Note: Before taking any dietary supplements, please consult your doctor.
Stress is good for us, as it helps us to survive and stay competitive; it’s the reason why we get up in the morning to “do what has to be done”. But too much stress over a long period of time is a killer because it erodes our immune system. When that happens, we are at risk of becoming ill. In this case I don’t mean merely catching a cold, but more serious health issues such as burnout, diabetes, stroke, or heart attack. In short: all those things we’d like to believe only happen to other people, but never to us.
Good nutrition is an important part of keeping your immune system in top shape.
In this article I want to explain why nutrition is such an important factor in boosting your immune system. You will see that catch phrase “you are what you eat” extends much further than just how your body looks on the outside. It’s the food that you eat on a daily basis that is going to support or work against your body’s immune system. Let’s see how that works.
The quality of your immune system depends on what you eat.
People under stress often cut corners when it comes to their nutrition. Easy solutions are often timesaving and appealing, but they wreak havoc on your energy balance, leaving you with less energy than before. Refined foods such as sandwiches will upset the sugar balance in your body. The carbohydrates in these foods are so quickly absorbed in your body’s blood stream that the body cannot use it all at once. In response, it releases a large dose of the hormone insulin to lower this “sugar” level in your blood to a more acceptable level. Because of this, your energy levels crash.
When these energy levels gets too low, you will experience strong cravings for more sweet foods (triggered by the hormone cortisol). This is your body’s way of “helping” you by pushing you into restoring energy levels quickly. As a result, you get locked into a sugar roller coaster, with unbalanced energy levels that add to your (already high) stress levels. Over a longer period of time, that stress will lower the capacity of your immune system to deal with sickness.
Nutrition is not the same as calories
I am sure I am not telling you anything new when I say that your body needs vitamins and minerals. But what most people do not realize is that by ingesting processed foods “all the time”, they are eating foods that lack “nutrients” (vitamins and minerals that your body desperately needs). This creates a body depleted of the nutrients that it needs to function correctly and deal with stress in an optimum way. Whereas a banan contains potassium (ensuring that nerve impulses reach your heart so that it can beat) and magnesium (crucial in contracting and relaxing your muscles), a sanwich will most likely contain none of these minerals. And on top of that, the more refined foods we eat, the more we suppress our immune system because the refined carbohydrates foster a climate of inflammation in our bodies; they deplete our reserves of vitamin B, for example, in order to process the high carbohydrate load.
Supplements alone are not the answer
We humans are “clever enough” in such cases, however, to take a supplement to ease our guilty minds. But does that really work? People that lead a hectic lifestyle often reason that they can get away with eating “bad” refined foods as long as they supplement with “good” multivitamin. This is a myth. If you are living on a diet based on toast with jam, cornflakes, sandwhiches, snacks, coffee and a quick TV dinner with a few drinks in the evening, you cannot make up for the lack of nutrients in those foods by taking a vitamin supplement. These refined foods stress your adrenal glands and will produce more (rather than less) stress hormones in your body, eventually undermining your body’s immune system.
Supplements can at best be an insurance policy to help you work away small deficits or to make the impact of the “bad” foods less damaging. That said, the most useful supplements to deal with long-term stress are a (separate) B-complex vitamin and a supplement of magnesium to help relax the tension in your muscles. Zinc helps the “intelligence” of the T-cells in your immune system, vitamin C helps antibody production, and selenium can help the NK cells (natural killer cells) in your immune system to clear out intruders. And adding vitamin E to the combination with the vitamin C may help increase the total number of T-cells in your immune system. All good reasons to eat nutritious foods, right?
The best way to keep your immune system strong is to prepare your own foods and to plan your meals. If it sounds complex or time-consuming, just have a look at the many websites that focus on healthy meals in 15 minutes. Let’s not forget: preventing sickness is always less time-consuming than having to fight it off later!
Paul Schuchhard is a certified Counselor specialized in the psychology of burnout prevention; he is also a certified Sports Nutritionist and fitness trainer.