Sarah Sorensen, MS, RD, a registered dietitian at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute

Sarah Sorensen, MS, RD, a registered dietitian at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute

Flu season can present an obstacle for the immune system, made more complicated by cardiovascular issues and the risk of coronavirus infection. Sarah Sorensen, MS, RD, a registered dietitian at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute, offers nutritional ways to collaboratively enhance the immune system and the heart.

“Food is more than just energy and calories,” Sorensen says. “It's information that's providing signals to our body to help it function optimally.”

With a weakened immune system, the body is more prone to infection which may trigger the development or progression of cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, an existing cardiovascular issue impairs the immune system and heightens inflammation.

Sorensen notes that underlying inflammation drives many harmful conditions, and while some inflammation cannot be avoided, most ongoing chronic inflammation can be prevented.

Sorensen recommends a plant-based, whole-food diet utilizing every color of the rainbow to give the immune system and the heart a two-in-one boost.

Plant Power

Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Those medicinal benefits come primarily from plant foods. These foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices pack a punch in fiber, vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant levels.

“You get the whole package in plant based foods,” Sorensen says. “The nutrient density in animal based foods is not the same.”

Specifically relating to anti-inflammation, Sorensen highlights the omega-3 fats. She says there’s a reason for the popularity of the omega-3 fats: they help support the balance of inflammation in our body. This anti-inflammatory nutrient may help arteries ward off plaque buildup. Seeds such as chia, flax, and hemp all contain an abundant amount of omega-3 fats.

Furthermore, plant foods are filled with fiber, which, in addition to regulating weight and bowel health, may reduce cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease.

“You’d be surprised how easy and delicious it can be to incorporate these plant foods into yummy dishes,” Sorensen says. “From making chia seed jam to substituting eggs with ‘flax eggs’ in baked goods, it’s reasonable to make it a priority.”

Processed Poison

While adding more plants to the diet presents a great starting place, ensuring whole plant foods over processed foods plays an important next step.

“Processed refers to any food that has been altered in some way during preparation,” Sorensen says. “Not only does processing effect the quality of our nutrients, but it often removes or adds ingredients.”

One of the commonly added ingredients is sodium. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 90% of Americans 2 years old and older consume too much sodium, with levels about 1000 mg over the recommended daily consumption. With such a high sodium intake, the body struggles to regulate blood pressure, and the risk of cardiovascular disease significantly increases.

Processed food strips fiber and adds in refined sugar and fats, which inhibit heart and immune health.

“The lack of fiber particularly amongst carbohydrate rich foods is very concerning,” Sorensen says. “Without adequate fiber, carbohydrates break down faster and absorb quicker into the blood, creating a spike in blood sugars.”

This spike compromises the body’s ability to fight infection and triggers vascular endothelial dysfunction, a risk for coronary artery disease.

Variety Vibrance

 Not only do we need whole plant foods, but a colorful variety including herbs and spices. Eating plants from every hue of the rainbow ensures a wide range of valuable nutrients, including important antioxidants.

“I like to simply view antioxidants as working against, or anti, the damage, or oxidation, within our bodies,” Sorensen says. “Many things in our environment, whether stress or the foods we’re eating, are affecting the oxidation in our bodies and the resulting damage.”

Excessive oxidation can cause “oxidative stress” that endangers the body to damage.

“Antioxidants are pivotal in negating chronic inflammation involved in the progression of cardiovascular disease and for the immune system to function effectively,” Sorensen says.

Different antioxidants pair with different colors of food: green with chlorophyll, orange with beta carotene, red with lycopene, and red, purple, and blue with anthocyanins.

Sorensen encourages eating primarily plant foods in a meal, as minimally processed and varied in color as much as possible. “Any vegetables are better than none,” Sorensen says. “It’s important to get as many nutrients as we can into our diet.”

Experts at the International Heart Institute are here to help nurture a heart-healthy lifestyle. More information about the variety of cardiology and nutrition resources is available online. You can also sign up for emails to continue learning about heart health.