Improving Immune Function through Dietary Change
Your body is designed with a special defense system for destroying viruses, bacteria, and fungi that cause disease and infection.
Like the other body systems, your immune system is absolutely affected by the health of your gut. In a previous post, we covered some of the best foods to consume when you want to give your immune system an extra “boost,” such as citrus fruits for Vitamin C, blueberries for antioxidants, etc. We also discussed how the consumption of nutrient-rich foods can indeed help your cells, tissues, and organs to work in conjunction with one another to fight off infection.
Today, let’s talk about how a short-term vegetarian diet, intermittent fasting, and improved digestion can all have positive effects on the body’s immune response and the related responses of the body to toxic chemicals, harmful bacteria, and viruses.
First, let’s talk about vegetarianism.
There are different variations of vegetarian diets, including vegan (no animal products), lacto-vegetarian (no eggs or meat, but some dairy), and lacto-ovo vegetarian (some animal products, like eggs and dairy).
It is important to note that some vegetarians neglect to follow a balanced diet, and fail to consume the recommended fruit and vegetable servings — in fact, many processed foods do fall under the “vegetarian” category, though most provide only empty calories.
A balanced short-term vegetarian diet consisting of a variety of whole-food selections of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains can lower inflammation and hence lower risk of inflammatory conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Inflammation, and the release of C-reactive protein and fibrinogen, are protective measures that normally occur during acute situations when the body is sending cells to attack unwanted pathogens. However, chronic inflammation causes problems and increases risk of conditions mentioned above. Thus, lowering inflammation through a healthier terrain builds health.
The most obvious benefit of consuming a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables daily is that you receive a broad spectrum of immune-boosting nutrients. Finally, limiting processed grains and meats can often mimic fasting, which we’ll discuss next, in the way it supports the immune system.
To fast, or not to fast…
Intermittent fasting is a hot topic these days, and there are quite a few reasons to look into it for the betterment of your own overall health and wellness.
Many people elect to fast intermittently for the health benefits, which include improvements in blood pressure, resting heart rate, glucose, triglycerides, insulin resistance, HDL/LDL cholesterol levels, and weight management.
Typically, intermittent fasters choose to limit their food consumption window to 8 hours. By consuming their food between the hours of, say, 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., they benefit from 16 hours of daily fasting. (There are other options, such as the 3-day fast for resetting the immune system; however, some people have trouble going for 48+ hours without food and supervision may be required. If you consider doing a longer fast, ask your provider for guidance to ensure success and safety.)
The idea is that, post-fast, the body is provided with nutrients once more — and the stem cells kick into gear and refresh the immune system with a brand-new set of cells.
Fasting, even intermittently for a few days per week, often results in weight loss, likely due to a reduced calorie intake and consumption of fewer highly-processed snack foods—especially in the evening. And we all know that weight loss can work wonders for the overall health of our body systems — the immune system being no exception.
The main takeaway regarding fasting should be that it can greatly improve your health — even if you fast intermittently once every few days.
Finally, let’s visit the topic of digestion.
Your digestive system is in charge of food absorption — which means delivering essential nutrients to the other body systems, and eliminating waste and toxins.
Reports have estimated that approximately 70-80 million people worldwide suffer from at least one type of digestive issue. The causes vary, but may include enzyme deficiency, gut flora imbalance, anemia, magnesium deficiency, poor hygiene, stress, nutritional deficiency, poor diet, ingestion of food intolerances &/or sensitivities, dehydration, alcohol or smoking to excess, lack of sleep, and lack of physical activity.
Among the most common digestive issues are lactose intolerance, ulcers, acid reflux, heartburn, indigestion, constipation, gas, bloating, diarrhea, diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and celiac disease.
Poor digestion can greatly affect the body’s ability to absorb and utilize food nutrients. Let’s look at some examples of digestion times for different foods, in a healthy body system:
- raw fruit typically digests in 20-40 minutes
- fresh veggies take 40 minutes
- boiled veggies take 50 minutes
- meat can take anywhere from 1 to 5 hours, depending on the cut, the type of meat and how thoroughly it is chewed
Compare this to an unhealthy digestive system, which can take up to two days to completely digest a piece of meat and assimilate it to the various tissues.
If you believe that you could benefit from a visit to your naturopathic doctor for an evaluation of your digestive system and your dietary habits, I highly recommend making your appointment.
The sooner you can tweak your lifestyle habits to include a food plan that caters specifically to your body’s needs, the more quickly your immune system will receive an overhaul — and there’s no time like the present to boost immunity in a natural way.
Cheng, Chia-Wei et al. (2014). “Prolonged fasting reduces IGF-1/PKA to promote hematopoietic-stem-cell-based regeneration and reverse immunosuppression.” Cell stem cell vol. 14,6: 810-23. doi:10.1016/j.stem.2014.04.014
Craddock, Joel et al. (2019). “Vegetarian-Based Dietary Patterns and their Relation with Inflammatory and Immune Biomarkers: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Advances in Nutrition. 10. 433-451. 10.1093/advances/nmy103.
Zhang, Chenchen et al. “Impact of a 3-Months Vegetarian Diet on the Gut Microbiota and Immune Repertoire.” Frontiers in immunology vol. 9 908. 27 Apr. 2018, doi:10.3389/fimmu.2018.00908