Researchers have identified 80-100 different autoimmune diseases and suspect at least 40 additional diseases, including diabetes, of having an autoimmune basis. Research into these diseases also has supplied evidence to link diet with disease incidence or progression. According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Assn. (AARDA), 50 million Americans suffer from some type of autoimmune disease.

Improving immunity is not just preventing and treating colds and flu. The American diet falls short on a number of nutrients, including many vitamins and minerals such as C, D, E, and zinc.

Adding vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, herbals, and other nutrients to the diet also can improve the health status of people suffering from autoimmune disorders. These diseases can be debilitating and include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis, and celiac disease.

There are a number of nutrients which have been shown to support and improve the immune system, such as omega-3 fatty acids, minerals (including zinc, iron and selenium), vitamins A, C, D, and E, and certain amino acids, including glutamine and arginine.

Of the minerals, zinc long has been associated with immune function. The trace mineral is an especially potent immunostimulant, and its deficiency can result in profound suppression of T-cell function. Children with severe zinc deficiencies show signs of growth retardation and susceptibility to infections.

However, an excess of zinc also has shown negative effects on immune function and can inhibit phagocytic cells (i.e., macrophages and neutrophils). Thus, maintaining adequate but not excessive levels of zinc is important. Very good sources of zinc include spinach, asparagus, and shiitake and crimini mushrooms; good sources include quinoa, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, lentils, cashews, and garbanzo beans.

Iron, too, is critical for immunity beyond its work as a carrier of oxygen through the blood. Clinical research studies have shown that iron deficiency results in impaired responses to antibodies and defective phagocytic functioning. Selenium and manganese also are important for supporting healing from inflammation and are thought to function as immunostimulants.

Vitamin D3, rapidly shaping up to be one of the more versatile and therapeutic vitamins known, plays its part in the immunity chain. One recent study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, revealed that children taking daily vitamin D3 supplements (1,200 IU) were 40% less likely to get a common flu virus than kids who took a placebo.

A number of scientists, not least among which includes double-Nobel laureate, Linus Pauling, have contributed much research on the link between high doses of vitamin C and improved immunity and health. While citrus fruits, such as oranges and grapefruits, have a good reputation for being high in vitamin C, other fruits like cherries, strawberries, blueberries, kiwi, cantaloupe, and guava are rich in C. They also are rich in antioxidants, another compound helpful in promoting stronger immunity.

In addition to leafy green vegetable and animal protein sources, spices such as cumin and turmeric provide iron. Selenium, which functions as an antioxidant, as well as a metabolic component, is abundant on whole grains, seeds, and nuts, and also is available from seafood and tofu.

Garlic is a long-standing folk remedy, but compounds in the plant are proving that to have strong scientific support for health. It contains more than 100 sulfur compounds that do everything from helping the body absorb zinc to boosting the number of virus-fighting T-cells to staving off colds and flu. Compromised immune systems especially are vulnerable to such bugs that for the non-immune- compromised are merely inconveniences; for the immune-compromised, they can be particularly threatening.

Research on other compounds has suggested similar proactive immunity actions. For example, the polyphenols called catechins present in green tea, have shown a capability to kill viruses, such as the influenza virus. Certain common vitamins, such as vitamin C, have long demonstrated abilities that go beyond merely staving off the diseases of their deficiency. The mix of preventive and therapeutic aspects of all these nutrients clearly demonstrates their synergy in supporting immune health across the board.

Obesity-Immunity Connection

According to the American Heart Assn., nearly 78 million adults and 13 million children in the US are considered obese. But in addition to excess weight, the surfeit of calories has actually accompanied a decrease in nutrition.

Excess weight puts more stress on the body, in general, and leads to a host of metabolic abnormalities, putting individuals at risk for serious and degenerative diseases.

Most prevalent of these are type 2 diabetes (itself a type of autoimmune disorder), heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, stroke, and other autoimmune disorders.

Consumers dealing with not only obesity, but various other health conditions and disease states, need a sound nutritional strategy to improve their health status.

Such a strategy reads very similarly to the preventative approaches to diet and disease: Consuming a higher level of complete proteins, healthy fats (mono- and polyunsaturated), all essential vitamins and minerals, and protective nutraceuticals, such as antioxidants, fiber (especially prebiotic fiber), and probiotic bacteria.

Since so many incidents of compromised general immunity begin with the status of overweight/obesity, the global efforts to fight the obesity epidemic benefit from considering this relationship.

The current school of thought on weight management is to include protein as part of a healthy diet and not to focus on drastically cutting down caloric intake. High-protein foods require more work to digest and metabolize, leading to increased satiety. (There also is a slight metabolic advantage, in that the body burns more calories processing this nutrient.)

In scientific studies, protein has been shown to be a key contributor to managing weight and appetite. Moreover, protein also promotes muscle synthesis and improves blood glucose control. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends protein levels in the diet can be as high as 35% of total daily caloric intake.

The body’s protein requirements are higher during periods of growth and metabolic stress. Milk and other dairy-based foods and beverages are enjoying increased recognition as sources of ready concentrated protein. The primary proteins in bovine dairy are casein and whey with milk containing 80% as casein and 20% as whey.

Whey protein is one of the richest sources of leucine, an essential branched-chain amino acid that triggers the initiation of muscle protein synthesis. Research has shown that 30g of protein intake increases muscle synthesis by about 50%.

Milk protein concentrate (MPC) is a complete dairy protein that contains both casein and whey proteins and is available in protein concentrations ranging from 40-89%.

MPC is used to fortify nutritional beverages, frozen desserts, and cultured products. It also is used in meal-replacement/-supplement beverages, such as Abbott Laboratories Inc.’s Ensure line and Nestlé Inc.’s BOOST brand of drinks. Both utilize MPC to achieve protein levels ranging from 9-16g of protein per serving and contain 26 essential vitamins and minerals, including those with antioxidant activity (specifically, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and beta-carotene).

Probiotic Strategies

It is now known that between 60-70% of a person’s immune system is located in the gastrointestinal tract, predominantly as a vast network of lymph tissue referred to as gut-associated lymphatic tissue (GALT).

Yogurt and other cultured foods and beverages that contain live probiotic bacteria demonstrated in hundreds of scientific studies an ability to improve and promote overall good health and to improve immune function. In fact, the daily consumption of fermented dairy beverages and yogurts has been cited as the major factor in contributing to the overall health and resistance to disease and dysfunction by regular consumers of probiotic foods.

In the wake of increasing resistance to common antibiotics, certain preliminary research studies even hint that probiotic regimens could, in some cases, actually replace antibiotic treatments. A review recently published in The Lancet: Infectious Diseases calls for a concerted effort to more comprehensively investigate probiotics, among other therapies, as adjuncts and even eventual alternatives to antibiotic therapies.

Probiotics also have been investigated for their ability to help type 1 diabetes. Authors of a study published early this year in the Journal of Diabetes Research concluded, in part, that results of their research on lab animals “provide a link between dietary factors, microbiota composition, intestinal inflammation, and immune homeostasis in autoimmune diabetes and could pave the way for new therapeutic approaches aimed at changing the intestinal micro-environment with probiotics to counter-regulate autoimmunity and prevent type 1 diabetes.”

Gut Feeling

Recent research suggests that certain health conditions, such as obesity and elevated blood glucose levels, can cause a change in the gut microbiota.  Animal models have demonstrated that certain bacterial populations are better represented in lean individuals compared to those who are overweight or metabolically unhealthy. Other studies have shown evidence that antibiotic use in infancy increases body weight gain in later childhood.

While it is true that probiotic bacteria generally are sensitive to the low pH of the stomach, as well as other parameters, such as temperature, some bacterial species are highly resistant to these effects. Organisms that form spores are protected by nature’s own microencapsulation system and can survive both gastric acidity and bile salts. One such probiotic strain is Bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086.

Once in the intestinal tract, the proprietary B. coagulans germinates into viable cells and subsequently proliferates extensively. The organism is now successfully used in more than 100 food and beverage products throughout the world.

Enjoy Life Foods LLC is one of many such companies using the hearty probiotic. Its line of non-GMO products includes baking mixes for brownies, pancakes and waffles, muffins, and pizza crusts that contain the prebiotic fiber inulin and the B. coagulans. In addition, it delivers 5g protein per serving. The probiotic, able to withstand the baking process intact, allows for the delivery of up to 500 million CFU/serving, post-baking.

These baking mixes use easy-to-digest sprouted brown rice protein, teff flour, and flax seed meal. They also contain another protein that’s a relative newcomer to the food industry: algal protein. Algae is a sustainable source of protein as well as healthful oils and starches (see sidebar “Health-boosting Oil”).

“The algal protein we use contains 65% protein, alongside healthy lipids, insoluble fiber, and micronutrients,” says Joel Warady, a company director. “The ingredients impart a neutral taste, texture, and color that allow Enjoy Life Foods’ baking mixes to maintain the traditional flavors and textures consumers desire in baked products.”

Prosperity Organic Foods Inc. recently launched the first line of dairy-free butter substitutes and spreads. Its MELT Organic spread is made with virgin coconut oil, as well as high-oleic sunflower and flaxseed oils. It also contains the heat-stable B. coagulans. Two servings deliver 1 billion CFUs of the probiotic to support healthy digestive and immune systems..” MELT also makes “buttery” sticks, an organic product described as “optimized for baking and cooking.”

“Research among health-conscious shoppers confirms 70% prefer to consume probiotics in food rather than as supplements, and more than 40% show purchase interest in new products supporting immune health in the dairy aisle,” says president and CEO Meg Carlson. She also notes that MELT products are high in omega-3 oils at 425mg/serving.

MELT products have one third less of the saturated fat content and fewer calories than dairy butter. The company also launched Chocolate MELT Organic. It is both dairy- and nut-free, and it has just 1g sugar/serving, compared to other chocolate spreads that have as much as 10g/serving.

Grains and Immunity

Perhaps the most common immune disorder, when it comes to dietary impact, is celiac disease. People with the condition are sensitive to the gluten protein found in the grains wheat, rye, barley, and some of their botanical relatives. (Oats often are forbidden, but reactions to oat products nearly always involve cross-contamination with gluten from other sources. Typically, oat ingredients from dedicated millers will not trigger symptoms.) However, many people without celiac disease can still be sensitive, intolerant, or even allergic to gluten.

Going gluten-free has become a popular treatment recommended by dietitians and other healthcare professionals in the treatment regimen for other auto-immune diseases outside of celiac disease.

While there might not be even anecdotal evidence for specific orders to avoid gluten-containing foods, the attitude is to stress the compromised immune system as little as possible. Whether this is a valid approach or not, it has become a nearly universal paradigm.

The FDA has defined the term “gluten-free” for voluntary use in the labeling of foods. Since August 2014, food products that are manufactured bearing a gluten-free claim on the label must meet the requirement that it contains less than 20ppm of gluten. In many other countries, allowable levels are as low as 10ppm or even 5ppm.

An advantage of the anti-gluten movement has led to increased interest in and consumer attraction to whole grains, alongside a revival of fiber as an important component in foods for overall health This includes support of the immune system. Moreover, prebiotic fibers are especially favored by today’s consumers, specifically for that connection. Prebiotic fibers feed the probiotic bacteria that support immune function.

An example of an “up and coming” prebiotic fiber includes arabinogalactan. Derived from the larch tree (LAG), its unique structure is composed of the sugar molecules arabinose and galactose. It is not hydrolyzed in the stomach nor absorbed in the small intestine but reaches the large intestine intact. There, it acts as a food source for the microflora to ferment, resulting in the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), such as butyrate and propionate. These SCFAs are critical to the health of the colon.

SCFAs protect the intestinal lining against disease and cancer-promoting agents by providing the main energy source for the colonic cells and increasing the stomach’s levels of beneficial bacteria strains such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus.

Arabinogalactan also helps enhance the immune system by activating macrophage and natural killer (NK) cells. By stimulating these two important immune system components, LAG is able to directly affect the body’s ability to target outside invaders, like bacteria and viruses, as well as cancerous or pre-cancerous cells.

LAG is especially useful in boosting NK activity in patients suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, viral hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, and autoimmune diseases. The ZipFizz Corp. developed a fruit punch-flavored powdered drink mix for children and adults called ImmuneFizz. It is an effervescent, sugarless product sweetened with xylitol. It also contains 28 nutrients and vitamins—including LAG.

A natural beta 1,3/1,6 glucan derived from the cell walls of a proprietary strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker’s yeast) is available for inclusion in food and beverage formulations. It has been successfully incorporated into more than 100 products, from beverages and drinkable yogurt, soups, cereal bars and cookies, frozen novelties, and even chocolate and infant formula. It currently is sold in dozens of countries.

Mushroom Power

There are a number of mushrooms that have been used across Asia for centuries to promote health and well-being, especially as pertains to immune function. Recent scientific research has demonstrated that many edible species, such as maitake, lion’s mane, shiitake, chaga, and Royal agaricus, produce medically significant metabolites and exhibit medicinal properties. These compounds show clinical benefits, such as improving liver and cardiovascular functions; helping to maintain a healthy immune system; stabilizing blood pressure; and providing support for healthy blood sugar levels.

In Japan, maitake is known as the “king of mushrooms,” while Lion’s mane mushrooms have long been used in China and Japan to promote immune and digestive health. A staple of Asian diets, shiitake mushrooms have been valued for their health benefits in China since the Ming Dynasty.

Shiitake mushrooms contain essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. In addition to its support of healthy cholesterol profiles, studies demonstrate that shiitake helps maintain a healthy immune system, liver function, and blood pressure. In addition to their popular flavor, shiitake mushrooms are a source of eritadenine, a blood cholesterol-lowering compound that is the subject of a growing amount of scientific research, plus lentinan, a polysaccharide that has anti-cancer properties and has been shown to affect immune defense systems.

Reishi mushrooms also have a long record of medicinal use in China and Japan. Reishi is classified as one of the “supreme herbs” in the 16th century compendium Materia Medica, and is believed to help promote healing and longevity. Recent studies show that reishi could help maintain a healthy immune system, plus benefit nerve, liver, and cardiovascular system functions.

A highly prized mushroom in Russia, chaga mushrooms have demonstrated a variety of beneficial cardiovascular actions and immune-supporting benefits. The latter includes activation of B-cells and macrophages.

Also known as the “sun mushroom,” Royal agaricus grows in mountainous rainforests in Brazil where it is called Cogumelo de Deus—the “mushroom of God.” This is because it has been related to lower incidence of adult diseases in that region. Royal agaricus does indeed have a higher functional polysaccharide content than other mushroom species. Supplements from the mushroom are extremely popular in Japan for immune system enhancement and show promise for healthy blood sugar and blood pressure support.


Originally appeared in the October, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Improving immunity.

Spice It Up

A number of botanicals, including certain herbs and spices, claim immune-enhancing function. One uncommon one and two familiar ones are attracting a sudden increase in notice based on research supporting their value: honeysuckle flower (Lonicera sempervirens), ginger, and turmeric. The honeysuckle family has a long history of medicinal use in the Far East, especially for immunity, but has escaped attention in the West.

Ginger and turmeric, cousins with powerful phytochemical compounds that have been well-studied, are enjoying a strong wave of renewed popularity in foods and beverages. Use of both as medicines has been recorded for 4,000 years. Recent science backs the traditional claims, with evidence that turmeric helps fight inflammation and enhances the workings of the immune system.

Turmeric was a harder sell as a food and beverage ingredient until a combination of a more receptive consumer and improved technology made its use more viable. Temple Turmeric LLC has enjoyed impressive success with its line of dairy-free beverages containing a blend of synergistic organic botanicals, including its exclusive source of non-GMO Hawaiian Oana Turmeric delivered at 13g/12oz bottle.

These drinks utilize cold, high-pressure processing (HPP) technology to preserve the nutritional benefits of their products. The company manufactures elixirs containing exotic taste combinations composed of infused herbals, such as ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and cayenne. There also is a coconut-hemp milk and cold-brewed Turkish coffee with chia seed and turmeric.

Health-boosting Oil

Diets low in omega-3 fatty acids are associated with chronic inflammatory conditions and autoimmune diseases. In order to achieve a more beneficial ratio of omega-3 fatty acids in the body, it is important to decrease the amount of omega-6 fatty acids in the diet, while increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids.

Scientific research has shown that polyunsaturated fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid can stimulate phagocytosis against pathogens, which can strengthen the immune system. The first culinary algae oil recently hit the market. The purified algae oil offers numerous culinary and health benefits, such as a high smoke point of 485°F and a neutral taste. Yet it also is high in monounsaturated fats—in fact, the oil is composed of 90% monounsaturated fat and 4% saturated fat, compared to about 75% monounsaturated and 14% saturated in olive oil.

The new oil is also extremely versatile and can be used as a healthy drop-in replacement for cooking. It is sustainable an environmentally friendly, with the algae itself cultivated from the sap of a German chestnut tree. These algae are naturally white, and the oil has a neutral taste.
Consumers in focus group testing noted that the algae oil imparted a “cleaner” flavor to foods compared with other oils.