OPINION | Immunity: a time-honoured balancing act

  • Many people only start worrying about their immune systems in the run-up to winter
  • This can lead to an over-dependence on multivitamins and supplements
  • Instead, we should be eating a balanced, wholesome diet the whole year round to keep our immune systems in top shape

There's a global belief that we need to strengthen our immune systems for the colder months – a trend that is  quickly forgotten and sadly neglected during the warmer seasons.

This unbalanced approach to health and immunity has led us to what could be an over-dependence on multivitamins and supplements in a time where nutritional “fads” are at an all-time high.

In fact, what we really need is a well-balanced approach to health and nutrition. We can’t quickly supercharge our immune system in the approach to winter, while neglecting it for the rest of the year. Rather, we should be eating a balanced, wholesome diet the whole year round to keep our immune systems in top shape. 

Conflicting ideas

This advice is especially pertinent during the coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 has been a wakeup call for many South Africans, and besides stockpiling hand sanitiser and disposable face masks, they flocked to Dr Google for the most effective ways to protect themselves against the coronavirus and boost their immunity.

Community and Whatsapp groups were abuzz with Covid-19 prevention tips: hot water and lemon, zinc and vitamin C, colloidal silver, holding a hairdryer up to the nose and blowing in hot air to “kill” the virus, etc. 

While there are – and will always be – conflicting ideas behind what foods and supplements are best for a normal, functioning immune system, there are a few key facts we should all keep in mind to stay healthy, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many intricate systems

You cannot and should not try to “boost” your immune system over a short period of time. It is more important and effective to focus on achievable and sustainable year-round immunity by making good decisions in terms of your overall health, wellbeing, and nutritional health. 

This is possible by consuming a healthy and varied diet, getting enough rest, and enjoying regular physical activity. 

Superfoods are good for us, but aren’t a cure-all.

A healthy, balanced diet filled with essential nutrients our bodies need to function is all that is required to build our immune system's natural defences against bacteria, germs, and viruses. Our bodies have many intricate and interconnected systems. The healthiest (not to mention easiest and more affordable) way to put our bodies in a position to deal with illness is to focus on a varied nutritional plan that meets all our nutritional needs.

Trust your gut

Good gut health is an important component of your body’s ecosystem. Gut health plays a huge role on your overall health, and a healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, healthy heart, good brain health, improved moods, better sleep patterns, and effective digestion. 

Good bacteria in the gut are also essential for a healthy and active immune system. 

There is an array of supplements said to protect and restore the good bacteria in your gut. This is, however, best achieved through natural means by including naturally fermented foods in your diet like yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, sourdough bread and some cheeses. By incorporating these foods in your daily meals, you will notice an improvement in your gut due to the natural probiotics and supporting properties provided by these foods. 

Supplementing during times of increased risk

There is nothing wrong with considering a multivitamin or bringing certain vitamins and supplements into your daily routine. This should, however, not necessary if you are consuming a balanced and nutritionally varied diet. 

Even so, it is not uncommon for people to experience deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, and in such cases, people may need to take supplements to assist with alleviating the deficiency. Supplementation should, however, be done under the guidance of a medical professional – and preferably only when a deficiency has been diagnosed.  

In terms of food supplements, there has been a steep rise in the consumption of vitamin D and C, as well as zinc during the Covid-19 pandemic. These supplements cannot, however, protect us from being infected with Covid-19. The role that these supplements play lies in their ability to aid the immune system's optimal functioning and our body’s ability to maintain its strength. 

Food for thought

As we continue to learn about Covid-19 and how the virus operates, we will continue to be inundated with reports and research citing supplements that are able to “combat the virus”. The issue is that too little scientifically proven information is available to make these claims. For now, the focus should instead be on identifying and changing the bad habits that have put our immune systems in a less than optimal state. 

We should have a more holistic approach to our health, combining exercise, rest, relaxation, and social activities that fuel both the body and the mind.

The take-home message

Aim for moderation instead of overdoing things in a shotgun approach, and make sure you incorporate all food groups in your meals, including fruits, vegetables, proteins, carbohydrates, dairy, and healthy snacks. This means including a "rainbow" of foods on your lunch and dinner tables: 

• For reds, think tomatoes, which are full of the antioxidant lycopene that may help reduce the risks of  certain types of cancer. 

• For purples, go for blueberries, blackberries, grapes and beetroot, rich in anthocyanins, which show powerful antioxidant activity in the body

• Don’t forget about browns, the colours of wholegrains, which are nutrient powerhouses and provide fibre to keep you regular. 

• Whites like onions, leeks and garlic contain quercetin, which has both anti-inflammatory and antihistamine activity for overall health and wellbeing.  

• There’s a good reason why our mothers always told us to “eat your greens”. Spinach, asparagus and cabbage are full of with folic acid which supports immune function. 

• And finally, yellows and oranges, which are typically full of carotenoids that help lower the risks of certain types of cancer and eye disease. 

*Arthur Ramoroka is company Nutritionist at Tiger Brands and a registered dietitian. 

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