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Use Your Fork Wisely to Clean Up Your Immune System

How smart nutritional choices can supercharge the immune system.

Unsplash, used with permission
Source: Unsplash, used with permission

Long before we knew that chicken soup contained anti-inflammatory properties, we’ve understood intuitively that certain foods are healing and play an essential role in our cognitive, emotional, and physical health. Today, we’ll discuss how making thoughtful nutritional choices can help supercharge the intelligence of our immune systems. To start, let’s get to know the Two Big M’s, the One Big E, and the ancient family of S’s: the microbiome, the metabolome, the epigenome, and the sirtuins.

The Microbiome

It’s as unique as a fingerprint; it contains microbes, viruses, and fungi and is the biodiverse home for all that goes on in your gut. Research on the gut microbiome (yes, poop) is one of the hottest areas in biopsychosocial science today for a couple of major reasons. First, the majority of our immune system function lies in the cells that line our GI (gastrointestinal) tracts. Second, these same cells shape our mood, cognitive clarity, and mental as well as physical health. Eating foods that are right for our individual microbiomes can protect us from viral and bacterial infections (essential in the era of COVID-19), allergies, autoimmune disorders, chronic inflammation, and cancer.

The Metabolome

The other Big M, the metabolome, provides a real-time snapshot of the way in which lifestyle factors, including what we eat and drink, impact the operation of our cells. Metabolic health is not just about getting to the “right” number on the scale. It’s about having ideal levels of blood sugar, fats (triglycerides), good cholesterol (HDL a.k.a. high-density lipoproteins), and blood pressure — without using medications.

The Epigenome

Because our bodies are integrated systems, both the microbiome and metabolome operate synergistically with the epigenome: the central tenet of how nature operates via nurture and human malleability. The roughly 20,000 genes in our genome are merely recipes for proteins — and are chemical followers — not deterministic leaders. Active 24/7, epigenetic processes work like a dimmer switch, turning genes — each which has its own particular job — ON, OFF, or somewhere in-between. This is the essence of how our life experiences (e.g. food and drink, exercise, sleep, perceived stress, etc.) are integrated into our brains and bodies.

The Sirtuins

The ancient family of SIRTUINS (SIR stands for “silent information regulator”) are survival genes that have the mission-critical job of turning certain genes off (“gene silencing”) and restoring genes to their original factory settings. As we grow older, genes accumulate a level of normal wear and tear, like a cell phone that’s been used over and over. The sirtuin genes complete the essential job of DNA repair so that genes can do their proper jobs.

When we moderate snacks between meals and give ourselves at least 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, sirtuins turn off runaway gene expression and restore cellular communication. At a physiological level, this means improved organ function, physical endurance, disease resistance, and longevity.

Optimal health is all about making the best possible choices available to us under circumstances of both excess and scarcity, as so many families — particularly families in marginalized communities — are experiencing today. We must choose carefully, knowing that what we eat begins to influence our microbiome in less than 24 hours. So — let’s clean up the “MMES!”

Here's How:

Tips for Your Mental Environment

  • Be mindful in the kitchen.
  • Remember to breathe! Long, slow breaths — six in and six out.
  • When possible, cook with your children. Teach them a family recipe and a lifelong skill.

Tips for Your Physical Environment

  • Give sugar the boot. All calories were not created equal, and sugar is one we can comfortably leave on the bench. “Glucose” (complex sugars and carbohydrates), fuels our bodies and is the primary energy source for our brains. When glucose is metabolized, our liver decides whether to store it, burn it for energy, or convert it into triglycerides (fat). “Fructose” (fruit juices, honey, and foods/drinks with high-fructose corn syrup), is metabolized by the liver and immediately stored as fat, increasing risk for fatty liver disease and heart disease.
  • Make smart choices. Lean proteins such as fish, lentils and chicken; foods low on the glycemic index; nuts and seeds; bright, colorful fruits and vegetables; and single-ingredient-named foods made by Mother Nature (e.g. apple, avocado, chicken, almonds) will reduce inflammation, build immunity, stabilize blood sugar, and leave you feeling satisfied between meals.
  • Rest and digest. Let the sirtuins do their jobs! Minimize snacking and wait at least 12 hours between your final calorie at night (yes, this includes nightcaps!) and your first one in the morning. Breakfast literally means “breaking the fast.”
  • Eat slowly and enjoy your meal! Remember, it takes time for the “I’m full!” signals to reach both our stomachs and our brains.
  • Hydrate. Because there is no average person, there is no set recommended amount — but here are some guidelines. What can feel like hunger is often thirst, so keep a water bottle filled wherever you go and drink the right amount for you.
  • Everything in moderation! Food is meant to be enjoyed — it is one of life’s great pleasures! So enjoy that brownie or ice cream cone, and balance it out with healthy choices throughout your day.

Most importantly, remember that our bodies and brains work as integrated systems. As such, lifestyle choices that are positive for one aspect of functioning are generally positive for the others. Over time, investing in the development of an intelligent immune system will pay off in spades — in mental and physical health, COVID protection, and — importantly — in brain health. In optimizing the health and longevity of our brains, we can know we’ve not left one stone unturned in living life to its fullest and striving to reach our full human potential.

Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.” — Hippocrates

A version of this article was first published by Turnaround for Children on the 180 Blog.

More from Sheila Ohlsson Walker CFA, Ph.D.
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