Nowadays, there’s no end to the stream of articles touting vegan health benefits, including the ability of a vegan diet to create a better immune system. But are the claims true? Read on to find out more.
What is the Immune System?
The immune system is the body’s defence against harmful pathogens and foreign organisms. Rather than being a single entity, the immune system is comprised of a whole host of cells, tissues, and organs that work independently and collectively to prevent infections and to rid the body of disease. What’s more, the immune system learns as it goes and even has a memory, allowing it to work more effectively the next time a pathogen invades. This is why vaccines are so effective at improving the immune response.
“Boosting” the Immune System.
Go to the supermarket and I guarantee you will find a whole range of products that claim to boost or benefit our immune systems. Many people would have us believe that we need to take supplements or get our colons irrigated to keep us healthy and better able to fight off infection. It’s easy to forget how well our bodies cope by themselves. They manage to keep our lungs breathing, hearts beating, brains thinking, muscles moving, skin feeling, and control millions of chemical processes that keep us alive and healthy.
For most of us, our immune systems are also pretty adept at defending us on their own and are constantly fending off germs. In order to function well, the immune system must work in harmony and requires a balance between all of the interconnected elements and intricacies. Therefore, the idea that we should “boost” our immune systems in some way could, theoretically, throw off the balance and adversely affect our immune responses.
In fact, as Harvard Medical School points out, messing with the balance of your body can have adverse impacts on your health. For example, an overactive immune system can cause it to start attacking the body’s own cells and increase painful inflammation, whereas we all know that an underactive immune system is a bad thing and can lead to frequent infections.
Maintaining the Balance of the Immune System
As mentioned above, a healthy immune system is a balanced one. Therefore, instead of endeavouring to “boost” it, it would be more appropriate to think about maintaining it and supporting the balance. Sufficient sleep, regular exercise, healthy habits, stress management, and eating a balanced diet are all factors that can impact the immune response. Consequently, as long as you lead a healthy lifestyle, you are more than likely doing enough to maintain the health of your immune system.
The Role of the Diet: Which Nutrients Are Important For the Immune System?
Malnutrition is the biggest cause of immunodeficiency worldwide. Deficiencies of nutrients, such as zinc; selenium; iron; vitamins A, C, D, E, and B6; and folic acid can significantly impair the immune response. On the other hand, overnutrition and obesity can also reduce immunity. Consequently, a balanced and healthy diet is integral to maintaining the health of the immune system.
Is a Vegan Diet Better for the Immune System?
To answer this, we must first look at how a vegan diet differs from non-vegans:
What do Vegans Eat?
Vegans do not eat any products that come from animals. In other words, a vegan diet consists of plants (fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds) or food made from plants. Nowadays, there are plenty of plant-based products on the market, many of which are healthy and many that are not.
Are Vegan Diets Healthier?
There is often the perception that the vegan diet lacks nutrients and are subsequently unhealthy, but scientific studies have repeatedly demonstrated that this is not the case, as long as they eat a varied and balanced diet. For those that find themselves lacking certain micronutrients and to increase the levels of vitamin B12 and iodine (which are difficult to come by in a plant-based diet), vegan supplements are available to support nutrition.
Unfortunately, with the rise of commercial veganism, there are now plenty of highly-processed products and junk food on the market, which many vegans use to replace their animal-derived alternatives. Ingredients in these processed foods (e.g. refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, refined oils, etc.) are often detrimental to the strength of the immune system. Therefore, whether or not a vegan diet is healthier than one that includes animal products really depends on the individual.
Read this article for advice on how to swap vegan junk food for healthy AND tasty alternatives
Healthy Vegan Diet Vs. Non-Vegan Diet
Once again, due to the complicated nature of the immune system, it’s difficult to know the exact benefits that can be related to a vegan diet as opposed to an animal-derived one. Different nutrients will have different effects on a variety of cells, tissues, and organs that make up the immune system. The general consensus from the scientific community is that, as long as a person is reaching their recommended daily requirements, then it does not matter whether or not those nutrients are from a vegan or non-vegan diet.
Nevertheless, there is some evidence to suggest that a healthy vegan diet might benefit those wanting to maintain a strong and balanced immune system. For instance, animal-derived foods often contain cholesterol, which has been proven to contribute towards macrophage depletion (integral cells in the immune defence). What’s more, animal-derived products such as red meat and processed meat contain inflammatory molecules and even endotoxins, which can negatively influence immune responses.
Do Vegans Have a Better Immune System?
Considering all the factors that influence it, it would be wrong to say that all vegans have a better immune system. Nevertheless, by transitioning from an unhealthy diet to one that is nutrient-dense, low in cholesterol, and full of fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, there is a much greater probability that the immune system will benefit, promoting its overall health. So make sure you eat all your greens!