Eat your way to better health

Kate Llewellyn-Waters explains the importance of a healthy immune system for fighting infection

There is no tissue or organ with a more significant influence on our health than the immune system. It is our body’s defence system, and its main function is to distinguish self from non-self, identifying and defending our body from invaders such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and other pathogens.

As well as fighting infection, our immune system has many other crucial functions, such as regulating body weight and metabolism, aiding the healing process, and even determining how we age. It is not located in one set of organised tissues, but is spread systematically throughout our body, consisting of many different cells, organs, and tissues that work together to fight infection, cellular damage and disease.

Unfortunately, the immune system can, at times, make a mistake and attack itself, resulting in autoimmune disorders. For the immune system and its relevant tissues to be healthy, they must have adequate and optimal nutrition. Furthermore, undernourished individuals have a greater risk of adverse immune response and, irrespective of how mild a response, all immune responses place greater nutritional demands on the individual.

To live a healthy and happy life we need as strong and balanced immunity as possible, which can be achieved by focusing on adopting a nutrient-dense and balanced diet, exercising appropriately, ensuring sufficient sleep, and managing stress effectively.

Immunity suppressors

Immunity is essential to good health, from the moment of conception, when the mother’s immune system begins to protect the developing baby, right through until old age. However, we are living in fast-paced times, and every day we are exposed to numerous factors that can suppress our immune systems, including:

  • Obesity or malnutrition
  • Incorrect balance of macro- and micronutrients
  • Lack of, or excessive exercise
  • Stress
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Insufficient exposure to sunlight
  • Chemicals, such as food additives
  • Pesticides and environmental toxins
  • Air pollution
  • Smoking
  • Drugs and medications

It is imperative that we try to limit as many of the immunity suppressors as possible to ensure that our immune system remains balanced.

Nutrition to strengthen your immunity

  • Eat plenty of fibre-rich complex carbohydrates, such as oats, quinoa and brown rice. Fibre is a fantastic way to support immunity through your gut microbiome, while limiting refined sugar, as a high-sugar diet is harmful to our microbiomes. Bacteria love sugar, but if we consume a lot of sugar, the bacteria we don’t want more of in our guts are likely to multiply and potentially lead to dysbiosis.
  • Aim for at least seven servings of vegetables and fruit a day (at least five vegetables and two fruit servings). Try to get 25–30 or more different veggies a week on your plate.
  • Protein is important for immunity, so include diverse protein sources in your diet and include plant-based proteins, such as lentils, quinoa, beans or tofu. (Do make sure you combine plant-protein sources, such as beans with rice, or lentils with rice, to ensure optimal protein quality.)
  • Opt for fatty fish, such as wild salmon, sardines, trout or mackerel twice a week, or alternatively take an algae supplement if you don’t eat fish (choosing fish over red meat helps to reduce our saturated fat intake.) Fish is also the number-one source of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly in the case of fatty fish.
  • Include at least one tablespoon of seeds or cold-pressed oil a day (olive oil or avocado oil over salads works well).
  • Try to eat organically where possible, and always consume foods in their natural state.

Variety is the spice of life

Herbs and spices are high in phytochemicals, and including them in your daily diet not only benefits your immunity and health, but also provides excitement to food.

Turmeric

This spice is a good source of curcumin, an antioxidant that eases inflammation, and studies also indicate that curcumin may help to ease pain. In addition, further studies have demonstrated that frequently consuming even small amounts of turmeric may help prevent or slow down Alzheimer’s disease. It has also been shown to protect the gut lining and inhibit the growth of harmful pathogens.

Cardamom

This is a sweet and pungent spice that has been reported to help combat inflammation. In addition, out of all the spices, cardamom is a great source of immunity-nourishing zinc.

Chilli pepper

This will certainly give your food a kick, which is down to capsaicin, the compound that makes chillies spicy. Chilli may also boost your metabolism and help maintain blood vessel health.

Cinnamon

Sweet and ultra-versatile, you can add it to so many different dishes. I use it a lot in porridge (oatmeal), baking, and main dishes such as curries. Research has shown that cinnamon may also help combat inflammation and oxidative stress, as well as helping to protect against harmful bacteria.

Ginger

Anti-inflammatory with antioxidant properties, ginger can soothe the digestive tract and gut lining. Studies also show that ginger has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and may play a role in preventing diseases like cancer.

Rosemary

This is a beautiful and fragrant herb that is very rich in antioxidants, which prevent cell damage and protect against damaging free radicals.

Cocoa

A spice with many health benefits, the cocoa bean is loaded with flavonoids, which we know are ultra-powerful phytochemicals.

Garlic

Eating garlic offers numerous health benefits, including supporting strong immunity, as it contains compounds that help our immune system to fight harmful pathogens. Whole fresh garlic contains alliin, but when garlic is chopped or crushed this converts to allicin, which isn’t stable, so quickly converts to other compounds that are said to give garlic its medicinal properties. Additionally, as a potent antibiotic, garlic has been shown to combat strains of Staphylococcus, the bacteria associated with staph infections. Crush or chop/slice all your garlic before you eat it (this increases the allicin content). Before you cook with crushed garlic, let it stand for 10 minutes before cooking (this helps prevent the loss of its beneficial properties).

Extracted from The Immunity Cookbook by Kate Llewellyn-Waters (£20, Quadrille)

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