Nutrition and the Immune System

immune system nutrition Apr 23, 2023

We usually don’t think much about our immune system until we get sick. When this happens, we are often left wondering why we got sick and what we could have done to have prevented it. The great news is that there are quite a few things you can do to support a healthy immune system but let me first jump into some immune system basics before I get to the juicy, take-home messages that you can implement on a daily basis to keep your immune system firing on all cylinders.

First off, the immune system is a complex network of organs, cells and proteins that protects your body from harmful substances, invaders and germs. The main functions of the immune system include the following:

  • recognize and neutralize environmental substances that can be harmful to your body

  • fight disease-causing germs like viruses, bacteria, etc. and remove them from the body

There are two different subsets of the immune system: 1) innate, and 2) adaptive. The innate immune system is the general defense against invaders and is the first-line defense system from these pathogens via protective barriers such as the skin, mucus, stomach acid, and enzymes.

The adaptive immune system makes antibodies and uses them to fight certain germs that the body has come into contact with before. It is regulated by cells and organs in the body such as the spleen, thymus, lymph nodes and bone marrow and these create antibodies that form more immune cells (white blood cells) to attack and destroy foreign substances.

Some things that cause immunosuppression include aging, environmental toxins, uncontrolled blood sugar and overall poor eating habits, chronic diseases such as autoimmune disorders, chronic mental stress, and lack of sleep. Can you relate to any of these? Personally, I can check the box of at least a couple which is why it is so incredibly important to create healthy behaviors around nutrition that specifically focus on not only supporting immune health but giving it a boost each and every day!

Here is a short nutrition only checklist you can focus on to keep your immune system functioning at a high level:

  • Eat enough protein. If you know me, you know how much I emphasize protein in my Metabolic Efficiency Training concept but in regards to the immune system, eating protein frequently throughout the day is super important for the immune system because protein is required to make key components of immune system (like immunoglobulins). 

  • Support a healthy microbiome (aka-the gut or digestive system). Did you know that 70-80% of the immune system is actually in the digestive system? Knowing that, it is extremely important to keep the amount of good bacteria high. The first step in doing this is to eat foods rich in prebiotics. If you are not familiar with these, they are higher fiber rich foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains that are essentially food for probiotics.

  • Consume more probiotics. Yeah, you have heard of these but do you actually eat foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut and other fermented foods? Unfortunately, many people don’t consume enough of these (I recommend at least 2-3 servings per day) which is why probiotic supplements have become so popular and is one supplement that I usually recommend for most individuals.

    • Consider taking a probiotic supplement as an insurance policy if you are in a heavy training cycle, travel frequently, are around a lot of people on a daily basis, take public transportation or have health challenges that compromise the immune system.

  • Consider taking a multivitamin if you have known nutrient deficiencies, do not eat certain food groups or are in a heavy training cycle. Nutrient deficiencies can suppress the immune system and when not identified early on, they can create a host of other health issues.

  • There has been a bit of research on the positive effects of both zinc and vitamin D on the immune system. Zinc can be found in many foods including beans, nuts, whole grains, and meat. While easy to find in food, some people prefer to take a zinc supplement with 10-15 milligrams as an “insurance policy”. Vitamin D food sources can be somewhat tricky to find. Normally, you need to look for vitamin D fortified foods or aim to eat more fish such as salmon, herring, tuna and mackerel. If none of these sound enticing, Vitamin D supplements can be a great part of the plan but I recommend having these measured via blood work before taking a supplement to ensure the right dosage is taken.

While not specific to nutrition, be sure to also try to get into a good sleep pattern focusing on both quality and quantity of sleep, practice good daily hygiene and manage your daily stress levels.


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