Nutrition, Immunity and COVID-19

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Our immune system protects us from pathogens like viruses, bacteria, cancerous cells, etc. and it can be separated into 2 distinct branches: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. Our innate immune system uses cells such as macrophages, neutrophils and mast cells to mount a fast, generic response to pathogens. Inflammation is the hallmark of the innate immune system. On the other hand, the adaptive immune system uses T cells, B cells and natural killer cells to mount a slow, targeted response to pathogens. It’s the adaptive immune system that’s responsible for life-long immunity to certain diseases. In practice, the 2 branches interact to provide a comprehensive immune response.

In a recent article, Butler and Barrientos (2020) summarised the interactions between diet, immunity and COVID-19. They state that the typical western diet (high in saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and sugars, and low in fibre, unsaturated fats and antioxidants) “significantly impairs adaptive immunity while ramping up innate immunity, leading to chronic inflammation and severely impairing host defence against viral pathogens.

The authors note that “T and B cell counts were also significantly lower in patients with severe COVID-19; thus, there could be a potential interaction between western diet consumption and COVID-19 on adaptive immunity impairment.” They suggest the higher rates of obesity and diabetes among ethnic minority populations may partly account for the health disparities seen in response to COVID-19.

Butler and Barrientos conclude “that individuals refrain from eating foods high in saturated fats and sugar and instead consume high amounts of fibre, whole grains, unsaturated fats, and antioxidants to boost immune function.”