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How to Feed Your Immune System

February 26, 2021

For thousands of years, food therapy has been foundational in medicine. Growing up in an ethnically Greek household where food is vital, herbal teas, chicken broth with lemon, and cupping were used for most illnesses. It was surprising to me to learn as a pre-med student that most conventional medical schools did not teach nutrition. Because nutrition is essential, I chose a Naturopathic Medical School because they have the only accredited curriculum for primary care physicians that includes functional nutrition, personalized prescriptions of nutritional supplements, and a holistic (mind-body-spirit) approach to health, prevention and wellness.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) brochure on nutrition during self-quarantining recognized, “Good nutrition is crucial for health, particularly in times when the immune system might need to fight back.” The empowering part of ‘food as medicine’ is that we can begin to shift our health, prevent and reverse chronic disease, and promote a well-functioning immune system as soon as our next meal.

Mediterranean Style Diet
A Mediterranean-style diet is the most extensively researched, evidence-based way to eat to prevent chronic diseases (diabetes, heart disease, cancer); protect against neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s’ disease, dementia), autoimmune disease; increase longevity; improve mood and support a healthy immune response. It is a plant-based diet with mostly vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. Research by Arshad (2020) found, “Plant-based foods increase the intestinal beneficial bacteria that make up 85% of the immune system. Plant-based foods play a vital role to enhance the immunity of people to control COVID-19.”

The Mediterranean diet includes abundant fresh, seasonal, organic vegetables and fruit; enough plant protein (beans, nuts, seeds); anti-inflammatory organic, whole and ancient grains; rational portions of organic, grass fed meat and fermented dairy products; extra virgin olive oil; herbs; spices; and teas. This provides your body with the raw materials for optimal physiological and immune function. Low-grade inflammation from food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances and gastrointestinal function need to be addressed and personalized for best results.

Food as Medicine
There are three ways which your food can be your medicine in relation to the pandemic and your immune system.

  1. Prevent, manage, reverse disease and minimize risk factors.
  2. Optimize nutrients needed for a well-functioning immune response.
  3. Include functional/medicinal foods such as foods high in polyphenols that can have additional health benefits that go beyond basic nutrition.

Our Aging Immune System
Medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease increase the risk of complications and worse outcomes of COVID-19. Maiorino (2020) found, “Diabetes has emerged as an important predictor of severity of the SARS-CoV-2, as the risk of fatal outcomes has been reported to be 50% higher in individuals with diabetes than in those without.” Our most vulnerable populations besides those with chronic medical conditions include the elderly. The functional decline in the immune system as we age is called immunosenescence. All of the factors that optimize immune function through diet are especially important and beneficial for people with chronic diseases and in the elderly. The Mediterranean diet can minimize risk factors, help manage medical conditions, and mediates the pathogenic physiological response of immune challenges.

Our immune system is always on surveillance for pathogens (viruses, bacteria and parasites) and ramps up when we are exposed to pathogens or infected, which means, we need more nutrients and cofactors to fight back. The power of our immune response to clear and fight an infection depends on the nutrients we derive from our food, sunlight, high quality nutraceuticals, and other epigenetic factors.

Important nutrients for an optimal immune response include Vitamins A, D, E, K, B vitamins, zinc, copper, selenium, iron, and essential fatty acids (omega 3s). Fiber, especially from leafy greens and plants is needed to feed your gut bacteria aka “microbiome”. Research has shown that like other infections, COVID-19 affects our microbiome. Dysbiosis, an imbalance of pathogenic bacteria compromises our immune response. Prebiotics, probiotics, synbiotics, fiber and polyphenols have beneficial effects on our immune supportive microbiome. A Mediterranean diet can optimize your immune response because it contains high amounts of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants that are needed for an optimal immune response.

Medicinal/functional foods that have shown additional health benefits beyond basic nutrition include antioxidants. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and extra virgin olive oil are high in nutrients and antioxidants that support our metabolic and immune responses. Antioxidants are the defense mechanisms of plants that have been forged by the same environmental challenges that we face.

Polyphenols are antioxidants that can promote a beneficial immune response, increase our antioxidant defenses, improve blood vessel (vascular) health, and decrease tissue inflammation and cell infiltration. Polyphenols are high in fruit, vegetables, and extra virgin olive oil. A bioflavonoid called quercetin in fruits and vegetables can inhibit a wide range of virus infections. According to research by Arshad et al (2020), “The Mediterranean diet, having high antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and potential antimicrobial and immunomodulatory properties, is a promising and relatively easy method to attenuate the severity of COVID-19 infection.”

What we eat and drink ends up either promoting a healthy system and immune response or can create inflammation and compromise our immune system. The beauty is the choice is up to us in terms of which response we want to feed.

Dr. Artemis Morris is the Academic Director for the Integrative Health & Healing program at The Graduate Institute, as well as a Professor of Nutrition and Educator of the traditional Mediterranean diet. The Graduate Institute’s Masters in Integrative Health and Healing program is an experiential way to empower yourself with knowledge in sustainable nutrition, herbal medicine, mind-body medicine, traditional healing modalities (Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Shamanism).
 
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