The colors during the holiday season can be breathtaking—silver and gold, red and green. Speaking of green . . . scientists at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge and the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research recently studied green vegetables’ effect on immunity—and the results were interesting.
In the study published in the online journal Cell, the researchers noted a definitive connection between certain chemicals found in green veggies like broccoli and Chinese cabbage and healthy immune system function. More specifically, the scientists believe the tiny chemical compounds in the green veggies interact positively with the immune cells of the gut. In short, those gut immune cells, called intraepithelial lymphocytes or IELs, are protected and increased numerically by the green vegetables’ chemical makeup.
IELs are white blood cells found in large amounts in the gastrointestinal tract, where they release cytokines to destroy target cells that have become infected by unwanted invaders. Since the gastrointestinal tract is a main thoroughfare that unwanted invaders travel to enter the body, a strong army of IELs can be highly beneficial for overall health—especially immune health.
Lead researcher and immunologist, Dr. Marc Veldhoen of the Babraham Institute, conducted this experiment on healthy mice fed a synthetic diet void of vegetables. Veldhoen and his team found that IEL numbers are directly linked to a receptor protein called aryl hydrocarbon receptor (Ahr), whose activity is activated by green vegetables’ compounds. Ahr proteins are important, too, because they help with body cell development, cell adaptation and in lymphocyte counts.
The science team found that the mice fed the diet without veggies lost a majority of their IELs within just days of going without vegetables. Dr. Veldhoen observes, “I would have expected cells at the surface would play some role in the interaction with the outside world, but such a clear cut interaction with the diet was unexpected. After feeding otherwise healthy mice a vegetable-poor diet for two to three weeks, I was amazed to see 70 to 80 percent of these protective cells disappeared."
Additionally, as the mice’s immune cell numbers declined, the mice became much more vulnerable to infections and injury. Veldhoen adds that this is a surprising find for modern medical science and is confident that further research into the benefits of green vegetables will “surely prove beneficial to humans.” Consequently, says Veldhoen, until definitive research on humans is carried out "it's already a good idea to eat your greens."
That may be helpful for all of us to know, too, because we’re not only in the holiday season, but we’re also in a season during which immunity can be challenged.
Now we may have more reason than ever to enjoy the colors of the season—especially by eating those greens.