In order for the body to fight off bacteria, viruses, and infections, the immune system needs to function like a well-oiled machine. If you fail to take the necessary steps to optimize immune function, you increase your risk of contracting countless viruses or developing infections. Getting enough rest, reducing stress levels, drinking elderberry tea, and exercising can benefit the immune system, but so can eating enough of fatty acids.
There are two categories of immune cells: cells of the innate and cells of the adaptive immune system. The cells from the innate immune system (basophils, macrophages, neutrophils, and natural killer cells) are the first line of defense for your cells. These innate immune cells act quickly, whereas cells from the adaptive immune system have delayed activation. The reason for this is because they have a higher level of specificity, i.e. they assess the situation and pinpoint what they need to defend, for example, a foreign pathogen. Both innate and adaptive immune cells coordinate and work to keep the body safe, but they need dietary assistance for optimal function. This is where fatty acids come into play.
The Role Of Fatty Acids In The Immune System
Various micronutrients like vitamin D, and macronutrients like fatty acids impact the immune system. In fact, scientists have examined the interaction with polyunsaturated fatty acids and immune cells for decades, with a specific interest in omega-3 fatty acids. As it turns out, there are nutrient-sensing receptors in cells in the immune system. They contain free fatty acid receptors (FFARs), protein-coupled receptors, and metabolite sensing receptors. While researching fatty acid receptors in the immune system, scientists found that omega-3 fatty acids signaled FFARs. In doing so, omega-3s helped control inflammatory responses and regulate the immune and metabolic systems.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have an important role in immune-regulatory functions. They respond to FFARs and they help to increase the number of T-cells, which are white blood cells that help to fight off pathogens. One study examined subjects who regularly consumed omega-3 fatty acids from plant-based sources. The results indicated that omega-3s stimulated T-cell proliferation. If T-cells cannot function properly, they cannot properly scan for cellular abnormalities. T-cells also help to activate other immune cells, protect the body against autoimmune diseases, eliminate cancerous cells, and kill bacteria-infected cells.
How Fatty Acids Reduce Inflammation
One of the primary benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is that they help to reduce inflammation or inflammatory-related disorders. For certain inflammatory disorders, omega-3s help to modulate macrophages (cells from the innate immune system). This helps to increase the secretion of cytokines and chemokines, which help to regulate inflammatory disorders. Omega-3s exhibit anti-inflammatory properties on macrophages, benefitting the body in two ways. If you have an inflammatory condition, omega-3s can increase the secretion of cytokines, which control the growth and activity of other immune and blood cells that control inflammatory responses. Additionally, omega-3s can decrease cytokine production if macrophages are infected or inflamed.
How To Add Healthy Fats To Your Diet
There are many ways to increase your omega-3 intake. Some people choose to use supplements, but many plant-based foods contain beneficial fatty acids, including linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linoleic acid (omega-3). Most people eat too many omega-6 fatty acids, which can increase inflammation, so it’s more beneficial to focus on increasing omega-3 intake to boost T-cell capability. Plant-based foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Flax Seeds: flax seeds contain 3,600 mg of omega-3s in just two tablespoons.
- Hemp Seeds: roughly 80% of hemp seeds are comprised of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, so you get a ton of omegas in a small amount of hemp seeds.
- Beans: all beans, especially mung beans, have 15 times more omega-3s than they do omega-6s. If you need to increase your omega-3 intake, add more beans to your diet.
- Seaweed: seaweed, like wakame, is an excellent source of omega-3s, containing 52 mg in just one ounce. Not to mention, seaweed is also an excellent source of iodine.
- Chia Seeds: these seeds may be small, but they sure are mighty. One tablespoon of chia seeds delivers 2,282 mg of omega-3s and 752 mg of omega-6s.
- Cabbage: this cruciferous vegetable packs 208 mg of omega-3s and 62 mg of omega-6s in just one cup.
- Winter Squash: from butternut and kabocha to acorn and pumpkin, winter squash are excellent sources of both omega-3 fatty acids and beta-carotene.