Adaptive immunity enables the body to produce antibodies, which can prevent repeated infections of the same kind, thanks to memory cells.
The ongoing pandemic shows no signs of abating, which explains why much of our attention has been focused on immunity-boosting practices. Hygiene measures, such as wearing a face mask and washing our hands diligently, can help control the external environment to an extent. Building the body’s immunity, which is completely in your control, is the other thing to work on.
In recent months, a plethora of foods and nutritional supplements have been touted as immunity boosters and many of them claim to be the magical cure-all. Not only are there different types of vitamins, minerals and protein powders in the running, but among them are also numerous subcategories competing against each other. For instance, among the vitamins, it is sometimes vitamin C and otherwise vitamin D that seems to be all-important. To make the right decision about what to consume, it’s useful to understand how the immune system functions.
Understanding the body’s defence mechanism
Broadly, our immune system has two arms — innate and adaptive immunity. Innate immunity comprises the body’s general defence mechanisms, like the physical barriers to infection (skin), chemicals in the blood, acids in the stomach and other immune cells. Adaptive immunity, on the other hand, is developed in response to an antigen. This typically happens after contracting an infection or being vaccinated against one. Adaptive immunity enables the body to produce antibodies, which can prevent repeated infections of the same kind, thanks to memory cells.
Given the intricacies of our immune system, there are many factors at play to keep it functioning well. Each of the players performs a specific role and that too in sync with the others. If one of the members of this orchestra underperforms or goes into overdrive, the output is unlikely to be ideal. This is why it is not a good idea to specifically boost any particular aspect of the immune system, for that can disturb the balance.
Which nutrients your body really needs
Rather than just one or two nutrients, our immune system calls for a whole galaxy of nutrients to enable its functioning. Let’s consider the requirement of vitamins. While the discourse has been restricted to vitamins C and D, other vitamins such as B6, B12, B9 (folate), A and E play complementary roles in supporting both innate and adaptive immunity. Among the minerals, zinc, selenium, iron, magnesium and copper each play key roles. If you happen to become deficient in any of these minerals, the delicate balance of the immune system would get upset and its functioning hampered.
Protein is yet another critical nutrient for the immune system to fight infections. Powerhouses of the immune system, mainly antibodies and immune cells, rely on a good supply of protein. Protein deficiency hampers growth, development and even the motility of these immune cells. When it comes to proteins, it’s not just the quantity but also the quality that matters. One must ensure consumption of good quality, complete protein sources in the diet.
Beyond vitamins, minerals and proteins
Apart from the vitamins, minerals and proteins, other nutrients like fibre, probiotics and good fats are just as important. Staying adequately hydrated is also key.
It is important to note that 70 percent of our immune system resides in the gut. To keep the gut healthy, we must consume food that is wholesome, minimally processed, seasonal and predominantly plant-based. A diet that is adequately diverse, yet balanced between the food groups, is the only way to provide all the nutrients that the immune system requires. Luckily, many foods provide a bundle of essential nutrients, quite like a package of many good things together. For instance, the leafy vegetable amaranth is a good source of not one but many vitamins and minerals.
The process of immunity-building is not about consuming a magical pill or a single superfood or even choosing one nutrient over the other. It’s the collective provision of nutrients on the platter that really matters.
This article was written by Neelanjana Singh, Registered Dietitian and Author.
For more information, read our article on How to increase immunity.
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