When our immune system is activated, we experience “symptoms”. For example, when we sprain or strain an ankle, we feel and see the immune response in the discomfort, redness, and swelling. This is due to the way our immune system is mobilised to deal with the pathogen or injury. There are other types of immune responses that are natural that are more subtle in symptomology, involved in the daily functioning of our body. These immune responses are necessary and natural.
The problem is when we start to experience immune response symptoms, to varying degrees, all the time. That this is an increasing issue in our society is quite scary, especially when you look at the stats. We are already seeing the negative effects on our healthcare system. So, what if you could support your body’s natural immune responses simply by the food you put in it? We’ve looked into it here…
First, let’s expand on what an immune response is:
Immune responses are part of the natural healing process – when you tear a muscle or catch a cold, your immune system kicks into gear, sending your white blood cells to fight off infection, bacteria, and viruses. A chronically activated immune response, on the other hand, is now thought to be the single, biggest contributor to degenerative conditions. This can occur anywhere in the body and is not just isolated to joints and muscles. Additionally, when our weight and adipose body mass is not well managed, we can experience this continuous immune activation, and this is now thought of as the root cause of issues with metabolism, blood flow, and the health of our arterial walls and heart. We do not have to be technically “overweight” to experience this; Many people who look slim may have too much in the way of adipose tissue around their organs and this is just as problematic.
In recent years it has been found that some foods can trigger the type of immune response where the immune system starts attacking healthy tissue. Other early symptoms can include digestive dysfunction, joint and muscle tension, extreme and consistent levels of tiredness, head tension, metabolic issues, and sinus and respiratory problems.
It is important to note that all immune response issues should be properly diagnosed by your professional healthcare team, to rule out anything serious.
So, can following a particular diet support a healthy immune response?
The short answer? Yes… though we prefer to think of it as a guideline rather than a strict diet. The reality is that some foods can trigger an immune response due to their effect on the gut and immune system, while others can create toxic metabolites in the body. We are all familiar with the more extreme problems some people can have with the proteins in foods like peanuts, egg whites, wheat, fish, and dairy, but there are many foods that may trigger non-life-threatening symptoms in people; foods that may come as a surprise to most of us.
What is the dietary “guideline”?
Keeping your blood pH balanced through eating a whole food, animal-based diet can help. While “plant-based” and “clean eating” are the new catch phrases, there really is no scientific evidence to suggest that a plant-based or vegan diet can prevent inflammation or chronic disease. “Clean eating” is touted as eating lots of “clean” plant foods, but it really should be about eating the diet that provides you with the right nutrients as a Homo sapien and the appropriate energy for your lifestyle.
Plants make secondary metabolites, like lectins, oxalates, phytates, saponins, and tannins, that are designed to protect the plants from being infected or eaten and many of these are toxic to humans, either straight away, as in the case of cicutoxin in water hemlock, or over a longer period, as with gluten for coeliacs. Some plant forms of nutrients, for example require conversion to useable forms in the body, which is poor to non-existent in some people, and the nutrients that are in plant foods are much harder to extract in our digestive tracts.
But you do not have to be a coeliac to experience an unhealthy immune response from eating plant metabolites. For example, too much fibre has been shown to exacerbate pouches in the colon, oxalic acid can settle in joint tissue causing a consistent immune response, and many whole grains, beans, and vegetables contain lectins, which can be immediately toxic, as in the case of kidney beans, but have also been linked to neurological problems. Unsurprisingly, many people with all manner of serious immune response issues find relief by removing all plant foods until they feel better.
On the other hand, some secondary metabolites in plants can help medicinally, as antioxidants, antimicrobials, and carminatives, among many others. Adding foods like berries and fermented veggies, or using culinary herbs, MAY help but there is no scientific evidence to suggest that more = better. Perhaps a little goes a long way.
A caveat: this is not to invalidate the use of remedial herbs in traditional practices, which are usually individualised, support specific tissue/s, and have helped millions of people over the ages.
Sometimes it is less about what you ARE eating than what you are NOT!
Foods to avoid/limit:
- Junk and ultra-processed “food”
- Seed/vegetable oils (highly triggering – these should always be avoided due to their toxic metabolites and industrial processing. Even cold pressed oils should be limited)
- Take away foods – mostly fried in seed oils and contain trans fats
- Artificial sweeteners
- Refined flours and sugars
- Fake and heavily processed meats (traditional salamis, bacons, etc, are ok for a healthy person)
- Non-traditionally prepared (detoxified) whole grains, seeds, nuts, and beans
- Cereals, crackers, pastas, mass-produced breads, cakes, pastries, crisps, sweets, etc
- Industrially processed dairy products
- Any vegetables or fruit that you cannot tolerate (or dislike)
Foods to prioritise:
Overall, animal foods are full of bioavailable nutrients with many either limited in or absent from plants. Organ meats like liver, kidneys, and heart, and shellfish (organs of the sea) are so rich in bioavailable nutrients that they probably should be considered the only true superfoods, with eggs not far behind. Even a steak contains more assimilable nutrition than kale or broccoli. Much of what we’re told about the “dangers” of traditional foods like red meat and animal fats doesn’t hold up to close scientific scrutiny. Even traditional or raw dairy products have been shown to calm down an overactive immune response, whereas modern, processed dairy will do the opposite.
A comparison of cultures:
While there are few traditional cultures left, they are known to have very little in the way of unhealthy immune responses. Those who are still on their hunter/gatherer diets rarely see anything like the issues we face as westerners. These cultures prioritise animal foods, including organs, sea foods, and raw dairy products, with a few, select, detoxified plant foods, and all of them eat what we would call a whole food diet, devoid of ultra-processed foods. To most traditional societies, plants are “fall-back” foods unless they serve an actual nutritional purpose.
On the flip side, in countries where processed foods are plentiful and diets consist of high amounts of refined foods, grains, sugar, ultra-processed dairy, and seed/vegetable oils, and junk/treat “foods”, heightened and consistent immune response issues are very common. China and other countries in Asia have traditionally seen very low rates, as they add in increasing amounts of junk foods and vegetable oils like soybean oil, this has changed, dramatically. Could it be that the foods of modern civilisation are partly to blame? Weston A. Price came to that conclusion and the foundation devoted to analysing and disseminating his 10 years of global research is a great source of dietary information.
Anything else that can help?
In addition to diet, there are lifestyle factors that support a healthy immune response. Things like getting as much natural light as possible, getting as little artificial light as possible, sleeping well, coping well with stress, being in nature, grounding, using cold/heat/infrared therapies, incorporating appropriate movement and exercise into your days, and having a close connection with family/community can all contribute to a long and healthy life. They are all things that healthy, traditional cultures practice on a daily basis.
Nobody wants to have a body where the immune response is always “on”. The good news is that there are many practices you can try which can support your body to find balance. The key is to find what works for you but also to follow what works for you as a human being.