Thursday, October 1, 2009

Think Diet Doesn't Affect Your Immune System? Think Again.

By Sara Thyr, ND

I’m writing in response to Jennifer LaRue Huget’s article in The Washington Post, “Even Carefully Selected Foods Won't Make You Immune to the Flu”. I appreciate that the author wants to explore the possibility that nutrition might prevent illness, but she seems to have taken a rather short-sighted approach. Huget’s article investigates if one food can prevent the flu, instead of looking at the effect foods have on the body and the immune system, both positive and negative. Food has a profound effect on the body. It doesn’t take a PhD in biochemistry to figure this out. The cells of the body, including the immune system, all chug along using the fuel that they get from what we ingest. So if you are ingesting mostly Twinkies, you may have fewer necessary nutrients in your cells than if you are ingesting carrots.

But let’s not be too extreme. Really, how many of us are eating Twinkies these days? But if you eat sugar, let’s say delicious homemade cookies, or an iced mocha, it can depress your immune system for hours afterward. If you are having sugar all day long – even in small amounts – you will be much more likely to catch whatever is going around.

I’ve often marveled at the large offices with candies on many people’s desks. They are more likely to pass around illness just due to their proximity. Then add in lots of sugar – recipe for spreading the flu.

Huget draws bizarre conclusions about how foods affect disease. Take this paragraph:
"The immune system is the result of an extremely complex interplay of various functions within the body," said Darwin Deen, senior attending physician in Montefiore Medical Center's department of family and social medicine in New York. "We know that if the system is deficient, you're susceptible to infection. That's the case with HIV. But we also know that if the system is hypersensitive, you'll have allergies, and if it's turned toward the wrong tissue, you have autoimmunity" -- where the body turns on itself. So efforts to "boost" the system, even through diet, might produce unintended consequences.
Too many organic greens and blueberries and you’ll turn up with Lupus? That’s a really broad conclusion to draw - not to mention, completely counter intuitive.

Huget should have talked to people who actually believe in healthy food and prescribe it for their patients. There is good research showing that eating garlic, turmeric and maitake mushrooms does improve immune system function.

Not that I insist that my patients eat 10 cloves of garlic a day to stay well (although that’d probably do the trick). I think that food for us is a hotbed issue. And the trick is to eat whole foods, healthy foods, while avoiding the foods that suppress the immune system.

Don’t buy into the latest superfood that’s backed by a trade group? I’m not advocating for trendy natural foods eating – far from it. But you should keep in mind that, here in the fine capitalistic America, someone is bound to profit from your purchase. How do you think the whole food pyramid was built? Pretty much by the milk and bread industries.

What is most discouraging to me is that the millions of people who read the Washington Post weren’t encouraged to eat foods that are good for them. They are told to get the shot, wash their hands and hope for the best. The lives and health of Huget’s readers have so much potential to be improved – cavalierly tossed away.

In truth, the best option for readers hoping for an alternative to the flu vaccine, is to seek care from a naturopathic physician, who will likely assess your adrenals, make sure that you don’t have food sensitivities (which can really throw your immune system out of whack) and create a personalized plan to keep you well this flu season and all the seasons to come.

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