By Reya Mehrotra
At a time when the importance of being healthy is being felt the most, the question of the hour is, how gradual is the process of becoming healthy? If one has inherited a weak immune system, can one still boost their immunity? Experts say it’s possible but not an overnight process.
We do largely inherit our immune system, but our habits can impact it positively or adversely, say experts. "The immune system is a complex network of cells, proteins and immunological pathways that protect any individual against pathogenic microorganisms," says Sagar Bhattad, consultant pediatric, immunology and rheumatology, Aster CMI Hospital, Bengaluru. "A healthy immune system also protects us from autoimmunity and malignancies. There are several genes that are essential to build an efficient immune system. The immune system may also be affected by environmental factors, like the HIV infection can make an individual immune-compromised; medications like steroids can also reduce immunity, malnutrition can make a child immune-deficient. Hence, while hereditary factors are crucial for the development of the immune system, environmental factors play an important role in modulation and maintenance of immunity," he adds.
Charu Goel Sachdeva, head of department, internal medicine, Manipal Hospitals, Dwarka, New Delhi, explains that the study of immunogenetics deals with the immune system. "Practising a healthy lifestyle is extremely crucial for building immunity. Habits like smoking, wrong eating, drinking excessive alcohol, being on multiple drugs, having a sedentary lifestyle and comorbidities like diabetes, heart disease, etc, can result in a weak immune system. Regular exercise coupled with good food habits helps in boosting immunity. Genes are one thing, but environmental expression is another cause. Having a healthy lifestyle, however, can help and will prevent any illness from getting worse," he says.
According to doctors, a child born with serious immune deficiency and genetic defect needs immediate medical attention. In such children, providing the right nutrition would be essential. This, however, would not correct the underlying disease. "A vast majority of children are born with an efficient immune system. However, intake of an inappropriate diet results in aberrant intestinal microbiota, which, in turn, results in poor immune response. No single food can provide complete nutrition. It’s only the appropriate combination of various nutritious foods that can provide the best possible nutrition," says Sachdeva.
Bhattad believes food is one of the most important factors that can modify one’s immune system. "Children who are deprived of adequate calories and proteins get malnourished and have a weak immune system. They are at high risk of infections and mortality. On an average, vegetables and fruits must form 50% of your dinner," he says.
Agrees Malathi Voora, consultant and head of department, nutrition and dietetics, Rainbow Children's Hospital, Bengaluru: "We can boost our immunity even though it is hereditary. Certain food habits and lifestyle can contribute to it. Proper sleep, keeping stress at bay and daily physical exercise are important, too, for immunity. Intake of micronutrients in the form of vitamins, minerals, calcium and iron is more important than the intake of macronutrients as prescribed earlier, as lifestyles are changing today. It's not like you consume one healthy meal and then have junk food,"she explains.
Vegans and non-vegetarians can opt for different substitutes for boosting immunity. "Non-vegetarians must include green vegetables in the curry or stew, or red or lean meats to fulfill their nutritional requirements. Cooking meat or chicken in coconut milk helps too. One must prefer gravy form instead of the dry or roasted kebab forms. For vegans, immunity can be boosted through consumption of pulses that are rich in protein, all fruits and nuts, soybean, kidney beans (rajma) and sesame seeds that are important sources of vitamin C. Nothing should be restricted in the diet as soon as the child turns six months old," says Namitha Menon, a Bengaluru-based nutritionist.
Experts also suggest proper hydration in the form of coconut water, juices or buttermilk. "For fibre, one must consume one tablespoon of flax seed powder in buttermilk (for children) and one tablespoon of flax seed powder in every 200 gm of buttermilk for adults," says Menon.
Lifestyle the new religion
For a healthy person, it may take up to 15 days to further boost immunity, but for one who is just starting, it may take a month or two, say experts. Agra-based nutritionist Payal Seth says everyone wants to be fit today, but they fail to follow a healthy lifestyle. "Everybody is different and may respond to a good lifestyle in different ways. Some may take longer to develop immunity and others may not. There is no shortcut to health, and immunity is not built in a day. It is a gradual, sustainable process. Both youngsters and the elderly today are sleep-deprived and sleep is very important for boosting immunity. It is important to stay away from refined flour and all packaged products as well if one wants to have a strong immune system. These can ruin your immunity even though you might be following a healthy regime. Exercising in any form also helps. Gymming is not a necessity… activities like walking, dancing or skipping are enough too. Most importantly, one must never stress or panic as it messes up with your body," she says, adding, "Health is being mentally, physically and socially fit."
Magic of superfoods
Experts say a number of natural foods qualify as superfoods as these can boost your immune system. These include turmeric, green leafy vegetables, almonds, ginger, pepper powder, Indian gooseberry (amla), giloy with water or in pill form, fish, vitamin C-rich seasonal fruits, wholegrains, including quinoa and bulgur wheat, legumes, yoghurt, garlic, broccoli and bell pepper. One must also avoid alcohol, smoking and junk food. Low-fat paneer, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, laddoos of nuts or sesame seeds, or groundnut candies can be a good source of calcium and other vitamins too. One or two such laddoos should be had everyday. Experts also suggest having seasonal fruits rather than exotic ones at least one a day. In salads, it’s advised to have mint, coriander leaves, drumsticks for iron, spinach leaves. Eat raw salad rather than having it thoroughly cooked.