Can You Improve Your Immunity with Diet and Lifestyle Changes?
by Dr. Surya Bhagwati on Apr 24, 2020
It’s unfortunate but true. We only pay attention to our immune health when we are faced with a high risk of infection, such as during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, there is no magic pill to boost immunity overnight and those vitamin C capsules and multivitamins are no substitute for healthy eating. Immunity is built overtime – the benefits are accrued. Nevertheless, the situation is not hopeless and there are steps you can take to support your immunity right now. It begins with your diet and lifestyle. This has long been emphasized in Ayurved, which is why the ancient medical system does not focus on disease cures, but on disease prevention through diet and lifestyle measures. These teachings are even more relevant today.
If you still have doubts about the efficacy of diet and lifestyle changes to boost immunity, you can rest assured that there is plenty of evidence. Modern clinical studies and research have helped strengthen and reaffirm the links that Ayurved recognized thousands of years ago. So, let’s find out how diet and lifestyle impacts immune function.
How Your Diet Can Boost Immune Function
Healthy digestion through healthy eating is the cornerstone of health in Ayurved and it appears that this age old wisdom is not at all unfounded. A study in the journal Trends in Immunology, highlights the role of malnutrition in disease development – it contributes to both weakened immunity and recurrent infections, as well as immune dysfunction and chronic inflammation, which is linked to chronic lifestyle diseases. It is important to note that malnutrition here is defined as ‘under- and overnutrition’. This also underscores the importance of Ayurvedic recommendations for eating habits, meal times, and serving sizes.
The impact of diet and nutrition on immunity is not based on conjecture, but on decades of research that reaffirm Ayurvedic recommendations. Research shows that the immune system requires a steady intake of all nutrients, not just vitamin C. This means that you should follow a balanced diet throughout, with plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, as well as whole grains, nuts, and seeds. This is important as immune function is not dependent just on a few specific vitamins or minerals, but on a combination of macronutrients, micronutrients, and pre/probiotics for a strong gut microbiome.
The only broad advice or restriction is with regard to heavily processed foods. Individuals are advised to consume whole foods and limit or avoid any intake of processed foods. The effectiveness of this dietary change to boost immunity cannot be understated. It has been given support by a study that suggests that the typical ‘western’ diet with high red meat and processed or fast food intake impairs immune function. This is because such foods are loaded with saturated fats, trans fats, and sugar, while low in fiber and other essential nutrients. This type of diet, which is becoming increasingly common, is associated not just with weakened immunity, but also with higher incidence of chronic lifestyle diseases.
How Lifestyle Changes Can Boost Immune Function
Stress is widely recognized as a trigger for chronic diseases and autoimmune disorders, but it also plays a role in infection. Lowering stress levels with meditative practices and exercise can therefore significantly improve immune function. This is not just speculative, but is based on evidence, which shows that individuals exposed to higher stress levels are more susceptible to common infections like the flu or cold virus. Cortisol, the stress hormone, causes a drop in lymphocyte levels. This makes it harder for your body to fight infections. Taking up yoga and meditation can help in this regard as meditation is proven to be one of the most effective strategies for stress reduction.
In addition to emphasizing the importance of a balanced lifestyle with adequate time for relaxation and de-stressing, Ayurved has always recognized the importance of sleep for health. Through studies, we know that sleep plays an important role in immune function, making adequate sleep absolutely necessary. Sleep deprivation due to the lack of sleep or sleep disorders is associated with weakened immune function and higher risk of infection. A study that appeared in JAMA Internal Medicine demonstrated an increased risk of infection with less than 6 hours of sleep a night. This was notably higher for respiratory infections like the common cold, flu, or coronavirus for that matter.
Exercise or physical activity is another lifestyle change that is absolutely essential for healthy immune function. In Ayurved the focus is primarily on yoga, but that’s because of the wide scope and variation of yoga. During the coronavirus lockdown, physical fitness remains relevant event though working out may be a challenge. This makes activities like yoga and Pilates even more helpful as they don’t require trips to the gym. Exercise helps boost immunity as it lowers stress and increases antibody levels in the body, with studies showing that a regular exercise routine promotes benefits of reduced infection rates and decreased recovery time.
Even if you can’t adopt all of these healthy eating and lifestyle habits, at the very least, you should give up smoking and limit alcohol intake. These are perhaps the worst habits for immune function as smoking raises cortisol levels and impairs antibody production and T-cell responses. It also causes severe lung damage that significantly increases the risk of respiratory infections and coronavirus complications. Excessive alcohol consumption is also known to suppress immunity and, strangely enough, increases the risk of airborne infections.
Why Healthy Immune Function is A Long Term Commitment
It is in our human nature to take health and relationships for granted until they are faced with a serious threat, such as during the current pandemic. This is unfortunate, as immunity is built over time and the benefits of healthy eating and healthy lifestyle choices are accrued over time. The earlier you begin adopting healthy habits, the greater the benefits you will derive. This is a fundamental belief of Ayurved, which is why the discipline is more focused on general wellness guidelines, rather than disease treatment.
The efficacy of this reasoning is also demonstrated in one study that involved a group of amateur cyclists. Researchers found that amateur cyclists from 55 to 79 years old, who did not smoke or drink excessively, had the same immune function as healthy young adults! This is because immune benefits accumulate. This is also true of immune benefits from other activities, whether dietary, meditation, or others.
Ayurvedic herbs and polyherbal medications can also help build immunity, but they are not a substitute for healthy living. While you should use Ayurvedic remedies to boost immunity, it is imperative that you also begin making changes to your diet and lifestyle that will support healthy immune function. As we should learn from Ayurved, healthy living is a lifestyle that yields lasting benefits, so these changes should be permanent. Don’t wait for the next pandemic to pay attention to immune function again.
- Bourke, Claire D et al. “Immune Dysfunction as a Cause and Consequence of Malnutrition.” Trends in immunology vol. 37,6 (2016): 386-398. doi:10.1016/j.it.2016.04.003
- Childs, Caroline E et al. “Diet and Immune Function.” Nutrients vol. 11,8 1933. 16 Aug. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11081933
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