Friday, 13 October 2023, 16:46
The immune system is the body's natural defence mechanism to protect us from any attacks from viruses and bacteria among the many 'enemies' that try invading our bodies on a daily basis. So, keeping it strong can help us make all those attacks more bearable, especially at this time of year when bugs usually mean colds, sniffles, flu and infections, especially the respiratory kind.
"To strengthen the immune system there are three essential recommendations: diet, hydration and exercise," stated Carolina Pérez Iglesias, nutritionist at Quirónsalud Murcia hospital.
Although it is true that "no food by itself" strengthens our defences nor can it act as a medicine, according to Dr Francisco Botella, who oversees the nutrition section for the Spanish Society of Endocrinology and Nutrition (SEEN), "a healthy and varied diet has all the nutrients necessary for the normal functioning of the immune system."
Nutritionist María del Carmen Díaz, from the obesity and diabetes unit at Quirónsalud Alicante, is of the same opinion. "These nutrients that play such an important role in our defences are especially present in fruit (citrus fruit, avocado), vegetables (red pepper, broccoli, spinach, garlic...), whole grains (oats), pulses (chickpeas), nuts (sunflower seeds), fish (salmon), lean meat and eggs".
The key is that many of these foods provide vitamin C which, along with vitamin D, is essential to boost our defences.
"Of course, we must follow a series of guidelines during food preparation so that they retain all their properties to the maximum. In some cases, the loss can reach up to 90% depending on the food and the type of nutrient, since heat, oxidation and pre-soaking degrade and dissolve them," explained Carolina Pérez.
Nutritionists have prepared a short guide with the best advice to follow when cooking these foods so they stay in tip-top condition, losing little of their goodness.
First of all, fruit and vegetables should be cut and peeled just when about to be cooked or a little before.
"You should also avoid letting foods soak for a long time and they should not be placed in the pot until the water is boiling," is the expert advice. Finally, ensure the food is always 'al dente' and eat it as soon as possible.
As for probiotics, "the bacteria found in the intestine and which are beneficial for the health of our body by facilitating the digestion and absorption of nutrients," the specialists warned us that it is not so easy to obtain them through certain foods, nor is it entirely clear how effective they are.
Staying well hydrated is important in general, but in this case it helps to keep the mucous membranes around the body hydrated as it is the first barrier that viruses encounter when trying to enter our bodies.
"In fact, they will gain access easily if the mucous membranes are dry and irritated," said Carolina Pérez.
If drinking a lot of water is problematic, nutritionists suggest "scenting or flavouring the water with citrus peel, minty leaves or some other fragrant leaf, or even directly adding a little lemon or pieces of fresh fruit" to make it go down more easily.
Regular exercise is another of the cornerstones that helps us bolster the immune system.
"There are no superfoods, nor miraculous recipes. The notion of boosting our immunity can be summed up by following something akin to the Mediterranean diet and doing some type of sport on a regular basis," suggested Dr. Botella.
"To achieve the anti-inflammatory effect on the immune system that exercise can deliver, it is essential to dedicate a minimum of half an hour per day".
As Quirónsalud's nutritionists explained, sport "causes changes in leukocytes [white blood cells], which are the cells in the immune system that fight disease by producing antibodies, proteins that neutralise bacteria and external forces. These antibodies and leukocytes circulate faster with regular exercise, so they can detect and fight diseases more quickly and effectively.
Furthermore, body temperature increases when we exercise and stays up for a short while after, and this can prevent bacterial growth. This rise in temperature can help the body better fight any infection, something similar to what happens when we have a fever."
Taking supplements to strengthen our immune system is a relatively common practice. However, endocrinologists insist that taking these types of supplements for this specific purpose does not bring any added benefits, unless there is a diagnosis indicating a specific nutritional deficiency. Dr Francisco Botella warned that they should always be prescribed by a professional. The endocrinologist reminded us that there are no miracle supplements.
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