Science of Food: How to build an unstoppable immune system

Lisa Julian
Science of Food
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If you go

What: “Facts about Fats,” a workshop that provides perspective on the metabolism of common dietary fats that either promote or prevent chronic disease

When: 2:30-4 p.m. Saturday, July 11

Where: Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health, 310 E. Main St., Frisco

Cost: $20, advanced registration required

More information: Visit

We all have an immune system, a collection of biological processes in the body that protects us and fights against various diseases. It steps up when bad bacteria, viruses or other pathogens try to invade the body or when we get a cut or burn to heal the physical wound. It also defends against cancer.

From the molecular perspective, these “biological processes” are just a bunch of proteins talking to each other and orchestrating the molecular army to be deployed at precisely the right time and place. This army contains defense cells such as neutrophils, a type of white blood cell and the main component of pus during acute infection. On the inside, these neutrophils protect us by literally swallowing up harmful bacteria, like our own personal antibiotic. Our internal molecular army also contains T cells that have the ability to recognize and kill specific cells that are infected with viruses or that are cancerous.

Another important aspect of immunity involves antibodies, various Y-shaped immune proteins that recognize foreign pathogens. We also have DNA repair proteins that fix mutations that result from free-radical damage, preventing mutated cells from replicating in the body. Any damaged cells that do survive experience another checkpoint with the “apoptosis” army of proteins. Apoptosis is another word for cell suicide, the body’s natural mechanism for eliminating cancer cells. And, the list goes on.

So you see, our bodies are so intelligent, they already come equipped with powerful disease-killing abilities, and the food we eat can either nourish these processes, or it can destroy them.


The immune system is intimately linked with our inflammatory system. We can understand acute inflammation easily, as we can see visually with the eye redness, swelling, pus, etc.; but, what about chronic inflammation? More recently, science has connected the cause of many diseases such as cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, colitis, metabolic disorders (obesity and type II diabetes) — even cancer with chronic inflammation inside the body.

In our Western culture, the primary causes of chronic inflammation are chronic stress relating to lifestyle and a diet consisting of mostly processed foods, high gluten, high sugar and an overall imbalance in fats, sugars and protein. The gut microbiome is also involved in proper immune function and becomes damaged on a Western diet. If the body exists in a chronically-inflamed state, it’s working very hard to achieve a more balanced equilibrium, and, ultimately, this weakens the immune system.

Fortunately, there are a few simple things we can do to build and support a stronger immune system. Key to this approach is to first reduce inflammation inside the body. Gluten can act as an inflammatory agent for many people (including non-Celiacs), so I recommend a low-gluten diet (Keep some in your diet, so as not to create a sensitivity later in life).

More important, however, are the types of fats and oils we consume in our daily diets. Certain fats drive inflammation, which relates to the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids turn on inflammation and omega-3s turn off inflammation. And historically, humans ate a diet with a 1:1 ratio of omega-6:omega-3 (A + B→C) in balanced harmony. Today, due to the industrial production of oils such as corn, sunflower, safflower and palm, the ratio has shifted to an estimated 20:1!

Because our bodies are like big reaction vessels, if you add 20 times the amount of one reagent to your reaction, then the system goes out of whack and, in this case, keeps inflammation and the molecular army constantly charging on. This is devastating to the body and the immune system, so avoid corn oil and seed oils that are high in omega-6.

Often restaurants cook with these oils, so also be aware when eating out a lot, as this is a hidden source of bad fats. Grass-fed meat and chickens that are not fed corn are also recommended because “you are what you eat eats.” Stick with olive oil, walnut, flaxseed or other high omega-3 oils. Eat fish regularly to increase omega-3 input, to lower saturated fat and to create a low inflammatory environment in the body.

Boost immunity

Other foods can be incorporated into your diet that can strengthen your immune system. For example, turmeric root is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent and also activates immune mechanisms in the body that help destroy cancer cells, stopping cancer before it has a chance to grow. Eat turmeric as a tea, or add it directly to rice, vegetables or even cookie recipes.

Sufficient consumption of protein is also essential, as it builds all the chemical messengers that direct the orchestra of the immune system. Foods rich in B vitamins, such as dark leafy greens, beans, whole grains, fish, most fruits and vegetables support protein function, acting as important cofactors in vital mechanisms. And, of course, eating plenty of electrons from foods rich in antioxidants will patch up any holes in our DNA and help prevent mutations from ongoing oxidative damage.

Finally, there is a strong mind-body connection as it relates to stress and immune function. Scientific studies correlate stress physically with poor immune function, such as suppressed T-cell activity, delayed production of antibodies and high glucocorticoid production. Do not underestimate the damaging effects of chronic physical or emotional stress, so take the time to keep your mind healthy and happy.

Movement and physical activity generate happy molecules in the brain, as well as sunshine and the beauty of nature. Regular movement of the body through yoga or another type of exercise also promotes good circulation, allowing immune cells to travel through the body freely to reach their targeted sites efficiently. When we support ourselves with a nourishing diet, a healthy physical body and a calm, happy mind, the whole system works together in harmony to create an unstoppable immune system and a life free of disease and full of vitality.

Lisa Julian, Ph.D., has a passion for organic chemistry — the “molecules of life” — and its application to food and health. She’s the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches science and nutrition at the University of Colorado Denver and Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at For more information about services offered at her studio, visit

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