Eating good nutritious foods is essential to a strong immune system, which may offer you protection from seasonal illnesses and other health problems. Daily, we are constantly exposed to potentially harmful microorganisms of all sorts. Our immune system is a network of intricate stages and pathways in the body and protects us against these harmful microbes as well as certain diseases. It recognizes foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses and parasites and takes immediate actions. Humans possess two types of immunity: innate and adaptive.
Innate immunity is the first line of defense from pathogens that try to enter our bodies, achieved through protective barriers. These barriers include: the skin, mucus, stomach acid, enzymes in our sweat and tears, and immune system cells. All these works to protect and keep out harmful pathogens.
Adaptive or acquired immunity is a system that learns to recognize a pathogen. It is regulated by cells and organs in our body like the spleen, thymus, bone marrow and lymph nodes. When a foreign substance enters the body, these cells and organs create antibodies and lead to multiplication of immune cells that are specific to that harmful substance and attack and destroy it. Our immune system then adapts by remembering the foreign substance so that if it enters again, these antibodies and cells are even more efficient and quick to destroy it.
There is not one food or supplement that can prevent someone from getting sick, but you may help support your immune system by including these nutrients regularly in your overall eating plan.
• Protein — Plays an important role in the body’s immune system. It is especially important for healing and recovery. Eat a variety of protein foods including lean meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products and unsalted nuts and seeds.
• Vitamin A — Helps regulate the immune system and protects against infections by keeping skin and tissues in the mouth, stomach, intestines, and respiratory system healthy. Get this vitamin from foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, spinach, red bell peppers, apricots, eggs, or foods labeled “vitamin A fortified,” such as milk and some cereals.
• Vitamin C — Supports the immune system by stimulating the formation of antibodies. Include more sources of this healthy vitamin by choosing citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, or red bell pepper, papaya, strawberries, tomato juice or foods fortified with vitamin C, such as some cereals.
• Vitamin E — Works as an antioxidant and may support immune function. Include vitamin E in your diet with fortified cereals, sunflower seeds, almonds, vegetable oils such as sunflower or safflower oil, hazel nuts and peanut butter.
• Zinc — Helps the immune system work properly and may help wounds heal. Zinc can be found in lean meat, poultry, seafood, milk, whole grain products, beans, seeds and nuts.
Other nutrients including vitamin B6, B12, copper, folate, selenium and iron also may support the immune response and play a role in a healthful eating style.
Obtaining these nutrients from food is preferred, so be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before taking any supplements.
Source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Harvard School of Public Health
Kathy Smith is a Texas A&M AgriLife extension agent in Parker County.