Diet and Immunity

Article by Dr. Paul Kennedy
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With a swine flu epidemic in full swing, it seems that there is no better time than the present to review the relationship between the strength of our immune system and our diet (i.e.-what we eat on a regular basis). The idea is to increase the quantity of foods that provide a “boost” to the immune system’an idea that was, for some time, thought to lack a sufficient data-base of proof. Well, no more! And the kicker is that many of those same foods that we always knew were good for us are, in many cases, not just foods that will keep us fit and trim but can also assist us in defending our bodies against “invasion” from viruses like the ones that cause colds and flu. Additionally, many of these same foods will help to increase our resistance to infections due to an increase in our white blood cell count—a critical part of our immune system.

In general, fresh fruits and vegetables (in other words, unprocessed foods) can go far toward increasing our natural supply of glutathione (a critical component of our immune system), which is found, for example, in such foods as sweet potatoes and oranges.

Indeed, most fresh fruits, vegetables and melons can assist in stimulating the immune system due to the availability of what are known as micronutrients. Other ancillary foods such as green tea and garlic as well as grains such as oats and barley (that work to keep the digestive system “moving along”) can help to boost the immune system both directly and indirectly. And don’t forget that plenty of water is essential as a “substrate’ for many of the chemical reactions in the body that help to flush out toxins and regulate most body functions—including body temperature (which is one reason why a higher than normal body temperature can indicate and imbalance or illness).

But the immunity puzzle goes even deeper than eating the right foods and nutrients. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that consumes huge comparative quantities of PROCESSED foods. It is no wonder that as the level of processed foods in the American diet increased over the decades, a plethora of health issues began to surface. Of course, obesity is an issue of epidemic proportions in America and the link between obesity and disease is not a new concept. It appears that even reducing body weight where appropriate can assist in improving the body’s level of natural immunity. Moreover, there is compelling evidence that many of the additives and preservatives in our foods have been found to be related to many chronic illnesses. There is an old saying that “Toxicity makes the bomb and the virus lights the fuse”. In other words, an immune system weakened by toxic substances such as nitrates (a preservative) and high levels of refined sugar and salt (hidden in processed foods) can act as trigger mechanisms in the presence of bacterial and/or viral infections. With a weakened or compromised immune system combined with a viral or bacterial infection, the bomb goes off! The result is—or can be—a full-blown case of the flu or a more serious bacterial infection such as pneumonia.

It has even been suggested by some naturopathic practitioners that “flu season”–typically late fall and winter—is a result of less fresh fruit and vegetable consumption (due, perhaps, to seasonality), less sweating (due to comparatively less activity) and, again, a tendency to eat foods that contain more refined sugar and salt. In the case of refined sugar, for example, additional minerals and essential enzymes in the body are “used up” in order to process it, which, in turn, can upset the body’s natural balance. The take-away message concerning natural immunity, then, is to eat a variety of nutritious and minimally refined foods (especially such as those outlined above), get plenty of exercise and drink lots of water or fluids (sorry, sweetened soda doesn’t count!) to keep the body hydrated. It sounds simple doesn’t it? But it takes a little planning and effort to take charge of your own health. And during a flu epidemic, it’s even more critical to practice nutritional and health habits that will protect you from illness. You owe it to your family and you owe it to yourself!

I’m Dr. Paul Kennedy and that’s the “Be Fit, Stay Fit” Topic of the Month for December 2009. Good luck with YOUR program. I KNOW you can do it!

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