We are in the middle of an awful pandemic. Without a vaccine or curative treatment, what can we do, as individuals today, right now, to protect ourselves?

The answer has been right in front of our eyes for thousands of years.

In 400 BCE, Hippocrates, the founder of Western medicine, said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” And in 1826, French author Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote,  “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”

These empowering aphorisms indicate that our eating patterns may have the potential, regardless of our genetics, to greatly influence our health.  Millenia later, they still ring true and they may be even more important now in the time of COVID-19.

How can what we eat have such a great impact?  To answer this question, let’s take a look at how our body defends itself from microbial pathogens.

How the Immune System Works

Our immune system, comprised of an intricate array of specialized white blood cells distributed throughout the body, directly attacks pathogenic microbes and kills infected cells. There are two main components:  the innate and adaptive immune systems.

The innate immune system is teamed with foot soldiers, aptly named natural killer cells, to seek and destroy anything and everything that does not belong.  They act indiscriminately and ruthlessly.  They are our first line of defense and are especially prevalent at potential entry points.  When activated they signal other specialized cells of the adaptive immune system, thereby warning them to prepare as backup in case these killer cells get overwhelmed.

What the adaptive immune system lacks in brute force and bravado, it makes up for in precision and cunning.  Its qualities are a selective, surgical attack on specific invaders and memory.  Yes, the cells of the adaptive immune system “remember” prior infections, so if the same microbe comes knocking again, we are armed and ready.  Together, both the innate and adaptive branches of our immune system help keep us safe.

Without a well-functioning immune system, we’re toast. We are constantly bombarded with invading microorganisms.  Our environment teems with these critters.  They are on everything we touch and eat and in the air we breathe.  Indeed, before the advent of antibiotics, dying from an infectious disease was the leading cause of death.

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How to Strengthen Our Immune System

Fortunately, we can strengthen our immune system with a healthy, plant-based diet. Eating plants — particularly in their natural, unprocessed form — improves immune function in at least two ways.

Number One, what is good for all overall health is also good for our immune system.

A diet rich in whole plant foods, like legumes (beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils), grains, vegetables, leafy greens, fruit, nuts, and seeds is the prescription.  Allow these foods to replace animal products on your plate.  The more you can crowd out food from animal sources, including and especially eggs and dairy, the better your body will be at keeping you healthy or returning you to health.

As an added bonus, especially critical now with this pandemic, the same healthy diet that is best for our immune system is also the one that decreases our risk of developing many of the chronic diseases (such as hypertension, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease) that are strongly associated with mortality for those with COVID-19.

Number Two, a diet rich in plant foods is best for our microbiome, which is connected to our immunity.

Some explanation is in order.

Not all microorganisms are harmful.  In fact, the majority play a vital role in our survival, and we in theirs.  This symbiotic relationship occurs at the junction of our outer and inner worlds.  Our body’s surfaces, which includes not only our skin, but also the surface of our gastrointestinal, respiratory, and genitourinary tracts, are replete with armies of bacteria, fungi, and viruses.  This is our microbiome.  In fact, we are more microbe than human as they outnumber our cells 10:1.

These good guys help us in so many ways; we couldn’t live without them.  That’s why they are called probiotics.  They promote life.  They outcompete the pathogenic microorganisms for food and space and produce a plethora of compounds we need.

For our own health, it is incumbent upon us to feed them well.  The microbiome in our gut thrives on fiber; that is their nectar.  And sadly, in this respect, the standard American diet is terribly deficient.

Most people believe it’s protein we need to worry about, but they would be wrong.  Sure, protein is important, but we get plenty just by eating enough calories.  But we do our gut microbiome a disservice if our diet lacks enough fiber.

And by fiber, we don’t mean the powdered kind you spoon out of a jar, mix with water, and drink.  These microorganisms need a rich and varied natural source of fiber from whole plant foods.  Specifically, fiber feeds health-promoting bacteria which in turn produce short chain fatty acids. These SCFAs, so-called postbiotics, have many vital functions, including and especially promoting a healthy immune system.

Animal foods contain zero fiber.

Most of our microbiome resides in our gut. And, conveniently, most of our immune-system cells also reside there. Our microbiome and our immune system are tightly intertwined.

Healthy behaviors are so very important for all of our bodily systems, each of which is interdependent on the others.  But our militia, our immune system, keeps us safe so all the other bodily systems can function.

And of all of our behaviors, what we do at least thrice daily arguably has the greatest health impact on an hour by hour basis. 

A recent editorial in The British Medical Journal states: “We need diets richer in whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and legumes.”

While it would be unquestionably helpful on a macro level if governmental authorities espoused such views now, we don’t have to wait. Since we already know the science supports the connection that a poor diet leads to chronic diseases which may adversely affect outcomes for people infected with COVID-19, you can choose to eat now as if your life depends on it, because it does.

As implored by Hippocrates, let’s make our food the best medicine and begin the journey toward a plant-based diet.

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