Written By Donna Rounds, Ph.D.
All living things need protection from marauding microbes and environmental toxins
Every day billions of microbes, tiny pathogenic germs such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi seek out our bodies to damage, infect, inflame, and kill. Environmental assaults from external toxins, smoke, pesticides, carcinogens, and myriad other things chip away at robust health. Remarkably, evolution has enabled every living creature, from bacteria to plants, animals and humans to develop sophisticated lines of defense to protect against pathogenic microbes and the noxious toxins of daily life. The key line of defense is the immune system which has evolved to meet the specialized challenges of rooting out and defending against billions of daily encounters with microbes and toxins.
The immune system is a complex and integrated network of cells, tissues, and organs
Health is a narrow band of peaceful homeostasis constantly challenged by everything we touch, eat, or breathe with the potential for exposure to microbes and toxins. The immune system has been described as a military force that defends the body’s nation-state against numerous invaders on multiple battle fronts. The immune force is broadly divided into two branches—innate immunity and adaptive immunity.
The innate immune system can be found in every living thing from bacteria to plants, invertebrates, animals, and humans. Innate immune cells provide a basic defense against foreign invaders by targeting general markers of pathogens. Once targeted, the immune cell may ingest the foreign substance (i.e. phagocytosis), eliminate the foreign substance through a cytotoxic process, or establish an inflammatory response from an injury. One example of the innate immune system in action is pus that forms at the site of an infection; the pus includes innate immune cells, bacteria, and tissue debris.
The adaptive immune system is only found in vertebrates—fish, birds, animals and humans. To extend the military metaphor, adaptive immunity requires an extensive infrastructure. It also needs a clear chain of command, leadership training to provide specific and targeted attacks against pathogens, and a memory to store that attack for a faster future response. Every bacteria or virus elicits a specific response by the adaptive immune system, which organizes a response and then establishes a reserve force for future encounters. One example of adaptive immunity is adult resistance to childhood illnesses. Homeopathic remedies and vaccinations also use the tactics of the adaptive immune system by exposing the body to small amounts of a pathogen, whereby the adaptive immune cells mount an attack and then establish a ‘memory’ that provides immunity against any future attack by that pathogen.
The strength and effectiveness of the innate or adaptive immune force is critically determined by nutrition and the intake of energy, macronutrients, and micronutrients. Insufficient intake of energy or deficiencies in macro- or micronutrients will lead to suppression of the immune system and an increased risk of illness which, in turn, produce physiological changes that worsen nutritional status and further impair the immune response.
A healthy immune system needs to be nourished
A robust immune system is vital to host protection against the diverse life strategies of pathogens, the infinite variety of toxins, and the noxious stress of daily living. Logic would equate health with a robust immune system and common sense would imply we are healthier if we eat right, exercise, sleep enough hours, and keep psychological and emotional stress factors to a minimum. Scientific evidence lags behind logic and common sense, but there is enough data both in animals and in humans to encourage and adopt general healthy-living strategies to give the immune system, and the rest of the body, the upper hand.
A major avenue of research over the last decade has been to determine how the immune system benefits from certain diets, including the intake of dietary antioxidants. This research has contributed to the growing body of evidence that link diets rich in fruits and vegetables with an improved immune system and better health. Much of the evidence is focused on polyphenols, the abundant plant derived phytochemicals that include anthocyanins, the pigments responsible for the vibrant red, blue and purple colors of berries and other colorful fruits.
Polyphenols are important micronutrients
Polyphenols exhibit a range of biological activities beneficial not only to the immune system but also to cognitive and cardiovascular health, diabetes, aging, and athletic performance. Depending on the structure, polyphenols interact with proteins and have characteristic radical-scavenging capacity involved in antioxidant activities.
Humans and animals must consume food throughout their life, and the decision of what to eat will trigger biological effects that will occur every day and have the potential to accumulate over a lifetime. Consumption of polyphenols as healthy dietary components is consistent with the advice to eat five or more portions of fruit and vegetables per day, although there is currently no recommended ‘dose’ of specific polyphenols to derive maximum benefit.
The best source of polyphenols for humans and animals are fruits and vegetables, and research has demonstrated that berries are the most nutrient dense fruits with the highest levels of polyphenols and anthocyanins.
Aronia has the highest levels of polyphenols
Blueberries, pomegranates and cherries have been in the spotlight for their high levels of polyphenols, but it is the lesser known Aronia berry, that is the real superstar of polyphenol power with the highest polyphenol levels of all the fruits and berries available today. The Aronia berry has a total antioxidant measure more than three times that of blueberries, and outscores blueberries more than four times in anthocyanins. Aronia contains 277 different polyphenols known and used by humans, more than any other fruit, berry, or vegetable.
The Aronia berry is native to North America and was highly prized by indigenous people for its nutritional properties and as an herbal remedy. The re-discovery of Aronia and its health benefits is an exciting addition to our dietary choices.