How Diet Affects Immune Health
At any given time, we can all see the benefit of having a robust immune system. We want to work hard and enjoy life, so even if it’s only the sniffles, an illness can bring us down and keep us from feeling like ourselves. But when there are times of extra stress and a pandemic to boot, the desire to amplify our body’s defenses is renewed.
With such interest in maintaining health, many are quick to seek out what can be added to boost immunity. This is often in the way of supplements, be it vitamins, minerals, or herbs. Though these routes are effective, there is something even simpler and possibly more potent—your diet.
A combination of many factors causes our diet to be one of our biggest allies in cultivating immune health, some complex and others more straightforward. Still, at the heart is moderation and balance, as Ayurveda often suggests. The following considerations will help you refine your diet to support optimal immune function.
Nutrition and Immunity
First and foremost, it’s essential to eat enough nutrients for healthy immune function. This means a diet that doesn’t have a lot of variety or is made up of processed foods with less nutritional value will not be as adequate as one that is diverse and full of fresh, whole foods.
Ayurveda values food as its whole instead of extracting nutrients or specific constituents. That said, it has been shown that certain nutrients are critical for a properly functioning immune system. So be sure you’re including foods that have higher amounts of vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin A, zinc, selenium, iron, and protein. These are all nutrients that support cellular function and help to prime the body to go on the defense should it come under attack.1
Though some of these can be found in animal foods, a plant-based diet—or one that is primarily plant-based—reigns supreme when it comes to replenishing these essential nutritional building blocks. This is in part due to the ease in digestibility of plants, and thus our ability to assimilate nutrients more easily. But equally important, plants are rich in fiber which makes them more supportive of a healthy microbiome.
Digestion and Immunity
As if it isn’t enough that our gut is referred to as the “second brain” for the webbing of nerves that surround our intestines, 70 percent of our immune system resides in our gut in what’s called the gut-associated lymphoid tissue, or GALT.2
This massive amount of immune cells within our digestive tract is clear evidence that what we eat and how we digest it is essential for health, as diet plays a large role in the cellular composition of this tissue.3 It’s what triggers and mediates our immune response as infections are introduced to the body or pathogens invade the gut.
This is why maintaining “good bacteria” or a healthy microbiota is so often emphasized and why many opt to incorporate prebiotics or probiotics into the diet. Keep in mind, however, that you don’t specifically need to consume probiotics for this to happen. Unless you’re experiencing a condition that would warrant more long-term use, you shouldn’t have to take a probiotic all the time. A diverse diet is more than enough to provide the beneficial bacteria to help you nurture the health of your microbiome.
Fueling Healthy Digestion and Elimination
Paying attention to shifts in your digestion and elimination is incredibly important. Often considered key pillars of our health in Ayurveda, we want to keep our digestive strength and elimination patterns healthy.
This is a place where you may find herbal support to be essential. Banyan’s Vata Digest, Pitta Digest, or Kapha Digest tablets can help you manage your digestion, while an herbal formula like triphala supports regular, healthy elimination.
In the same vein, adding spices like cumin, coriander, ginger, or fennel to your dishes will help ensure that your body is properly breaking down and absorbing the nutrients from the diet you’ve so carefully curated.
Prana and Immunity
Let’s not forget the simple yet powerful fact that our food provides energy. Not just caloric energy, but prana—the energy of our life force. This is the energy that pulses through us and all living things, giving us our radiance, enthusiasm, and vitality. This energy is also something that can be observed in the quality and freshness of our foods.
Consider a piece of fresh fruit and how luscious, juicy, and alive it is. Compare that with a cracker or another dry or processed food. You can see how one is full of energy and the other is not. The foods that offer more prana will always be more nutrient-dense and offer greater immune support.
The Importance of Balance
Unique to Ayurveda is the concept of gunas, or qualities. Gunas are descriptive terms that allow us to understand what a food can do for our state of being, such as to ground us when we are feeling light and overwhelmed, or to invigorate us when we are feeling stagnant.
Using foods to find greater balance can actually become quite intuitive, as long as we are paying attention to what our bodies truly need. For example, a bowl of warm, heavy stew will help bring balance to someone feeling cold, anxious, or ungrounded. On the other hand, a light, spicy vegetable dish would be a great choice for someone feeling heavy, lethargic, or dull.
At first glance, it may be tough to see how the different qualities of foods could impact our immunity, but remember that our immune system is only as strong as our overall health. Meaning, we can’t be run down, low on sleep, or eating poorly and expect our immune system to be strong and work optimally.
This, of course, includes the balance of our doshas.
Using our diets to bring in balancing qualities is a direct and simple way to find greater well-being overall, and in turn, fuel our immune strength. When used wisely, our foods hold the power to relieve any imbalances we may be experiencing, mitigate the effects of the changing seasons and other external stressors, and support the strength and vitality of our systems overall.