How Does Nutrition Affect the Immune System
Nutrition and your immune system are intimately connected. That fact is even more relevant for people living with Gaucher disease, who are more likely to have an overactive immune system due to the nature of Gaucher.
“Many factors related to the immune system can be related to the food we eat,” says Lori Fish Bard, MS, CNS, LDN, a clinical nutritionist and board-certified integrative health counselor. “It’s hard to change how you eat, but it is the easiest thing to change for dramatic results.”
Bard helps individuals and families identify and meet their health goals using a personalized, highly supportive blueprint developed through her company Healthy Heartbeet. We asked her for advice on the best and worst foods to eat to keep your immune system healthy when living with Gaucher disease.
Nutrition and the Immune System
Our bodies encounter potentially harmful invaders of all sorts on a daily basis. The immune system works to protect us from these invaders. We have many tools to help support the immune system’s work, but nutrition is one of the most important—and the one over which we have the most control.
“The one thing that’s going into our bodies constantly is food,” Bard explains. “We’re consuming nutrients at least three times a day—for many of us more often. And we can support our immune system by eating the nutrients that are required for the function of all of our cells, but particularly our immune cells.”
Science has identified certain nutrients as particularly beneficial for immune cells’ growth and function. Vitamins C, D, and A, and minerals like zinc, selenium, folate, and iron occur in a variety of plant and animal foods.
Gaucher Disease and an Overactive Immune System
For people living with Gaucher disease, paying attention to immunity is vital. Researchers currently describe Gaucher as a disease involving “chronic stimulation of the immune system. “
In Gaucher disease, people inherit a deficiency in the enzyme glucocerebrosidase. As a result, abnormal lipids (fats) build up in immune cells called macrophages. The result is Gaucher disease symptoms, which stem from systemic inflammation and cause joint pain and extreme fatigue.
How Does Inflammation Affect the Immune System
There is a strong connection between inflammation and the immune system, Bard says.
“This is where we go back to talking about the gut, because when your immune system is overstimulated, it reacts to substances in the environment that are normally harmless,” says Bard. “Eating food really should be fine, right? Our immune system should recognize that food is fine. But with certain inflammatory conditions—and I would put Gaucher in this category—the immune system’s response to that food may be inflammatory.”
When your immune system is overstimulated, it can result in chronic inflammation of the gut. That’s because about 80% of the immune system lives in the gut, Bard says. As a result, diet plays a huge role in determining what microbes live in your intestines and how healthy the balance of good and bad bacteria is.
The Immune System and Cytokines
Cytokines are part of that balance. Many in the Gaucher disease community know the term “cytokine” in relation to the Gaucher inflammatory response, which can create a “cytokine storm” in their bodies. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened awareness of this terminology among the general public.
Cytokines aren’t always dangerous, Bard explains. Cytokines are “signaling molecules, produced by the cells, that mediate and regulate the inflammatory response.” In other words, they signal what’s going on with the immune system.
“Cytokines actually can be good. They stimulate the immune system to fight a foreign pathogen or produce an immune response,” Bard says. “The problem is when their expression causes inflammatory responses and signals the immune system to overreact.”
We do know, Bard says, that certain foods increase inflammatory cytokines. But other foods greatly reduce the inflammatory response and calm down the cytokine signaling response, resulting in a healthier immune system.
5 Foods That Weaken the Immune System
Some foods are inherently inflammatory. Like a burr in a sock, certain chemical compounds and proteins irritate the gut and increase inflammation throughout the body. Some people have specific sensitivities, but these foods tend to increase inflammation for everyone:
“Sugar tops the list,” Bard says. Sugar dramatically reduces the immune system’s ability to fight against invaders. She advises people with Gaucher to try to reduce sugar as much as possible.
If you have a sweet tooth, alternative natural sweeteners are great options:
- Raw honey offers beneficial antiviral and antibacterial properties.
- Maple syrup and coconut sugar have less of an effect on blood sugar levels.
- Other natural options, like stevia and monk fruit, are gaining popularity.
- Manuka honey, named for a specific New Zealand plant that bees pollinate, has powerful antioxidant effects. Science has even shown that it can attack strains of digestive bacteria, including C. diff. and H. pylori.
Bard wouldn’t recommend the sugar alcohols (erythritol and xylitol are examples), which can affect the gut microbiome. And she also would steer clear of agave nectar, which is high in fructose and can affect liver function.
2. Highly refined oils
Entirely avoid margarine, partially hydrogenated oils, and spreads high in trans fats. “These foods definitely exacerbate the inflammatory response,” Bard warns.
Instead, opt for olive oil, avocado oil, grass-fed pasteurized butter, or ghee (clarified butter).
3. Cured meats with nitrates
Nitrates in foods such as hot dogs, sausages, bacon, and bologna cause immune-busting inflammation. Instead, if you wish to enjoy these foods, seek out uncured options.
4. Refined carbohydrates
In highly refined carbohydrates, such as white flour and white rice, most of the fiber has been removed. “We want that fiber for the gut,” Bard says. “Good bacteria feed off fiber in the gut.”
Instead, choose whole grains and legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), and other beans, including kidney, black, soy, and lima beans. Their fiber feeds beneficial bacteria and helps control blood sugar.
5. Conventional dairy
Conventional dairy can be inflammatory for many people. Bard recommends choosing the best quality dairy that you can, such as grass-fed and organic options. Or choose one of the plant-based dairy alternatives that are flooding the market today.
How Long Do You Need to Give Up Inflammatory Foods?
Everyone’s body is individual, Bard notes. “Dairy might be fine for one person and not for another. Or it might be fine for someone for 20 years, and then they stop producing the enzymes to break it down anymore and start having problems.”
In an ideal world, for the healthiest immune system, you would avoid the foods on that list completely. If someone has chronic inflammation—as all people living with Gaucher disease do—Bard would recommend starting with the list above and perhaps trying to eliminate gluten and dairy.
“I have seen people have results in as little as three months,” Bard says. “In some, it takes a lot longer, depending on their compliance. Even having the littlest bit [of gluten or dairy] can restart this inflammatory response.”
The goal is not just to eliminate foods that trigger inflammation. It’s also repairing the gut, which may include a regimen of prebiotics, probiotics, supplements, and herbs.
4 Foods That Boost Your Immune System
Whether or not you can completely eliminate inflammatory foods, you can add immune-boosting foods to support your health. Bard’s list of immune-boosters includes:
1. A rainbow of fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables come in dozens of colors. Each color of the rainbow represents a different family of healing compounds, and all the colors have benefits to the immune system, says Bard. “Try every day to eat five colors of fruits and vegetables.”
Of all the colors, green is one of the most important. Green leafy vegetables are rich in many vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin E, which experts are looking at to protect against the effects of too many cytokines.
Other colorful foods to top the list include:
- Berries, which are highly anti-inflammatory. Pomegranate seeds fall into this category, too. These foods have the potential to reduce tumors and increase heart health.
- Tomatoes, especially cooked tomatoes, which contain high levels of lycopene. This anti-inflammatory compound can support kidney, liver, and prostate health. Try them stewed, roasted, and in sauce or salsa.
- Foods high in vitamin C, to help the body heal. Kiwi fruit is very high in C, and red bell peppers have more vitamin C than an orange.
2. Nuts and seeds
All seeds and nuts are high in anti-inflammatory antioxidants. And they contain healthy fats that can help raise levels of good cholesterol.
3. Fatty fish
Salmon, sardines, and anchovies are rich in omega-3 oils. These substances reduce two inflammatory proteins, C-reactive protein and interleukin 6 (IL-6). It’s best to choose wild-caught fish, Bard says, so be sure to check the source.
4. Herbs and spices
Not only can spices help you minimize added sugar and salt, but they can also support your immune system. Ginger and turmeric, in particular, have known anti-inflammatory effects. Bard recommends using these spices fresh or powdered. Try turmeric root or ginger root in smoothies, she suggests.
“It’s really important to have your nutrition encompass all of these foods so that you’re getting the nutrients to support the immune cells,” Bard says.
Other Steps to Boost Your Immune System With Food
If you make changes to your diet and still have flare-ups of inflammatory symptoms, you might consider working with a nutritionist. These professionals can zero in on specific issues and design an immune-boosting eating plan.
Nutritionists can also perform specialized testing to pinpoint problems. You might have a stool test or organic acid test to gain helpful information. An elimination diet might follow, when you stop eating a wide variety of foods and gradually restart foods that work for you.
Also speak to your Gaucher specialist about your Gaucher disease diet plans. Your Gaucher specialist should always stay in the loop regarding your treatment.
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