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October 27, 2005

To Boost Immune System, Good Diet Beats Supplements

Who'd-a thunk it? Boosting the body's immune system is more a function of a well-balanced diet than taking vitamins and supplements, recent research finds.

Laura Landro's "Informed Patient" column [sub. req'd] in the WSJ points out that "it is the complex interaction of nutrients in food that helps the body build its defenses against disease and infection, in part by controlling some types of inflammation that can weaken the immune system. Single nutrients and cocktails of nutrients consumed alone can't provide the same benefit, they warn, and large does of some supplements such as selenium, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B6 and vitamin E may even harm and suppress the immune response." [emphasis mine]

But wait, there's more:
The best defense against influenza is getting vaccinated as soon as possible -- and the most important way to prevent the spread of colds is frequent hand washing. But experts say that following the most basic tenets of good nutrition -- consuming a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats, and eliminating highly processed and junk foods -- can actually help ward off illness. [emphasis mine]

"There is lot people can do with proper nutrition to improve their chances of warding off the flu or making the disease less pathogenic," or harmful, says Simin Nikbin Meydani, director of the nutritional immunology laboratory at Tufts University's Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.

Exercise and maintaining a normal weight are equally important, Dr. Meydani adds, because obesity can also impair immune function and make people more susceptible to many types of infections. Tufts researchers have shown that moderate caloric restriction in humans appears to be beneficial for immunity.
In a healthy immune system, studies show, after an injury or cut, the body's inflammatory response combats the damage. Poor nutrition can lead to chronic inflammation, thereby weakening the immune system and making the body vulnerable to an array of illnesses, says Mehmet Oz, a professor of cardiac surgery at New York's Columbia University, and co-author of the book, You: The Owner's Manual.

Dr. Oz says a single multivitamin can be beneficial, such as one that contains at least 800 micrograms of folate, 400 IUs of vitamin D, 1,200 milligrams of calcium and 400 milligrams of magnesium. But he says only a healthy diet can provide the inflammation-fighting nutrients that may protect against colds and flu in the short term and potentially fight diseases such as Alzheimer's, cancer and heart disease over time.
Of course, Ms Landro covers the bases by adding that research is ongoing, so we can't yet count out a possible role for high doses of extra vitamins and minerals. And we can't forget that millions of dollars of product sales can be affected by positive or negative research findings -- just recently it was reported that Vitamin E sales nosedived, after news that taking megadoses (400IU/day & up) might actually increase the incidence of heart failure.


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