Several biological components and foodstuffs can boost immunity. This is such an important issue now that SA is facing the onslaught of HIV/Aids, rampant tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, that any products or foods that can boost immunity are a welcome addition to our arsenal of defence.
Biological compounds that boost immunity
Pre- and probiotics are powerful immunity boosters. Let's have a look at these two concepts to see what they mean.
Probiotics are cultures of the beneficial bacteria that occur in the intestinal tract of healthy human beings. These bacteria include Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum and infantis. Although these names may sound daunting, all you need to remember is that we humans have thousands of these beneficial bacteria in our gastrointestinal tracts.
Prebiotics on the other hand, are food components that improve the food supply in the gastrointestinal tract so that the beneficial bacteria can grow and flourish.
Bifidobacteria in babies
Immediately after birth the intestines of human babies are totally sterile and do not contain any bacteria, not even 'good' ones. During the natural birth process, the infant receives some beneficial bacteria from the mother. This 'gift' of organisms immediately starts to multiply in the tiny GI tract of the baby and boosts its immunity. Bifidobacteria infantis are the dominant bacteria in the infant digestive tract.
These bacteria decrease the growth of so-called Rota-viruses which cause diarrhoea and thrush, thus protecting the newborn baby against common infections. The Bifidobacteria also help to prevent lactose intolerance and increase the absorption of minerals and B vitamins, and boost the infant's immature immune system.
Breastfeeding is an excellent way of increasing the number of Bifidobacteria in the infant's GI tract, so that your child is protected against childhood diseases.
Beneficial bacteria in adults
Adults have much larger populations of bacteria in their gastrointestinal tracts than babies, but only a few of these bacteria, such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria are beneficial to our health and are capable of boosting immunity.
Factors that lower immunity
The following factors lower our immunity:
- use of antibiotics
- deficient diets
- environmental pollution
- a weak immune system caused by infections such as HIV/Aids, TB and cancer
All these factors decrease our natural immunity and make us vulnerable to pathogens which cause disease. In addition there are many harmful bacteria and viruses that are becoming resistant to antibiotics which makes treatment of common infections increasingly difficult.
How do probiotics work?
Probiotics or cultures of beneficial bacteria compete with harmful bacteria in the GI tract for food and prevent the transport of pathogens into the body. As we get older, we develop a deficiency of beneficial bacteria and therefore become more vulnerable to infections. Probiotics also increase the uptake of important minerals from the GI tract thus preventing deficiencies which lower immunity.
By ingesting cultures of beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium we can gain all the benefits listed above. It is important to remember that Bifidobacteria are the most common beneficial bacteria in the GI tract and also the good bacteria that decrease as we age. It is therefore, necessary to take preparations that contain both Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. The bacteria in such cultures must also still be alive. It's no use eating foods that claim to contain Lactobacilli like certain yoghurts where the bacteria have been killed by pasteurisation or other heat treatments.
Probiotic cultures of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria are currently available on the SA market. Ask your chemist or health shop for the following:
- Lactiflora or Acidoforte which contain Lactobacilli and are excellent for combatting Candida infections
- Bifidoflora or Bifidoforte which contain Bifidobacteria and will combat constipation and other colon problems
- Intestiflora or Intestiforte which contain a combination of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria to boost immunity in general
Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.