Improve Immune Health Through Nutrition

Submitted by Dave Draeger, CDM, CFPP,

Director of Dietary and Dining Services

With the change of seasons, so comes the cold and flu season. With the coronavirus receiving most of our attention, one cannot forget about the cold and flu. Proper nutrition and a balanced diet can support the immune processes that occur in the body.

The immune systems main goal is to prevent disease through a set of organs, cells and pathways.  White blood cells are the main defense against attacks on the immune system.  Innate immunity is general and wide based, and is the first line of defense.  Adaptive immunity is specific to the type of pathogen being fought off, meaning the body remembers this and develops specific cells for each fight.

Protein levels can affect both innate and adaptive immunity.  Low levels of protein can cause decreased production of certain cells.  Normal protein levels are required for the immune system to remember certain pathogens and the antibodies used to fight them.  Consume adequate amounts of beef, chicken, pork, fish, eggs and dairy.  Non-meat sources includes lentils and beans to make sure protein levels are adequate.

Vitamin A assists the digestive and respiratory system to maintain healthy tissues to act as barriers to disease causing pathogens.  Intestinal disease research is focusing on Vitamin A’s ability to influence digestive diseases.  Sources of Vitamin A include sweet potato, carrots, pumpkin, eggs, spinach and liver.

Vitamin C is the most popular vitamin when one thinks of immune health.  Vitamin C is abundant in foods that we consume.  Low Vitamin C levels limit the immune cell response and the body’s ability to fight free radicals, which can damage the immune system.  Testing has also shown it to prevent or alleviate symptoms of infections.  Oranges, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli and leafy green vegetables are good sources of vitamin C.

Vitamin D is known for bone health, but may increase the body’s ability to fight off pathogens when they enter the body.  Vitamin D increases antimicrobial activity of certain cells, thus preventing further infections.  Many foods are fortified with vitamin D to supplement natural intake.  Fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines, along with egg yolks, offer good sources of Vitamin D.

Vitamin E may be the most important vitamin when it comes to immune health.   It has various functions including increased activity and activation of certain cells, preventing age related decline of cells and reducing the risk of pneumonia and colds.  Vitamin E needs are moderate and can be achieved by enjoying nuts and seeds.  Broccoli and spinach are also good sources.

Zinc signals pathways that take place for immunity.  Low levels may decrease immune cells and activity.  Proper zinc intake has shown to shorten acute and chronic viral infections.  Adequate sources of zinc can be found in red meat, poultry, nuts, seeds, shellfish and legumes.

I have discussed gut health in a previous article.  The good bacteria in the GI system plays a role in immunity.  Prebiotic and probiotic foods are necessary to maintain gut health.

Most vitamins and minerals play a small role in immune health.  An overall balanced diet, which includes a variety of nutrient dense foods, will provide adequate health.  I wish you all a symptom-free cold and flu season.