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Effects of Junk Food on Immunity

by Scientific Editorial Board on November 24, 2020

The immune system reacts similarly to a high fat and high calorie diet as to a bacterial infection. Unhealthy food seems to make the body's defenses more aggressive in the long term. Even long after switching to a healthy diet, inflammation towards innate immune stimulation is more pronounced. These changes may be involved in the development of arteriosclerosis and diabetes.

 

The Role of Nutrition in Immune Function

Adequate and appropriate nutrition is required for all cells to function optimally and this includes the cells in the immune system. An “activated” immune system further increases the demand for energy during periods of infection, with greater basal energy expenditure during fever for example. 

Thus, optimal nutrition for the best immunological outcomes would be nutrition, which supports the functions of immune cells allowing them to initiate effective responses against pathogens but also to resolve the response rapidly when necessary and to avoid any underlying chronic inflammation. The immune system’s demands for energy and nutrients can be met from exogenous sources i.e., the diet, or if dietary sources are inadequate, from endogenous sources such as body stores. Some micronutrients and dietary components have very specific roles in the development and maintenance of an effective immune system throughout the life course or in reducing chronic inflammation. For example, the amino acid arginine is essential for the generation of nitric oxide by macrophages, and the micronutrients vitamin A and zinc regulate cell division and so are essential for a successful proliferative response within the immune system

 

Dangerous Junk Food

While numerous changes in human lifestyle constitute modern life, our diet has been gaining attention as a potential contributor to the increase in immune-mediated diseases. The Western diet is characterized by an over consumption and reduced variety of refined sugars, salt, and saturated fat. 

The manuscript reviews the impacts and mechanisms of harm for our overindulgence in sugar, salt, and fat, as well as the data outlining the impacts of artificial sweeteners, gluten, and genetically modified foods; attention is given to revealing where the literature on the immune impacts of macronutrients is limited to either animal or in vitro models versus where human trials exist. 

Detailed attention is given to the dietary impact on the gut microbiome and the mechanisms by which our poor dietary choices are encoded into our gut, our genes, and are passed to our offspring. While today's modern diet may provide beneficial protection from micro- and macronutrient deficiencies, our over abundance of calories and the macronutrients that compose our diet may all lead to increased inflammation, reduced control of infection, increased rates of cancer, and increased risk for allergic and auto-inflammatory disease.

  

Junk Food acts as Inflammation

The researchers noted that the body responds aggressively to bacterial infections and acts in a similar manner with fast food consumption. The defenses become more aggressive with time when a person takes fast food. This is a form of inflammation where the immune system is always on overdrive. The problem remains even after the body has switched over to healthier diets, the researchers find. This stimulation of the immune system and inflammatory reactions has been linked to several diseases such as arteriosclerosis and diabetes.

 

Junk Food affects Immune System Memory

A team of researchers placed some lab mice on a “western diet” or a diet of fast food with excess fat, sugar and salt and low amounts of fiber. They noted that the mice showed increasing inflammatory reactions within their bodies. The inflammation was similar to a response to a bacterial infection. Anette Christ, postdoctoral fellow in the Institute of Innate Immunity of the University of Bonn said that the “unhealthy diet” was responsible for producing certain immune cells in the mice’ blood.

These cells included granulocytes and monocytes. The bone marrows of the mice that produced the immune cells seemed to have been stimulated by the diet. The team analyzed the changes in the bone marrow of the mice of healthy diet and those on the western diet. The functions of the bone marrow as well as their activation states were noted. 

Prof. Dr. Joachim Schultze from the Life & Medical Sciences Institute (LIMES) at the University of Bonn and the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) explained that the bone marrows were subjected to genomic tests to look at the genes that had been activated by the inflammatory status. He added that the results indeed revealed that the genes of the bone marrow had been altered to produce more immune cells. He said that the fast food actually stimulates the early and rapid maturation of the immune cells. Thus an army of white blood cells are created within a short period of time within the body in response to fast foods.

The researchers then withdrew the unhealthy diet in the mice and gave them a normal healthy cereal diet. The blood levels of the immune cells reduced and became normalized. What did not change was the genetic reprogramming of the bone marrow that the initial inflammation had already caused. Four weeks of healthy diet failed to change the alertness of the immune system or the overdrive on inflammation they concluded. 

Prof. Dr. Eicke Latz, Director of the Institute for Innate Immunity of the University of Bonn and scientist at the DZNE called this an immune system “memory”. Experts tem this “innate immune training” where the body is alert for new infections or attacks. In this case the process was not stimulated by a bacterial infection but an unhealthy diet.

As a next step the scientists checked on humans from the blood cells of 120 participants. They noted that some of these persons were genetically programmed to have the immune system memory that could be triggered with an unhealthy diet. The actual molecular mechanisms are being explored. What is clear is that this state of inflammation overdrive can lead to health problems such as diabetes and atherosclerosis leading to heart attacks and strokes.

 

Final Tips

Eating or drinking too much sugar curbs immune system cells that attack bacteria. This effect lasts for at least a few hours after downing a couple of sugary drinks.

Eat more fruits and vegetables, which are rich in nutrients like vitamins C and E, plus beta-carotene and zinc. Go for a wide variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, including berries, citrus fruits, kiwi, apples, red grapes, kale, onions, spinach, sweet potatoes, and carrots.

Other foods particularly good for your immune system include fresh garlic, which may help fight viruses and bacteria, and old-fashioned chicken soup. Some mushroom varieties -- such as shiitake -- may also help your immune system.

 

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