April 9th, 2020

The Importance of Protein in Our Immune System

As of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting communities around the world. And, our first line of defense in any viral crisis is a healthy immune system, and it turns out protein plays a key role in maintaining our body’s natural protection. Bacteria and viruses are tiny elements that can do a lot of harm to our body, and without a strong immune system to fend off these invaders, we are susceptible to colds, cases of flu, and infections. So, let’s take a look at the immune system, and the role protein plays.

Our Immune System

Our body has several tools for resisting foreign bodies and infections, and for removing them when they do get through. The components of this immune system include organs like the spleen, thymus, lymph nodes, your bone marrow, white blood cells, hormones, and antibodies.[i] This layered defense system works in-concert and includes both an innate and acquired system. Our innate system is with us from birth and is the first line of defense against bacteria and viruses, whereas our acquired system includes antibodies that our body forms to fight off specific bacteria or virus strains.[ii]

It is this latter part of the system where protein plays a significant role, as it produces those antibodies our body needs to fend off harmful invaders. Proteins create immunoglobulin, which is the antibody tool it uses to fight off bacteria and viruses. This antibody attaches itself to specific types of bacteria or viruses and helps destroy them.

What Protein Does for Us

Proteins are pretty amazing little members of our body’s growth, development, and protection system. Known as Macromolecules, proteins perform a lot of different functions throughout our bodies. They act as catalysts, creating biochemical reactions like metabolism, so our body can break down food and absorb the nutrients it needs. They can also act structurally, helping cells build and maintain their shape. And, among their many critical functions, is cell signaling. Proteins help us fight off infections by alerting the body to the presence of a foreign body and begin the process of removing it. They do this by creating those antibodies- our body’s little fighters. Wow, thanks, Protein!

Effect of not Enough Protein?

Since protein is so critical to our body’s many functions, what happens when we do not get enough? There is quite a lot that can go wrong, in both the short and long-term, when your body is not receiving sufficient amounts of protein. While certain members of the population may be at risk for protein deficiency, a shortage in protein will affect anyone regardless of age or gender. And this can have lasting effects on our bodies, both physically and mentally.

Effects may include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Weight, muscle loss
  • Mental health concerns, like anxiety
  • Slow or lack of growth and development in children
  • Low iron in the blood (Anemia)
  • Swelling in the body (protein helps your body absorb fluids)
  • Mood changes, like irritability
  • Thinning of hair, nails, or skin issues
  • A less effective immune system

Can Protein Help Boost My Immune System?

It’s a matter of balance. Too much, or too little, of any nutrient in our body, can have negative effects on our health. There is no single way to boost our immune system, as our body requires a blend of nutrients and regular exercise to maintain a healthy system. However, looking closely at your protein intake, and ensuring you are getting the correct amount for your age, gender, and unique health status, can help give your immune system some of the tools it needs. For example, for females and males, aged 31-50, the USDA recommends 46 and 56 grams of protein per day respectively.[iii]

Good Sources of Protein (For all diets)

Ensuring we have the right balance of protein in our diet leads to the next logical question: What are good sources of protein? And, do I have to eat meat? Fortunately, there are many good protein sources for all diets, not just meat-lovers. It can benefit our bodies to have a variety of protein-rich foods, along with our proper helpings of fruits & vegetables, too.

Here are just a few (in alphabetical order):

Chia seeds
Cottage cheese
Greek Yogurt
Tree nuts
White or red meat  

Note: Always consult your doctor to determine your specific physical and dietary needs.

The Take-Away

Our bodies, these wonderful machines that propel us through life, crave one and only one thing: homeostasis. Our systems want to stay in balance with our internal workings, and fend-off the many active agents from the world around us that are trying to disrupt this balance. And while there is no one part of this system that will carry the day, ensuring each has the nutrients it needs to function properly is key to maintaining this balance. And when our bodies are battling those invasive bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens, it’s important to make certain our immune system has the tools it needs to fight the good fight.

[i] How Your Immune System Works, WebMD, web, accessed 3-20-20, https://health.howstuffworks.com/human-body/systems/immune/immune-system4.htm.

[ii] The Immune System, Johns Hopkins Medicine, web, accessed 03-20-20, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/the-immune-system.

[iii] Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, 8th Edition, USDA, page 97.