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A Functional Medicine Expert Explains How To Feed Your Immune System

Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
Father of Functional Medicine By Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
Father of Functional Medicine
Jeff Bland, Ph.D., is the founder of Big Bold Health, a company on a mission to transform the way people think about one of nature’s greatest innovations — the immune system. Jeff is a biochemist by training, and a lifelong educator in practice. He is widely regarded as the father of functional medicine, and served in founding roles at both the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute. Jeff is the author of The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, and Happier Life.
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You've likely heard the adage "Feed a cold, starve a fever." Now, why would that work? Why would different maladies ask for different approaches to diet? That's easier to answer once you understand the connection between your body's metabolism and immunity.

Put those two together to make a big word—immunometabolism—and you've landed on a revolutionary concept working its way through the scientific literature. The idea here is basic but powerful: Different parts of your immune system want different diets. And if you feed them appropriately, you can nurture better health.

How does immunometabolism work, exactly?

Immunometabolism is one facet of the larger story unfolding around immunity. I've previously written about how immunity is everything, and so much more than a seasonal concern around cold and flu. The new thinking around immunity is about rejuvenation, balance, and resilience. It's not about a quick boost.

Metabolism is the way we process fuel and produce energy, and it's connected to immunity. Science is showing us that different immune cells ask for different nutrients.

Some cells activate at the sign of danger—whether from a sprained ankle or a deadly virus—and prefer sugar as a fast fuel. This conversion of glucose into fuel is a process called glycolysis. It's essential in the moment, but it's not well-suited to your longer-term goal of balance. When this pathway is activated by the wrong immune cells for too long a time, this can mean inflammation and can lead to a host of problems in your body down the line.

To calm things down, think about fats. Fatty acid oxidation provides fuel to immune cells designed to calm down your immune response and dampen inflammation. You can see where this is headed.

Since immunometabolism tells us different immune cells prefer different nutrients for fuel, which means your diet, through metabolism, can affect your immune response. At Big Bold Health, I'm working with a cod liver oil that maintains its natural stores of vitamin A, vitamin D, and pro-resolving mediators (PRMs) for this very reason.

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How to feed your immune system effectively.

If some of your immune cells prefer fat and others sugar, then diet matters. The food you eat plays a meaningful role in your immune system's ability to fight off infection and clear your cells of age-related debris.

This is the real promise of personalization nutrition. I believe that one day soon, we will be able to tailor a person's diet to modulate the signals of an immune system in disarray, as measured by simple metabolic markers we already use around blood pressure and blood sugar.

In fact, I think we're already getting there. The conversion of nutrients into energy for your immune cells happens in the mitochondria, and yet again, different nutrients influence a different response. If you feed your mitochondria the right phytonutrients, you can help to rebalance your immunity.

Look for key flavonoids, like rutin, quercetin, diosmin, luteolin, and hesperidin to play an important role here. A balance between pro- and antioxidants is also key, which brings nutrients like curcumin, vitamin E, and Ginkgo biloba to the table, too.

Bottom line.

So, feed a cold, starve a fever? Immunometabolism tells us why this logic took hold. A suppressed immune system needs fuel to activate—feed a cold. An activated immune system produces heat as it digests food and assimilates its nutrients. Interrupt that cycle, and you bring down the heat. This is immunometabolism in action, whether our grandmothers knew it or not.

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