Immunologist Dr. Jenna Macciochi: The immune system is your greatest health asset By Olivia Cook for Food Science
For immunologist Dr. Jenna Macciochi, your immune system is your greatest health asset and does so much more than merely protect your body from harmful substances, germs and cell changes that could make you sick.
A study published in Nutrients explains the complex interaction between the immune system, gut microbiome, human pathogens and what you eat. Science says immunity begins in your gut and is influenced by the thousands of different species of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microbes (collectively known as gut microbiome) that live in it.
Some bacteria are associated with better health outcomes, others with poorer health outcomes. Beneficial bacteria regulate your immune system, so it responds to injury or infection and does not attack your healthy body tissues.
And the interactions work in both directions – your gut microbiome can have a direct effect on your immune system, including certain types of inflammation, which is part of your body’s natural way of taking care of itself. (Related: A healthy gut means a healthy body – but how does it work?)
Nurturing your gut health is a scientifically proven secret of optimal health and well-being and one of the simple ways to keep your immune system working properly, balanced and resilient.
A well-functioning, healthy immune system will minimize your vulnerability to infection and disease, improve your body’s ability to heal and recover and avoid unwanted inflammation, age-related immune decline and chronic disease.
“A state of immune fitness is about the capacity to respond and adapt to challenges effectively, followed by a return to a baseline healthy state of wellbeing,” said Macciochi.
Keys to have a strong immune system
Eating well, being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing stress and avoiding harmful elements in your environment are key to having a strong immune system.
Eat a gut-friendly diet, including lots of plants, that support optimal immune function. Numerous studies have shown that fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices provide the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber and other nutrients that support immune system health. They are also rich sources of antioxidants that help reduce oxidative stress.
A fiber-rich diet (from plant foods, apples and broccoli to yams and zucchini) supports the gut microbiome and reduces inflammatory responses. Maintaining a healthy weight through a plant-based diet also improves the gut microbiome and the immune system.
Eating the wrong types of food, like your typical Western diet (high in animal proteins, sugar, processed foods and saturated fat), results in less-diverse gut bacteria and promotes inflammation and chronic disorders by causing spikes in your blood sugar and unhealthy fat levels.
Your extra weight (medically known as adipose tissue or fat) secretes hormones and chemicals that stimulate inflammation. Chronic inflammation is linked to a host of serious diseases and can also lead to fatigue, headaches, fertility issues and premature aging.
Eat naturally fermented foods (yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, kimchi), which are amazing for your gut microbial diversity. They are sources of healthy bacteria (Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium) that reduce the number of disease-causing species in the gut, reduce inflammatory markers and have a positive effect on the immune system.
Ditch artificial sweeteners. They are linked to increased appetite and cravings for sweet foods and may play a role in weight gain and obesity. Scientific evidence also suggests that they can cause blood-sugar spikes and lower blood-sugar tolerance (a precursor to Type-2 diabetes).
Also, a study published in Pflugers Archiv accumulated strong evidence that quality sleep/wake cycles and circadian rhythms (the natural cycle of physical, mental and behavioral changes that the body goes through in a 24-hour cycle) regulate and enhance immune defense.