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Eating well to fend off infection

Image Source: Harvard Health | health.harvard.edu

Along with good hand hygiene, rest and stress management to help you stay healthy, nutrition habits can also help protect against common infections and manage an infection so that you can recover more quickly and easily.

As evidence shows, malnutrition or undernutrition is strongly linked to infections worldwide. We may often associate this link with countries living with higher degrees of food insecurity; however, even in Canada, where food supply may appear stable, we are also understanding that people may have deficiencies, especially in fibre, fruits, vegetables and vitamins and minerals, which may result in infection risks being higher.

So, how is this all connected?

The gut microbiome

  • Our digestive tract houses trillions of bacteria, some good, some bad. The balance and quantity of various strains is critical to our immune system protection. This is because the presence of certain foods in our gut, like fibre, can serve as a fuel for the good bacteria, thereby reducing inflammation and ensuring that toxin production by the bad bacteria is kept down. Conversely, eating foods low in fibre or nutrients, or diets that are higher in meat products, can alter the bacterial composition unfavourably by increasing toxin production and inflammation.

  • Additionally, chronic antibiotic use can wipe out most of the good bacteria in our gut, making it all the more evident why overuse of certain foods and medications can lead to detrimental health outcomes. Eating more fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, as well as using live bacterial culture found in probiotic yogurt, kefir, and tempeh, help to revitalize the gut microbiome. You can consult with a registered dietitian for further information about adding beneficial foods to your meals.

Vitamins and Minerals

  • It is a good idea to check your vitamin levels before loading up on high-dose vitamin and mineral supplements. Always check with you family doctor before starting a supplement to make sure it is safe to do so. One vitamin that may be deficient in many of our diets is vitamin D, so most people can consider a vitamin D supplement upon speaking with the their doctor. Vitamin D has been shown to have immunoprotective properties and given most of the Canadian population has lower than normal blood levels of vitamin D, it is an important consideration.
  • Iron deficiency, especially among women of childbearing age, is another important mineral for consideration, as those who are deficient in iron, may be more prone to infections. Again, checking your iron levels and talking to your doctor about the need for an iron supplement is worthwhile. Including iron-rich foods, such as green leafy vegetables, whole grains, fish, and legumes, as well as lean meats and poultry, help all of us meet our iron needs.
  • Although vitamin C has been extensively studied and promoted for infection prevention, the studies are not conclusive that high doses prevent or treat infections. The best recommendation for vitamin C is to try to get it from food over supplements, and include plenty of fruits and vegetables in all colours in your diet. Too much vitamin C can increase the risk of kidney stones in some, and our bodies tend to rid through the kidney much of the megadose taking in a supplement. So ask your health care provider first before taking high dose vitamin C.

By Dani Renouf, Registered Dietitian at St. Paul’s Hospital.

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