Win the food fight with these immunity-building nutrients
It is that time of year when it seems like there is something in the air – another virus just waiting to be caught.
But our body’s defence – our immune system – is working hard all year round to ward off the pathogens that can cause disease and infection. Poor diet and nutritional deficiency are the two most common factors that can decrease the effectiveness of our immune system.
Several scientific studies over the past 30 years, including one published by the British Society for Immunology in 2008, suggest that 70 per cent of your immune system dwells in your digestive tract, so maintaining a healthy gut is the foundation of good immunity.
“Our gut system plays a very important role in ensuring our immune system is healthy and functioning well, so it makes a lot of sense to address our diet first,” says Dr Juliot Vinolia Rajarathinam, clinical dietitian and consultant nutritionist at Medeor 24x7 Hospital, Dubai.
“Good gut health relies on the right balance of good and bad bacteria, and there are several nutrients that play a strong role in boosting our immunity. These include proteins, probiotics, antioxidants, minerals such as zinc, and vitamins C, D and E, as well as essential fatty acids like omega-3,” she adds.
“Many of us don’t eat enough of the fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods we need to keep ourselves healthy all year round,” notes Dr Sonia Gupta, general practitioner at iCare Multi-Specialty Clinics. “It’s not a quick fix – a truly healthy immune system depends on a balanced mix of vitamins and minerals over time, plus normal sleep patterns and a good dose of exercise.
“My top three food choices for a strong immune system would be a daily serving of mixed greens, like spinach, kale and broccoli, along with mushrooms, which will give you a good variety of vitamins and minerals,” explains Gupta.
“Mixed raw nuts, like peanuts, almonds and sunflower seeds, will provide you with essential fatty acids and antioxidants, while a cup of yogurt or a probiotic drink will help you maintain healthy gut flora, which is vital to boosting your immunity.”
Rajarathinam agrees that yogurt is excellent for strengthening the immune system. “Plain yogurt contains good bacteria or probiotics that help to balance the good and bad bacteria in the digestive system. Opt for the full-fat variety that contains live cultures because the processing involved in the lighter versions can kill off the good bacteria,” she says.
Vitamin C is also one of the most commonly recognised immune boosters, and an important antioxidant for the body’s growth and repair.
“Vitamin C is thought to increase the production of white blood cells which are crucial for fighting against infection,” says Rajarathinam. “However, our bodies don’t produce or store vitamin C, so it is vital to get this through our diet or via a supplement.”
While you might think oranges or other citrus fruits are the best sources of vitamin C, there are other options, too. For example, one gooseberry contains twice as much vitamin C as two oranges, while a cup of chopped red pepper packs in nearly three times the amount of one orange. Kiwi fruit is another good source – one piece is enough to get your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C.
Immune-boosting nutrients and where to find them
Vitamin E: A powerful antioxidant that helps your body fight off infection. Raw almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds are all high in vitamin E. Spinach and broccoli are also good sources.
Vitamin B6: An important vitamin for immune system functions. Good foods high in B6 include bananas, lean chicken breast, cold-water fish such as tuna, baked potatoes and chickpeas.
Vitamin C: Highest content foods include bell peppers, dark leafy greens such as kale and broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi fruit, mango, gooseberries and papaya.
Vitamin A: Opt for foods high in colourful compounds called carotenoids such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, cantaloupe and squash. The body turns these carotenoids into vitamin A, and their antioxidant effect helps strengthen the immune system against infection.
Vitamin D: Studies indicate that this may help immune cells identify and destroy bacteria and viruses that make us sick. Since many in the UAE are deficient in vitamin D, most experts recommend a D supplement. You can also get it (in small doses) from fatty fish, such as salmon, and fortified milk, but the major source is the Sun.
Selenium: This nutrient can have a powerful effect on the immune system. Get it from foods such as garlic, broccoli, sardines, tuna, Brazil nuts and barley.
Zinc: This helps our immune system’s response by controlling inflammation in the body. To top up, opt for oysters, crab, lean meats and poultry, baked beans, yogurt and chickpeas.
Updated: December 15, 2016 04:00 AM