For a Well-Functioning Immune System, Eating a Vegan Diet May be the Answer
I have heard the question on social media: Does anyone know someone eating a clean whole food plant diet (healthy vegan) that had a case of COVID19 or died of it? I have personally not seen or heard of such a case, but it would be bold and brash to indicate we know that a diet of all plants is truly protective.
It is an interesting question to be addressed as more data becomes available. There is quite a bit of data on the overall topic of diet and immune health, but what about plant diets?
What Do We Know About Plant Diets and Immune Function?
There are few studies to answer the question of immune function and plant diets. It would seem intuitive that any diet that reduces or eliminates added processed foods, excess salt and sugar, industrial seed oils, antibiotic and hormone residues, and excess saturated fats would offer an advantage in terms of immune health. Here are a few scientific tidbits.
1) Follow the Anti-Inflammatory Cells. Researchers in Italy studied fecal samples of 155 healthy volunteers divided by diet into omnivore, vegetarian and vegan. The stool samples were analyzed for their anti-inflammatory capacity in a model of mouse cells and no significant differences were reported.
2) Plant-Based Diet Wins. An international team of scientists studied the impact of 3 months of a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet on immune health in volunteers that were omnivores. The diet change did result in changes in the diversity of the bacteria in stool samples including the appearance of bacteria producing IgA, an immunoglobulin felt to protect the GI system. The balance of pro vs anti-inflammatory factors measured favored the plant-strong diet.
3) White Blood Cells Count. Australian researchers performed a review of the literature regarding vegetarian diets and inflammatory and immune health. The reported that inflammation markers like CRP were lower in vegetarian-based dietary patterns along with white blood counts and fibrinogen levels (an inflammatory and clotting marker). They called for more studies to further evaluate these findings.
Micronutrients and Immune Function
Beyond food patterns, science also exists as to the role of specific micronutrients and well-functioning immune systems. A new review article on the topic detailed the role of some of these nutrients and the specific pathways of immune defense they participate in, particularly in regards to defending against viral illnesses.
The nutrients that were highlighted were adequate levels of vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D E, and folate, along with the trace elements of zinc, iron, selenium magnesium, and copper. Finally, omega-3 fatty acids (like EPA and DHA) were analyzed. Inadequate intake of these nutrients are widespread and can lead to a decrease in resistance to infections. The authors concluded that supplementation with these nutrients, along with omega-3 fatty acids, was safe, effective and a low-cost strategy to help support optimal immune function. Recommendations for specific doses and types of supplements were included in the article.
What Do I Do?
I have eaten a whole food plant diet for over 40 years. Although my plate is covered with fresh (often organic) rainbow covered plants, some cooked and some raw, I have upped my game even further.
I have begun sprouting at home and eat fresh sprouts every day. I have added more colors with purple cabbage, red bell peppers, and daily servings of garlic and onions. Mushrooms of every type are part of the menu.
I have increased the heaping tablespoons of ground flax and hemp hearts. In addition, I take a daily multivitamin developed for vegans that contains: Algae omega-3, zinc, iodine, B12, vitamin D3, selenium, and magnesium.
I add to this supplemental vitamin C. I also re-mineralize my home water (filtered by reverse osmosis) to return to the water a broad range of trace minerals.
What do you do? That's up to you.
Dr. Joel Kahn is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine, and author of the bestsellers: The Whole Heart Solution, Dead Execs Don't Get Bonuses, Vegan Sex: Vegans Do It Better, The Plant-Based Solution and owner of GreenSpace & Go.