Immunity in Every Part of Your Life – A Nutrition Expert’s Take
Nobody likes to be sick, and it seems like everywhere we go there’s another threat to our wellbeing. Germ-laden door handles, sneeze-spewing coworkers, or the prolonged horror of waiting for our kid’s sick schoolmate to inevitably spread the illness to our own home. Yet we don’t get sick that often. It’s amazing, and we have our body’s immunity to thank for that.
Immune system basics.
Our immune system has two ways of defending from foreign invaders. First, we have what’s called our ‘innate’ immune system. This is what we’re born with and is the equivalent of the locks in your car; it’s built to keep everybody out except someone with a key. It’s a general defense and is good about keeping us safe from most infections.
We also have what’s called our ‘adaptive’ immune system. This protection isn’t as immediate as our innate immune system, but it can learn about infections to become more efficient at seeking and destroying them. This is our body’s equivalent to the Navy SEALs; it has to spend time reading a brief and planning an operation, but once it has learned about the threat, it’s effective and accurate. This part of our immune system is learned throughout our lives and is the basis for vaccines.
These two parts of our immune system work together to keep us healthy, but there are certain parts of living our lives that can stress our immune system out and make it harder for it to do its job. These include:
- Stress and exercise
Let’s explore how our immune system changes throughout these stages.
Exercising our right to stay healthy.
We’ve all heard that exercise is vital to a healthy lifestyle and contributes to keeping a healthy weight, reducing stress, and improving sleep. Exercise can also affect how well our immune system works. For example, moderate exercise can boost the immune system, so exercising the recommended amount of 150 minutes per week will boost our ability to stay healthy. This is the kind of exercise the majority of us do. BUT, what’s not as well known is that intense exercise may make it harder for our immune system to do its job.
Elite athletes are actually at a higher risk of infection due to their exercise load. Their intense training regimens place extra stress on their bodies and can suppress their immune systems. Getting sick means missing training days or having to compete while ill, so staying healthy is at the top of any elite athlete’s priority list. This means that, for top-tier athletes like marathon runners, nutrition strategies to support immunity become extra important. Nutrients and supplementation can play a role in supporting an athlete’s immune system, but the challenge here is ensuring the product is safe for use and can support immune function at the correct time. For example, many marathon runners are more likely to get ill soon after their marathon due to the intense stress the event puts on their body, so supporting the immune system during this “open window” is important.
Stress can also play a negative role in our immune system, whether that comes from exercise stress or lifestyle stress. Long-term stress can create chronic inflammatory conditions or lower immunity of those who might have a healthy immune system.
We’re vulnerable when we’re young.
From the day we’re born until we finish puberty, our body’s organ systems are going through major growth and development. This is true for our immune system, too. Our innate immune system is still implementing itself, and our adaptive immune system has likely never ‘learned’ much of anything yet to be of help. This means, as babies and toddlers, we’re especially vulnerable to infection and our bodies can use all the help they can get. Luckily, nutrition is one way to boost our body’s defenses during early life. Making sure our bodies get enough of nutrients can help support overall health and wellness in these early, vulnerable years.
Honey, where did I put my immune system?
As we age, we tend to lose things more often. It could be our keys as it becomes harder for our brain to remember things, our muscle tissue, or even our immune health. You may have heard of the term ‘inflammation’. This is a normal process our body uses to heal tissue. For example, if we get a cut on our skin, the skin around the wound gets red and is painful. This is due to inflammation; our body is cleaning up the cut by sending immune cells to protect from infections getting into the new hole in our body, removing damaged tissue, and replacing it with healthy, new tissue.
Sometimes inflammation isn’t all that helpful, though. When our body is in a stressed condition, like aging, where it’s harder for our tissues to do what they’re supposed to, it can go into a state of long-term inflammation. In other words, when we get older, our whole body feels like it is under some physiological stress. This makes it harder for our tissues to do their jobs, including the immune system, making us more likely to get an infection in our later years.
Just as in infancy and early childhood, nutrition can help counteract some of these stressors on our immune system. The aging immune system is an interesting, but still a newer area of nutrition science. Research is showing roles for nutrients like vitamin D, protein, and omega 3 fats for health as we age. And beyond attaining wellness through a healthy diet, supporting our immune systems as we get older will help us live a high quality of life. So older adults should look for products with immune health benefits that are targeted and show clinical evidence to support their health for their life stage.
Wellmune® & immunity.
Throughout our lives, our immune system remains a powerful defense that keeps our body safe. But staying healthy isn’t always as easy eating right or staying fit. Supporting our immune system with functional foods, beverages or supplements with safe, clinically proven immune health benefits can be one of the ways we can live our lives to the fullest. Some products and ingredients in the market claim to have immune health benefits but often lack supporting clinical research. One good option is Wellmune, a science-supported way to boost your immune system throughout life. Wellmune is backed by over a dozen clinical studies that demonstrate its ability to help strengthen our general immune health. Learn more here.
By Nathan Pratt, PhD, RD
Nathan Pratt, PhD, RD works on Kerry’s global nutrition science team as an RD&A Scientist, where he is responsible for managing day-to-day operations and content of the Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute, as well as internal and external scientific communications at Kerry. His doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign research focused on weight management, nutrition labeling, and consumer behavior. Nathan’s broad experiences in the industry range from nutrition for breastfeeding mothers to clinical benefits of nutrients like fatty acids and carotenoids, but he always keeps the ‘so what?’ for the consumer top of mind.
If you want to learn more about the role of nutrition and the immune system, here are a few resources from the Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute:
- Whitepaper: ‘The Role of Food in Maintaining Immune Health in Ageing’. The paper gets into the nitty gritty of the science, so it’s mostly intended for technical audiences, but don’t be afraid to give it a try!
- Want to know more about the impact of exercise on nutrition? Head to our blog: “Why Don’t Athletes Shake Hands in the Olympic Village?”.
- Nutrition Insights: Nutrition for children