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.
Narrowing the gap between nutrition and immunity
Malnutrition and hidden hunger in India results in low immunity, leaving us vulnerable to viral infections. This is an issue that affects people across society, mainly because healthy foods are not accessible and/ or affordable to all. Therefore, promoting a healthy food environment is key.
As per the World Health Organization (WHO), governments have a central role in creating a healthy food environment, thereby enabling healthy dietary practices. Effective actions to create a healthy food environment include:
Coherent national policies and investment plans around trade, food and agriculture, to promote a healthy diet and protect public health. Encouraging consumer demand for healthy foods and meals, by promoting awareness and education, especially to high-risk demographics. Promoting appropriate infant and young child feeding practices.
In alignment with this framework, the Indian government has launched various health and nutrition initiatives under the National Nutrition Mission, to improve the health sector, thus enhancing quality of life, and overall productivity and the economy. Some of these are Anemia Mukt Bharat, Integrated Child Development Scheme, and the mid-day meal scheme in various states.
While these government initiatives form the basis of the country’s response to health crises, public health measures are central to limiting the spread of illness in communities. At the same time, nutrition can play a key role in supporting optimal immune function to help ward off disease.
What factors can depress our immune system?
Older age: As we age, our internal organs may become less efficient; immune-related organs like the thymus or bone marrow produce fewer immune cells needed to fight off infections. Aging is sometimes associated with micronutrient deficiencies, which may worsen a declining immune function.
Environmental toxins (smoke and other particles contributing to air pollution, excessive alcohol): These substances can impair or suppress the normal activity of immune cells.
Excess weight: Obesity is associated with low-grade chronic inflammation. Fat tissue produces adipocytokines that can promote inflammatory processes. Research is early, but obesity has also been identified as an independent risk factor for the influenza virus, possibly due to the impaired function of T-cells, a type of white blood cell.
Poor diet: Malnutrition or a diet lacking in one or more nutrients can impair the production and activity of immune cells and antibodies.
Chronic diseases: Autoimmune and immunodeficiency disorders attack and potentially disable immune cells.
Chronic mental stress: Stress releases hormones like cortisol that suppresses inflammation (inflammation is initially needed to activate immune cells) and the action of white blood cells.
Lack of sleep and rest: Sleep is a time of restoration for the body, during which a type of cytokine is released that fights infection; too little sleep lowers the amount of these cytokines and other immune cells.
Steps to Help Support a Healthy Immune System
Eat a balanced diet with whole fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and plenty of water. A Mediterranean Diet is one option that includes these types of foods.
If a balanced diet is not readily accessible, taking a multivitamin containing the RDA for several nutrients may be used.
- Don’t smoke (or stop smoking if you do).
- Drink alcohol in moderation.
- Perform moderate regular exercise.
- Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep nightly. Try to keep a sleep schedule, waking up and going to bed around the same time each day. Our body clock, or circadian rhythm, regulates feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness, so having a consistent sleep schedule maintains a balanced circadian rhythm so that we can enter deeper, more restful sleep.
- Aim to manage stress. This is easier said than done but try to find some healthy strategies that work well for you and your lifestyle—whether that be exercise, meditation, a particular hobby, or talking to a trusted friend. Another tip is to practice regular, conscious breathing throughout the day and when feelings of stress arise. It doesn’t have to be long—even a few breaths can help. If you’d like some guidance, try this short mindful breathing exercise.
- Wash hands throughout the day: when coming in from outdoors, before and after preparing and eating food, after using the toilet, after coughing or blowing your nose.
So, the “good nutrition is crucial for health, particularly in times when the immune system might need to fight back” specially in today’s time.