By Barbara Quinn

The Monterey County Herald

March is National Nutrition Month, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So for the next few weeks, this column will address your questions and comments. Let’s get started:

Linda from Jefferson City, Mo., writes: “I often see in nutrition columns, ads and on labels that certain foods ‘strengthen’ the immune system. What does that actually mean?

Five years ago, my immune system started raging and attacked connective tissues, muscles and lungs. My immune system is now under control with immune-suppressant drugs, but it comes raging back whenever I try to reduce my dosage of these drugs.

Therefore, I am concerned when I hear that something ‘strengthens’ my immune system. That appears to be exactly what I DON’T want to happen. I would appreciate your perspective on this.”

Dear Linda,

Foods that strengthen the immune system are those that provide the substances needed to maintain the body’s defense system against foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. We need adequate protein and zinc in our diets, for example, to help defend ourselves from unwanted “bugs.”

For some unknown reason, the body sometimes gets confused and begins to attack its own tissues — a condition known as an autoimmune disorder. Examples of autoimmune diseases include type 1 diabetes, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

While there is no special diet to treat autoimmune diseases, specialists do stress the importance of a nutritionally balanced diet and adequate exercise. And although researchers are not sure if inflammation causes autoimmune disorders or vice versa, most recommend a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains. Adequate vitamin D may also be important, at least in the prevention of autoimmune diseases, according to recent studies. Stay tuned; this is an area of continuing nutrition research.

Barbara from California asks: “Can you please tell me what you think of taking St. John’s wort? My doctor suggested I try it as an alternative to antidepressants which I don’t want to take. Also, is turmeric tea safe?”

Hi, Barbara,

According the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health ( St. John’s wort may help some types of depression although it is not an absolutely proven therapy. As such, it has not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as a medicine for depression.

Several cautions accompany the use of St. John’s wort since it contains a compound that interferes with the action of many medications. Since your doctor is probably more aware of your particular medical needs, you are wise to rely on his recommendations.

Tumeric tea is generally considered safe, says the NCCIH. Tumeric gets its yellow color from curcumin — a compound extracted from the rhizome of the tumeric plant. Although not approved in the U.S. as a therapeutic agent, a recent analysis of clinical trials found that curcumin may help ease some symptoms of depression. Again, check with your doc.