Food and the immune system

I wrote this post about a year ago. In light of the virus that is wreaking havoc on the world at the moment, it seems pertinent to share again.

People are keen to know what to eat to ‘boost’ their immune system. We often get told about this food or that food’s effect on our immune system or how a food is protecting us against illness or cancer or how full of antioxidants the food is. Eating to help our immune system is not about one or two superfoods. It is a lot more complex than that. In fact ‘boost’ is not the best word to use. A boosted immune system is one that is active when it is not needed, like in auto immune disease or allergy. What we want is our immune system to be working optimally, like a finally tuned machine that we almost are unaware of its presence.

First of all, we must understand a little about the immune system. It is beautiful, elegant and very complex. Lots of things are going on all the time in our body to battle against all those nasty things that would kill us if it wasn’t for our in built force field that is the immune system. There are chemicals being made communicating between all the different parts, cells being made that go kill the baddies, antibodies to help us recognise threats, the skin and membranes stopping things getting in at all and lots of friendly bacteria living in us and on us that have a role to help the body fight off things that might hurt us. These processes need lots of different things and no one food is going to be the key to a perfect immune system, regardless what the marketing says.

We need protein to make the different fighter cells, antibodies and to keep the skin and membranes healthy. We need essential fats to turn into messengers to communicate between the different parts of the system – to help inflammation where it is needed and to calm it down when it is not for example. We need micronutrients to support all these processes. We need fibre to help feed the friendly bacteria living in our gut which is proving to be really important for our immune system. We need a range of vitamins that are like oil to the machinery of the immune system. Yes, this is all oversimplified. I could be a complete science geek and we’d be here for hours. If you want to know a bit more about the science of the immune system then take a look at Crash Course all about the immune system (all cartoons and fun explaining it all in detail).

You can maybe see that it is a bit of a myth and very simplistic that there a few foods could be the key to a perfect immune system. It is a mixed and varied diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, a good mixture protein rich foods, a mixture of fats from lots of different sources along with wholegrain and fibre rich foods. And of course, keep hydrated.

But it is also important to remember that it is not just food alone that is important for your immune system. Exercise has a huge role in helping the immune system. So does good quality sleep and good stress management. A healthy immune system is not all just about a few superfoods, it is about so much more.

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