggs, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach and apricots
- Vitamin D: salmon, sardines, fortified milk
- Vitamin E: almonds, sunflower seeds, peanut butter
- B12 Vitamins: beef, clams, mackerel
- B6 Vitamins: Potato with skin, turkey, salmon
- Folate: spinach, lentils, enriched whole grain bread
- Zinc: oysters, beef, yogurt, beans, nuts
- Iron: beef, tuna, lentils, iron fortified cereals
- Copper: oysters, cashew nuts, lentils
- Selenium: tuna, Brazil nuts, pork, whole wheat bread
While a healthy diet is important in keeping your immune system strong, it's not the only step you can take. Our bodies are remarkably adept at protecting us, and we should help them out with healthy steps including:
- Not smoking. If you need to quit, get help.
- Exercising regularly. Aim for 30 minutes or more at least 5 days a week. Even a walk around the block counts!
- Getting enough good quality sleep. For most adults, 7-8 hours is necessary to feel rested in the morning.
- Maintaining a healthy weight. Talk to your doctor if you're having trouble shedding extra pounds that are adding stress to your body and putting you at risk for a host of chronic diseases.
- Drinking alcohol in moderation, or not at all.
See more tips on strengthening your immune system naturally.
This article first appeared in the February 2023 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.