Immunonutrition involves activating our body’s immune system through the intake of specific nutrients. “Immunonutrition” is an umbrella term used to describe nutrients that affect the immune system. This includes things like glutamine, antioxidants, and n-3 (omega 3) fatty acids. Nutrients that fall under the category of immunonutrition can inhibit inflammation, improve or increase immune function, enhance T-cell function, and decrease the body’s inflammatory response.
The study of the effects of nutrients, including macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and trace elements on inflammation, the actions of white blood cells, the formation of antibodies, and the resistance to disease is also called immunonutrition.
While the global population is growing rapidly, and people are living longer, our living environment has changed substantially. There is therefore a greater need to support our health and wellbeing, primarily our immune system, at different stages throughout our life.
These concerns regarding immunity have become more important, given the periodic outbreaks of infectious diseases such as SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), and now the coronavirus pandemic, that within a few months, has led to more than three million cases across the world.
During the flu season or times of illness, people often seek special foods or vitamin supplements that are believed to boost immunity. Vitamin C and foods like citrus fruits, probiotics, and tea with honey are popular examples. Yet the design of our immune system is complex and influenced by an ideal balance of many factors, not just diet, and especially not by any one specific food or nutrient. However, a balanced diet consisting of a range of vitamins and minerals, combined with healthy lifestyle factors like adequate sleep and exercise and low stress, most effectively primes the body to fight infection and disease.
Nutrition and immunity – the Indian scenario
The typical Indian is undergoing a nutritional shift, resulting in a diet that is high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar, with low fiber intake and a sedentary lifestyle. A large number of Indians have a lower intake of vitamins and other micronutrients that what is needed. For example, our intake of Zinc, and Vitamins C and D is generally lower than what is required for optimal immune function. Also, while omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are essential, a typical Indian diet may not include it in adequate quantities, since these are found primarily in fish oil. These nutrition gaps lead to a rise in lifestyle diseases, as well as lower immunity levels.
Focusing on nutrient-rich foods and a well-balanced diet is the best way to obtain these desired nutrients. However, given that this is not always possible, nutritional supplements offer a reliable and safe option to help support the immune system.