By: Kerry Bazany

You and your friend are out for a great night of one of your favorite activities: dining out! Several hours or perhaps a day later, said friend calls with a question, “Didn’t you have what I had at the restaurant? I think I got food poisoning”! Indeed, you had the same dish, but you do not have any symptoms of gastroenteritis at all. You offer your sympathies, and then puzzle over why you did not get sick. But it is possible for one person to get sick and another to be completely healthy after eating the same contaminated food item.

Everyone Has a Different Immune System

Whenever we eat food, there is always the possibility that it will be contaminated with pathogen-like bacteria. Some forms of these bacteria are easily attacked by our immune systems: either the body is able to fight off the bacteria, or the bacteria and its resultant symptoms, take hold. Individuals that have a poorly-functioning immune system are far more susceptible to foodborne pathogens. These individuals with compromised immune systems include older adults, very young children, and those who have recently had surgery and are healing. Other populations include those who have a long term illness such as cancer patients, diabetics, those who are HIV positive, and transplant recipients.

You Can Boost Your Immune System

We can all benefit from improving our immune systems. Researchers are focusing on exploring the effects of diet, exercise, age, and even psychological stress on the immune system response. However, the best way to begin is to investigate healthy-living strategies.

  • Don’t smoke
  • Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains
  • Avoid a high fat diet, as is common with fast foods and processed foods
  • Exercise!
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Get enough sleep at night
  • Wash your hands frequently so as to avoid the risk of infection
  • Get regular medical screenings for people in your age group and risk category

Foods that Boost the Immune System

  • Citrus fruits: Contain vitamin C that helps the production of white blood cells, important to fighting infection.
  • Red bell peppers: Contain almost twice the amount of vitamin C than citrus fruits and are a great source of beta carotene.
  • Broccoli: Contains the vitamins A, C, and E and is best prepared not cooked at all in terms of vitamin retention.
  • Garlic: These clever cloves have been used for centuries by a variety of cultures in order to fend off infections. Its immune-boosting properties derive from sulfur containing compounds, and garlic may also help lower blood pressure.
  • Ginger: Ginger is another herb that many turn to when they become sick. Ginger may help decrease inflammation and help subside nausea.
  • Spinach: Spinach contains antioxidants and is also rich in vitamin C. Like broccoli, it is best prepared with as little cooking as possible.
  • Yogurt: Look for yogurts that have “live and active cultures” on the label as they may stimulate your immune system to help fight bacteria. Avoid sugary yogurts.
  • Almonds: Almonds are loaded with vitamin E which is essential to a healthy immune system. Almonds are also packed with “healthy fats”, and a half cup serving provides almost 100% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin E.
  • Green tea: Green tea contains flavonoids which are a type of antioxidant. But where green tea stands out is in its levels of EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) that has been demonstrated to enhance immune function.
  • Kiwi: Kiwis contains folate, potassium, vitamin K as well as vitamin C, necessary for boosting white blood cell production.
  • Papaya: Papayas are absolutely stuffed with vitamin C.
  • Sunflower seeds: These are filled with nutrients, including vitamin B-6 and vitamin E. Eighty two percent of the recommended serving of vitamin E can be found in a quarter cup serving. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that can also be found in high amounts in avocadoes and dark, leafy greens.

The Elderly Are a Unique Risk Group When it Comes to the Immune System

The elderly (aged 65 and older) are unfortunately more likely to be prone to infections such as those caused by foodborne illnesses, and are more likely to die from their complications. Research indicates that this increased risk is associated with a decrease in T cell production that correlates with a thymus that atrophies with age. The thymus produces these vital T cells that are necessary to stave off infection.

Exercise and the Immune System

Regular exercise has been demonstrated to first and foremost, improve cardiovascular health as well as lowering blood pressure and controlling body weight. It can also protect against disease by its correlation with improving the immune system response to infection by promoting healthy circulation. Consequently, good circulation permits the cells and other components of the immune system to move through the body and do their job.

 Food Safety Practices are Your Best Immune System Defense

Sometimes getting a foodborne illness is unavoidable because you have no control, unfortunately, over the handling and preparation of your food. However, you can greatly reduce the potential contaminants in your own food preparation at home by implementing the simple food safety measures of washing and rinsing all produce, separating foods while preparing, washing hands and preparation surfaces frequently, and cooking foods to the correct temperatures. These measures, in addition to the suggestions for improving your own immune system, can immensely add to your culinary enjoyment!