Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Eat...to boost your immune system

Nothing like getting caught up after a vacation to cut into your blogging time but I am back! Since we are running head first into probably the most interesting cold and flu season we have experienced in recent memory (H1N1 anyone?)I thought it fitting to spend some time talking about how we can boost our immunity with good nutrition.

Now, I don't think anyone can hear this enough...washing your hands constantly and not touching your face is a massive step towards stemming the spread of cold and flu germs but building a healthy strong body through good nutrition can help you fight off whatever little bug may come your way.

Let's take this step by step...and talk first about probiotics. Yogurt has been considered a health food for literally thousands of years. Revered in Indian Ayurvedic medicine as a "food of the gods", the secret to yogurt's success is fermentation by lactic acid forming bacteria. It was Dr Elie Metchnikoff in the early 1900s that popularized the health giving benefits of yogurt in the West, believing that the healthy bacteria in yogurt fought disease causing critters and normalized bowel habits.

Clinical research is mixed on the health benefits of probiotics, which probiotic strains are best and the dosage but probiotics are typically taken to encourage a healthy mix of bacteria in the colon. The link to our immune system is one of a healthy barrier. Believe it or not, our gut (from mouth to you-know-what) is actually the outside of our body...what? Yup, our gut is a first line defense against the outside world much like our skin is. So keeping our gut barrier healthy (and discouraging disease causing bacteria from setting up camp in our colon) theoretically helps to strengthen our immune defenses.

Researchers have learned that our gut health is regulated by the bacteria that live within us. A newer concept in GI medicine is one of gut barrier integrity, or "leaky gut": the idea being that if our gut is unhealthy, the cells which are supposed to be a barrier to the outside world become "leaky", allowing food particles and bugs that have no business getting through the velvet ropes to crash the party. The result is inflammation, infection and potentially food and gut hypersensitivity. It is thought that probiotics may reduce inflammation as a whole by downregulating inflammatory messengers called cytokines and therefore gut sensitivity.

If you want to learn more and like reading original scientific articles (and really, who doesn't), see this great 2009 review article here: http://www.springerlink.com/content/3656030247656066/fulltext.pdf . By the way, I love it when journals offer free access to their publication...so thank you Journal of Gastroenterology :)

To supplement or not? As a dietitian, I am always a food first kind of girl but I have been known to take a probiotic supplement if feeling like I have been "hit with a bug". However, then the question becomes "which brands can I trust?". This is where things get a little tricky. A 2004 study done at UBC looked at 10 common over-the-counter probiotic supplements and not a single one of them met the specifications shown on the label. 50% of them didn't even contain the bacterial strain they claimed on the label. What is frustrating is that the researchers declined to name the brands - which I would really like to know. If a company is saying one thing and selling another, customers should have the right to know! Here is the study URL if you want to check it out for yourself. http://www.cfp.ca/cgi/reprint/50/4/583 . If you do want to take a supplement, make sure you enlist the help of someone knowledgeable who knows the brands.

My personal probiotic prescription for better health? 3/4 cup of plain nonfat organic yogurt daily. Keep it simple (and get a boost of protein and calcium along with your probiotics!). Remember, it was yogurt that has been revered as a health food...not the individual strains it may or may not contain (not yet at least!).

There is a lot of bad yogurt on the shelves - filled with gelatin and other stabilizers, colours, flavours and other gunk that you don't need. Good yogurt should be milk and live active bacterial cultures. Like it a little sweet? Add a bit of honey or maple syrup or better yet, try one of my favourite healthy snacks: take a half cup frozen blueberries, add yogurt and put in your lunch box along with some hemp seed and organic bran. By mid morning, the berries will have thawed and juiced up the yogurt better than any premixed stuff. Mix in the other goodies for some fibre and healthy omega 3 fats!

A bientot,
Desiree
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