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Foods have an immensely important role in maintaining and boosting your immunity. Certain foods like fresh fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants and act as guards to protect you from diseases. This article explains you the benefits of foods from different nutritive groups, along with a list of the best foods for a better immunity. It also provides you with other tips and remedies for a better immunity and lifestyle.

  1. What is immunity
  2. Foods to increase immunity
  3. How to boost immunity - What to Eat to Increase Immunity
  4. CSIR begins clinical trials of four Ayurvedic medicines for COVID-19
  5. How to boost immunity: AYUSH ministry advice for self-care during the COVID-19 crisis

Immunity refers to the ability of an organism to resist infection by acting against the disease-causing microorganisms. This is enabled by the action of antibodies against the pathogen (disease-causing organisms like bacteria, virus, etc) or sensitization of white blood cells (WBCs), which rise to fight against an infection in the body.

Immunity is of several types. It may be present since birth (innate immunity) or acquired at a later stage of life after exposure to a pathogen or by direct administration of antibodies (acquired immunity). It may be natural (acquired by exposure to the disease-causing agent) or synthetic (acquired by vaccination against a disease). It is also categorized as active or passive. In the former, the vaccine is administered to the individual and the latter constitutes the injection of antibodies directly.

Infection once caused easily spreads from person-to-person by direct contact or indirect contact through the belongings of the diseased. Infection may also spread through air, droplets and other mediums.

So, an individual with a better immunity against diseases not only protects himself/herself but the community as a whole, as per the concept of herd or community immunity.

Other than vaccination against diseases and a live encounter with disease-causing organisms, you can also improve your immunity by taking care of your diet and including a good amount of ‘immunity-boosting foods’ in it.

Following is a list of food items that will help in boosting your immunity. The effects of these foods and how they help in boosting immunity is discussed in the later sections.

  • Probiotics like
    • Dairy-based products- milk, cheese, yogurt, milk powder, traditional buttermilk, kimchi, Yakult, kefir
    • Soy milk and its products
    • Cereals and nutrition bars enriched with probiotics
  • Vitamin E rich foods
    • Almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts  pine nuts, olive, apricot, kiwi
    • Seeds like sunflower seeds,  pumpkin seeds,
    • Vegetable oils like wheat germ oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil
    • Fortified breakfast cereal
       
  • Zinc-containing foods like
    • Oysters
    • Clams
    • Nuts and seeds
    • Seafood like crabs and lobster
    • Red meat
    • Eggs and meat
       
  • Omega 3 fatty acid sources like
    • Fishes like salmon, tuna, sardine, herring, mackerel and other species
    • Fish oil
    • Nuts and seeds like chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts
    • Flaxseed oil and soybean oil
    • Fortified foods like cereals, juices, milk and soy beverages
       
  • Vitamin A-rich foods like
    • Vegetables containing pigments like carrots, yellow, green and red bell peppers, pumpkin, sweet potato
    • Fruits like mangoes, apricots, oranges, papaya, melons, apricots, red grapefruit (chakotra)
    • Dairy products like milk and milk products including cheese, yogurt, etc 
  • Vitamin C rich food like
    • Fruits like lemon, oranges, grapefruit, papaya, strawberries, gooseberry
    • Vegetable like broccoli, green chilly, bell pepper, tomato 
  • Iron-rich foods like
    • Lean meat
    • Lean chicken
    • Leafy greens like spinach, broccoli, squash, lettuce
    • Whole grains,
    • Legumes like beans, peas, sprouts
    • Jaggery, dates
    • Use iron utensil for cooking purpose
  • Selenium-rich foods like
    • Tuna, shrimp, turkey, chicken
    • Bananas
    • Rice
    • Whole wheat products like roti, bread
    • Potato 
    • Chia seeds,
    • Mushroom
    • Tea
  • Some other immune booster food
  • Spices- Oregano, Black pepper, Fenugreek seeds, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, clove
  • Green Tea
  • Dark Chocolate
  • ​Health Drinks- "Golden Milk" (turmeric milk) works as an immune booster. Green Tea with any herb  (ginger, cinnamon cardamom, clove) will be a good health drink to improve the immune system. 

Other than including these foods in your diet, it is recommended to take a balanced diet and ensure enough caloric intake each day, to meet your daily requirements. This will help in avoiding nutritional deficiencies and will maintain immune functioning.

  1. Probiotics for immunity
  2. Vitamins and minerals for immunity
  3. Balanced diet for immunity
  4. Fats for immunity
  5. Iron for immunity

Probiotics for immunity

As it is said, a healthy body starts in the gut, it is no surprise that foods have the potential to boost your immunity. This is further evident from the fact that individuals with immunodeficiencies or those affected by malnutrition are more prone to infections and diseases as compared to the healthy.

Diet has a major influence on your immune system, since it directly affects the microflora of your gut (microorganism population in the stomach). Epithelial lining of the stomach helps in providing defence against disease-causing microorganisms. So, if this lining is affected, infections are likely to occur. Certain foods such as probiotics have a direct effect on this bacterial growth in the stomach. But, it also depends on the type of probiotic ingested and its concentration.

In healthy individuals, probiotics are known to increase the population of the ‘good bacteria’ which are beneficial for your immune system. Researchers have demonstrated that taking probiotics boosts immunity and helps in reducing infections and allergies like atopic dermatitis and upper respiratory tract infections, like asthma.

Probiotics are also known to improve skin microbiology, which helps in enhancing the defence mechanism of the skin. So, it may be a good idea to include probiotic foods in your diet. They are present in natural foods (which may already be a part of your diet) and are also available as supplements.

Vitamins and minerals for immunity

Other than probiotics, several vitamins and minerals are known to improve the immune response of the body, particularly vitamin E and zinc. Research evidence suggests that these vitamins and minerals function by preserving the cell membranes of immunity-boosting mechanisms of the body.

Independent studies were conducted to determine the mechanism by which different foods mediate an immune response. It was concluded that foods containing lactic acid bacteria like probiotics function by stimulating the innate immunity of the individual accentuating the immune response towards pathogen. On the other hand, vitamins and minerals activate the acquired immunity of the person.

Other than this, most of the natural foods like fruits and vegetables, which are rich sources of vitamins and minerals, are known to have anti-infective properties. The independent actions of these vitamins and minerals are discussed below:

Vitamin A, particularly beta-carotene-rich foods help in the maintenance of humoral and cell-mediated immunity (activation of body cells to improve immune response against the pathogen) in the body. Low serum concentration of vitamin A is thus associated with impairment in the immune function of the body, causing diseases. The specific role of beta-carotene in this process is however not well understood.

The direct immunoprotective effects of foods rich in vitamin C or those with supplementation with ascorbic acid or vitamin C have not been clear, but its antioxidant properties may be helpful in this regard. Vitamin C helps in avoiding the damage caused to body cells and tissues by the effect of free radicals. They also prevent damage to the skin. This may be helpful in maintaining optimal functioning of these organs and tissues to warrant immunity.

Selenium stimulates cell-mediated immunity, improving the body’s response towards pathogen; and glutamine (amino acid) may help to prevent oxidative stress, responsible for diseases.

Balanced diet for immunity

Several researchers have demonstrated that a balanced diet goes a long way in boosting your immunity, since it is rich in most of the ‘protective foods’ and also prevents deficiencies. It is thus recommended to have a balanced diet including carbohydrates, proteins, fats and vitamins and minerals.

Fats for immunity

Fats, which aid the absorption of beta-carotene and vitamin A in your body have an indirect influence on your immune function. Omega 3 fatty acids enhance the effectiveness of probiotics, which are essential for your gut health. Fatty acids are known to be anti-inflammatory (protective against inflammation, that is, redness and swelling). So, it may be beneficial to include the right type and amount of fats in your diet, for better immunity. You are advised to consult with your dietician for these requirements.

Iron for immunity

Iron may have a role in immunity, since its deficiency is commonly associated with an immunocompromised state. Iron deficiency has an effect on the cell-mediated immunity, and increases the susceptibility to infections, particularly those associated with the oral cavity, like glossitis (inflammation of the tongue), oral candidiasis, oral ulcers, etc.

Every day, you are exposed to innumerable pathogens from the air, water, soil, dust and the environment, but you do not fall sick. This is because your body defence mechanisms present in the epithelium (outermost layer) of your skin and the lining of your gut are working hard to protect you. The function of these mechanisms can be enhanced by factors other than your diet in the following ways:

  1. Cessation of smoking
  2. Exercise and immunity
  3. Immunity and stress
  4. Sleep for immunity
  5. Yoga for immunity

Cessation of smoking

Cigarettes contain nicotine, which is a substance having immunosuppressive actions, that is, it reduces the activity of the immune system, making you more prone to diseases and infections. This occurs due to epithelial injury breaking your epithelial immune response.

Smoking is commonly related to an increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections. It has also recognised to be a significant risk factor for the development of lung cancer, especially in men. Cancer is further known to be immunosuppressive, affecting the immunity of the individual and increasing the likelihood of infections in them.

(Read more: Asthma symptoms)

Exercise and immunity

Physical activity and exercise are closely linked, as evidenced by the fact that physically active individuals and those with a better lifestyle are less likely to be diseased. But, what mechanisms protect them from illnesses?

Research evidence has demonstrated that an increase in the levels of physical activity or exercise facilitates an increased level of circulating antibodies and WBCs, which serve a protective function in your body. It helps in the early recognition of infectious agents and a better immune function.

Moreover, physical activity momentarily raises body temperatures, which may be unfavorable to the growth of microorganisms, reducing the chances of infection. Intense physical activities may also allow your body to flush out bacteria through your airways and lungs, reducing the likelihood of respiratory infections and other illnesses. Another theory suggests that exercise helps in reducing the levels of cortisol, or the stress hormone, which is closely linked with compromised immune functioning.

Here is how you can incorporate physical activities in your daily routine to boost your immune functioning:

  • A 30-minute brisk walk or run
  • Bicycling or trekking
  • Playing with kids or pets
  • Practicing training sessions at the gym, with the help of an instructor
  • Aerobics or Zumba
  • Dancing
  • Yoga
  • Walking to shorter distances and always using the staircase instead of an elevator

These exercises may be helpful in boosting the immunity of healthy individuals. If you are immunocompromised or suffer from any chronic illnesses or an infection, you are recommended to seek your physician’s consultation before indulging in any form of physical activity. Intense physical workouts or rigorous training must be avoided at all times, since the results may be counterintuitive.

Immunity and stress

Stress is likely to cause immune dysfunction, which varies according to the type of stressor (agent causing stress) and the duration of exposure. This may increase the likelihood of developing a disease in some individuals. So, managing your stress with the help of meditation, relaxation and yoga may help regulate your immune function.

Sleep for immunity

The benefits of adequate nocturnal sleep have been known in aiding better body functions and reducing fatigue. Research evidence further suggests its relation with immune function. Proper sleep is beneficial in enabling immune memory, which is responsible for appropriate immune action on repeated exposure to a particular pathogen, incurring immunity against it. Prolonged reduction in sleep and dysregulation in the circadian rhythm (biological clocks responsible for sleep) may result in immunodeficiency. So, it is recommended to take 7 to 10 hours of sleep to optimise immune function.

(Read more: Insomnia treatment)

Yoga for immunity

Yoga has been practiced since ancient times in India, due to its benefits on various body functions. It is known to regulate digestion, respiration, posture and is a potent stress buster. Stress, which has been recognized to reduce immune functions, can be easily managed by simple yoga techniques like anulom vilom, when practiced daily. Anulom vilom is a simple alternate nostril breathing technique, which is responsible for the flow of energy or prana in the body. Stress reduction achieved by this technique may help in improving immune functions in healthy individuals.

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References

  1. Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002. Innate Immunity.
  2. Center for Disease Control and Prevention [internet], Atlanta (GA): US Department of Health and Human Services; Immunity Types
  3. Maria Kechagia et al. Health Benefits of Probiotics: A Review. ISRN Nutr. 2013; 2013: 481651. PMID: 24959545
  4. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: US National Library of Medicine; Vitamin E
  5. National Institutes of Health; Office of Dietary Supplements. [Internet]. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; Zinc.
  6. National Institutes of Health; Office of Dietary Supplements. [Internet]. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
  7. National Institutes of Health; Office of Dietary Supplements. [Internet]. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; Vitamin A.
  8. National Institutes of Health; Office of Dietary Supplements. [Internet]. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; Selenium.
  9. Better health channel. Department of Health and Human Services [internet]. State government of Victoria; Immune system explained
  10. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: US National Library of Medicine; Exercise and immunity
  11. Jennifer N. Morey, Ian A. Boggero, April B. Scott, Suzanne C. Segerstrom. Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function. Curr Opin Psychol. 2015 Oct 1; 5: 13–17. PMID: 26086030
  12. Luciana Besedovsky, Tanja Lange, Jan Born.Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch. 2012 Jan; 463(1): 121–137. PMID: 22071480
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