Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Infections And Immunity

We share the world we live in with teeming billions of bacteria and viruses. Many have no impact on the human species, some cause minor discomfort, while others cause life-threatening disease. There are even a few which are essential to our healthy survival.

The reason that Homo Sapiens has survived as a species is the body’s extraordinary ability to defend itself from attack by all those dangerous organisms. Our natural defence system is a delicate mechanism that needs careful nurturing and when we ignore its needs and live a lifestyle which depletes its vigour we can expect to reap a bitter harvest of ill health, disability and even death.

Nurturing, maintaining and boosting the immune system starts and finishes in the home.

Kitchen medicine
In essence, the immune system depends on specific nutrients and an adequate supply of these depends on a balanced and varied diet. There are, however, two vitally important minerals which are little understood by the general public. These are not always easily obtainable from everyday food. They are zinc and selenium. Guarantee a surplus intake of both by eating a handful of pumpkin seeds every day for zinc and five Brazil nuts daily for selenium.

Building a sound immune system starts three months before conception. Healthy eating by both prospective parents, avoidance of alcohol, large amounts of caffeine, nicotine, all illicit drugs and, as far as possible, prescribed ones too, is a vital part of pre-conceptual planning.

The nine months of pregnancy must be a period of optimum nutrition, with an abundance of essential nutrients. That means: a minimum of five portions a day of a wide selection of fruits and vegetables, lots of complex carbohydrates like wholemeal bread, brown rice, pasta, oats, all the other cereals and beans, sensible intake of low-fat dairy products, half a dozen eggs a week, at least four portions of oily fish each week and plenty of other fish, poultry and modest amounts of red meat.

As far as possible, your food at this time should be organic to avoid the damaging effects of insecticides and pesticides, which are extremely hazardous to the immune systems of mother and baby.

The same injunctions are just as relevant when breastfeeding. During weaning you should only resort to canned and bottled baby foods as an emergency and even then you should choose organic varieties, which are now widely available in supermarkets and very competitively priced.

In every adult’s life there are periods of greater risk:
the teens, when youngsters want to live on burgers and chips;
the student years when cash for books seems more important than good food;
the pressures and stresses of building a career, when there’s never enough time the shop and cook; and finally
the retirement years, when one partner may be left alone and lose interest in food.

Good nutrition is important throughout life, but at these vulnerable times it’s vital if you want to avoid every bacteria or virus that’s doing the rounds as well as more serious infections.

Keeping active plays a key role in the maintenance of natural immunity. The activity hormones produced during physical exercise boost the immune system to an extraordinary extent - athletes and regular exercisers always have a higher count of the T-helper cells, essential components of the body’s natural defence mechanisms.

I am most concerned at how little exercise our school children take these days. It’s bad enough that organised sports at school are in great decline, but worse still is the fact that so many children spent so much of their leisure time sitting in front of a television or computer screen. It could well be that this is the reason behind the ever increasing amount of infectious illness, allergies and asthma in the young.

Preventative measures
All the nutritional guidelines above are part of the prevention of a compromised immune system. In addition, a high intake of foods rich in vitamin C and beta-carotene must be part of that balanced diet. The triumvirate of vitamins A, C and the all-important E provides an enormously powerful and protective anti-oxidant force that defends the body’s cells against attacks by bacteria, viruses and free radicals, the destructive by-products of chemical reactions taking place constantly in the body.

One of the great immune boosters is the high natural bacteria content of live yoghurt. Man has used these beneficial cultures, albeit unknowingly, since the beginning of time, but it wasn’t until almost a hundred years ago that the great Russian scientist Metchnikoff suggested that the extraordinary longevity of the Bulgarians was due to their high consumption of live yoghurt.

We now know that these beneficial bacteria, Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus and the Bifidobacteria, together with the newly developed fermented milk bacteria, Lactobacillus casei Shirota (in Yakult), play a dual role in promoting good health. Not only do they colonise the gut and control the growth of harmful bacteria, but the enzymes they produce are absorbed directly through the gut wall and strengthen the immune system. To keep yours up to the mark, have a portion of live yoghurt or fermented milk every day.

It’s impossible to discuss immunity without considering the problems of stress and many studies have shown that stress reduces the number of white cells in the blood, the body’s army which circulates in the blood attacking and destroying invading bacteria and viruses. Learning some method of stress control is yet one more piece in the jigsaw of building a strong immune system. Yoga, meditation or any other relaxation technique is a must if we are to survive in the modern stressful world.

To protect yourself from infection and to maintain a really strong and active natural defence mechanism, you not only need to eat well, your life must have a reasonable balance of work, rest and relaxation.


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