The immune system defends the body from foreign organisms and pathogens which can make us sick. Different kinds of nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin D, iron, zinc, protein, and selenium are essential for our immune system to function properly and fight infection and disease. Doctors believe that our body can get all of these nutrients naturally by eating a healthy and balanced diet.
Research says that there is a bidirectional relationship between nutrition, infection and immunity. “Changes in one component affect the others. For example, distinct immune features present during each life stage may affect the type, prevalence, and severity of infections, while poor nutrition can compromise immune function and increase infection risk,” says a study.
We spoke to Delhi-based nutritionist Dr. Akanksha Mishra (consultant with MyUpchar) about how a lack of one or more nutrients can impair our immunity, and how people can plan their diet in order to boost their immune system. She also shares a diet plan that we can follow so that our body is able to get all the nutrients it needs in a day. Edited excerpts:
- A diet lacking in certain nutrients can hurt our immunity. How?
- How does malnutrition impact the body’s immune response?
- How does a vitamin D deficiency impact the immune system?
- Why do older people have weakened immunity. Why is that?
- Will you share with our readers a flexible, one-day healthy meal plan?
A diet lacking in certain nutrients can hurt the production of immune cells and antibodies, could you tell us more about that?
Yes, that is correct. Each and every nutrient has a correlation with another nutrient. Suppose you are taking iron, which is good for haemoglobin production, and you are taking vitamin C, which is good for immunity, both have a correlation. Iron absorption will happen if you are getting enough vitamin C in your diet. It’s the same with calcium and vitamin D. If you are taking enough calcium but there isn’t enough vitamin D, calcium won’t be absorbed by the body. We cannot rely just on one or two nutrients, we need to take all nutrients in a balanced manner. Also, you should try and get all your nutrients naturally. If you are a vegetarian you could have a protein deficiency. In that situation you can take supplements on a doctor’s recommendation. But if you eat meat, you can get protein naturally.
Studies show that deficiencies in various vitamins, iron, zinc, selenium, can impact our immune responses, tell us more about that?
Whenever there is any kind of a pathogen that attacks your body, your body sends a signal to your brain and your brain gives a signal to produce immune cells. If you are lacking in any kind of nutrients, your body won’t be as responsive as it should be. Your immune response will be impaired. According to research, malnutrition can cause a wide variety of problems like low count of white blood cells and malfunctioning lymph nodes which can impair the body’s immune response.
How does a vitamin D deficiency impact the immune system? What role does it play in development of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) and type 1 diabetes?
There is research to prove that vitamin D deficiency is associated with increased autoimmunity and increased risk of infection. Some studies say that a common symptom of vitamin D deficiency is that you will feel brain fogginess. If you have low vitamin D levels, you can be diagnosed with brain-related or autoimmune issues.
Older people have weakened immune systems; it can be attributed to poor appetite, malabsorption of nutrients, medication, and chronic conditions. Can you tell us about that?
As we age, our organs which produce immune cells become less efficient. We tend to have lower appetite, are inclined to miss our meals, and are not able to chew properly.
What we can do is create meals which are a mix of all nutrients in a single dish. Khichdi is a great example, it can be made with rice, pulses as well as vegetables. Elderly people should never skip their meals, or they won’t get their daily nutrients. They can also cook once for the whole day, and prepare their menu for the week which helps them be mentally prepared.
If they are not able to chew properly, they can grate their fruits or eat softer fruits like banana and papaya, or experiment with things like apple stew.
We often see that older patients are low on protein and calcium. They have lower muscle mass and feel weak. The calcium requirement is higher in people older than 70. For this, they can drink two glasses of milk in a day, eat boiled eggs, and fish and vegetables to make up for the calcium, protein and vitamin D requirements.
Older people with chronic diseases have low immunity, especially those with autoimmune diseases and immunodeficiency. In patients with chronic diseases like diabetes, there may be a deficiency of nutrients like vitamin D-12 because of which their immunity is on the lower side. In these cases, they can get a nutritionist to create a meal plan for them and give them supplements if needed.
Will you share with our readers a flexible, one-day healthy meal plan?
Yes. Here it is:
After you wake up (around 8 am)
Warm Water: Have a glass of warm water. After some time, you can have a cup of coffee/tea/milk/turmeric milk. I would recommend that you don’t have green tea on an empty stomach as it can cause gastric problems.
Soaked Nuts: Eat a handful of nuts, soaked overnight. (This is not recommended for those with metabolic conditions like heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.) Soaking nuts overnight helps as some nuts have enzymes which inhibit the absorption of different kinds of nutrients when they are dry.
Breakfast (around 10 am)
Your breakfast should be a combination of carbs, protein, and a fruit. Here are some options:
Carbs: Multigrain bread sandwich/oats/oat chila (kind of a pancake made with gram flour)/dalia (porridge)
Protein: Boiled eggs/scrambled eggs/omelette
Mix of protein and carbs: Besan chila with yogurt/paneer sandwich/multigrain bread and omelette/upma (porridge made of wheat semolina) with a glass of milk
Fruits: 100 grams of a colourful fruits
Mid Morning (around 11:00-12:00 am)
About 2-3 hours after breakfast you can have:
Beverage: Coconut water/buttermilk/lime juice, or
Fruit: 100-150 gms
Lunch (around 2:00 pm)
Lunch should be a balanced meal. It should be a mix of carbs, protein, minerals, vitamins. Try and mix all colours.
Proportion: One fourth cereal, one-fourth protein, half of the meal should be colourful fruits and vegetables.
Protein: Dal (pulses)/chole (chickpea)/rajma (kidney beans)/lobhia (black-eyed bean)/paneer/eggs/chicken/fish
Fruits and Vegetables
Yogurt: Add a small bowl of yogurt
Evening snack (around 4:00-5:00 pm)
High Protein Snack: Roasted chana (black gram)/chickpea salad/hummus with pita or breadsticks/mashed paneer/scrambled eggs/dhokla etc. or anything that is a part of your food culture.
Beverage: A cup of hot or cold coffee or tea (optional).
Dinner (around 7:30-8:00 pm)
Same as lunch, dinner should be a balanced meal. Always have dinner 2-3 hours before sleeping.
- Immune Function and Micronutrient Requirements Change over the Life Course. Silvia Maggini, Adeline Pierre, and Philip C. Calder.
Dr. Akanksha Mishra
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