Immunity and metabolism. There are few combinations of words that speak so directly to the source of our chronic health problems today. When you look at the top contributors to poor health around the world, issues with immune imbalance is a major driver and issues with immunity and metabolic health may be a significant contributors to dying early and speeding up the aging process itself. Here’s how these two topics converge, and strategies to help target them together.
What are immunity and immune health?
Immunity is really a reflection of our immune system, an incredibly complex web of cells and signals that permeates every inch of our bodies. The immune system is often described as made of two major components. These are known as the innate and adaptive branches of the immune system. In a nutshell, the innate branch of the immune system acts as a first line of defense against microbes and other dangers, and includes a host of white blood cells including macrophages, neutrophils and dendritic cells. The adaptive branch of the immune system is more specialized, and is key to long-lasting immune memory. Notable cells in the adaptive immune system include T cells and B cells (which create antibodies).
Immune health is a bit challenging to pin down, as the terminology can have different meanings in different contexts. Generally speaking, immune health would describe an immune system with the ability to fend off threats like microbes without getting overly worked up and attacking healthy cells or harmless elements from the environment (like pollen).
What are metabolism and metabolic health?
From a scientific lens, metabolism is a process that generates fuel for our bodies, breaks down and builds up the physical and chemical structure of our bodies. Taking this concept into human health, metabolic health is a reflection of how well we are able to create and use energy in our bodies as well as how effectively we’re able to build up and dispose of the building blocks that drive our structure and function.
Metabolism and metabolic health are massive topics, and thousands of scientific papers describe their details at an incredibly nuanced level. But when it comes to what may be most relevant for most people, much conversation has focused on how food is converted into fuel (especially into sugar), and the health of the energy factories in our cells (called mitochondria).
Scientific research suggests that issues with blood sugar levels (especially sustained high blood sugar or fluctuating blood sugar levels) may be a significant contributor to negative health outcomes that range from dying early to risk for brain issues. Similarly, problems with mitochondrial function have been presented as contributors to a wide range of poor health states.
How do immunity and metabolism interconnect?
Like everything else in our bodies, our immune system and our metabolism are connected. But unlike some other systems, these two are deeply intertwined, and the health of one often substantially influences the health of the other. For example, unhealthy metabolism (especially high levels of circulating blood sugar) may contribute to immune imbalance. Similarly, immune imbalance is thought to damage mitochondrial function and contribute to problems with blood sugar regulation.
Conditions linked to both metabolic and immune problems range from mental health issues to cognitive decline to heart problems and more. And unfortunately, many of the contributors to metabolic and immune imbalances (like poor quality diet, sedentary behavior and chronic stress) show no sign of abating. However, this in no way means we are defenseless against these states of poor health.
What can we do that simultaneously improves metabolic and immune wellness?
Issues that involve immunity and metabolism are obviously a major threat to our health and happiness. But the good news is that there are simple things we can all do that simultaneously target better immune and metabolic wellness. Two of the most important of these interventions are changing our diet quality and engaging in daily movement.
Changing Your Diet:
The food we eat has a number of effects on all aspects of our health. Yet the most obvious connection is between our diet and our metabolism. That’s because our food makes up the structure and fuel for our cells. Among the most notable things we can do to improve the metabolic effects of our diet may be to reduce our consumption of added sugars and “simple” carbohydrates (think white bread, cupcakes, cereals, bagels, white rice, cookies and other baked goods). Among these influences, the negative effect of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) has received considerable focus, and cutting back on sugary beverages may be one of the quickest ways to improve diet quality from a metabolic perspective. It’s also notable that higher consumption of SSBs is linked to immune imbalance.
When focusing more specifically on the best diet for immune balance, most research tends to advocate for a whole-food diet rich in plants. One of the best examples of this is the Mediterranean diet, a dietary strategy emphasizing nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish rich in omega-3 fats as well as whole grains (and minimizing added sugar and simple carbohydrates!). Sticking closer to a Mediterranean diet has been linked to improvements in immune balance, and more recently has been linked to benefits in metabolic health as well. Interestingly, som of the reasons for the benefits seen in both immune and metabolic function may relate to the effects of this diet on the gut microbiome.
Getting regular movement in your day
Did you know that about 40% of the American population doesn’t really exercise at all? Though there can be a number of reasons (some of them very good) for why physical activity isn’t a part of everyone’s day, it’s notable that lack of consistent movement is linked to worse metabolic and immune health.
Of course, we don’t all have to become ultra-marathoners to give our immune and metabolic wellness a boost. Some research shows that simply engaging in regular walking may be enough to benefit immune balance, as well as improve metabolic health in people with baseline metabolic dysfunction.
Some strategies worth considering when it comes to sticking to a regular movement routine include looking for exercises you enjoy, finding exercises that you think you can reliably do (e.g., don’t start with a daily 5k if you’re just starting your exercise journey!), and consideration for exercising with a friend or friends. More generally, spending time with other people around who are also committed to improving their health is a great way to help you stay motivated and stay on track!
Looking for a deeper understanding of how plants in our diet influence immunity? Check out the blog below!