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Millets, both major and minor, are crucial for better immunity
Tuesday, 21 July, 2020, 15 : 00 PM [IST]
B Dayakar Rao, M Sujatha,Vilas Tonapi,Raj Bhandari
Ancient grains or millets are rain-fed crops and thus resume greater importance for sustained agriculture and food security. Millets are classified into major millets and minor millets.

Major millets are Sorghum, Pearl millet and Finger millet, most widely used for human consumption; Foxtail millet, Proso millet; Kodo millet, Little millet and Barnyard millet are minor millets.

 Millets rechristened as “nutricereals” are nutritionally superior to major cereals (wheat and rice) for carbohydrate, energy, and serve as a good source of protein, high dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and micronutrients. The individual characteristics make them unique and a store house of nutrition. Finger millet grains contain essential minerals such as calcium, phosphorus and vitamins.

Polyphenols are regarded as major antioxidants that conduct activities which help to maintain the body immune system. Pearl millet grains contain highest Fe among various cereals significantly rich in resistant starch, soluble and insoluble dietary fibres, minerals, and antioxidants. Foxtail millet protein is the essential amino acid which, use as a supplementary protein source to most cereals because it is rich in lysine. Kodo and Little millets have high dietary fibre, which is the highest among the cereals; and the fat has higher polyunsaturated fatty acids. The protein content of Proso millet is richer in essential amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and methionine) than wheat protein.

Immunity provides protection to life, mediated through cellular response, humoral immune response and body promotes systematic immune processes by regulating T lymphocytes, antibodies, and cytokines formation. The rich source of vitamins and minerals of millets, perform different functions in the body to boost up immune response towards pathogens.

Beneficial effects of positive attributes of millets
 1)    Vitamin A is involved in the development of the immune system and plays regulatory role in cellular immune responses and humoral immune processes and demonstrated as therapeutic effect in the treatment of various infectious diseases.
2)    Vitamin B9 or Folic acid (folate) helps in immunity enhancement and is a key role player in the biosynthesis of nucleic acids, proteins blood cells and nervous tissues.
3)    Vitamin D receptor is expressed on immune cells and these immunologic cells are capable of synthesising the active vitamin D metabolite. Vitamin D can modulate the innate and adaptive immune responses.
4)    Iron helps in cells of the innate immune system, monocytes, macrophages, microglia and lymphocytes to combat bacterial insults by controlling their iron fluxes and lymphocytes play an important role in adaptive immunity.
5)    Zinc affects multiple aspects of the immune system, from the barrier of the skin to gene regulation within lymphocytes. Zinc is crucial for normal development and function of cells mediating nonspecific immunity such as neutrophils and natural killer cells.
6)    Phosphorus content helps in maintaining the cell structure of the human body and helps in the formation of the mineral matrix of the bone and is also essential component of ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate), which is the energy currency of the body and this mineral is very important constituent of nucleic acids, which are the building blocks of genetic code.

Thus, the presence of all the required nutrients in millets helps to maintain the body immune system.

Millet foods are characterised to be potential prebiotic and can enhance the viability of probiotics with potential health benefits and help to improve the immunity. Probiotic foods from millets are rich in phytochemicals including phytic acid and phytates, which lowers the cholesterol and reduce the risk of cancer, and are also reported to generate vitamins, fatty acids and other vital nutrients that improve the body’s resistance against human pathogens (FAO/WHO, 2001).
Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth and activity of one, or a limited number of bacteria in the colon. Millet foods are characterised to be potential prebiotic and can enhance the viability or functionality of probiotics with significant health benefits. Sorghum and pearl millet contain good quantities of potential prebiotic components, such as, water-soluble fibre, oligosaccharides and resistant starch important for the probiotic concept.

Gut microbiota is engaged in a dynamic interaction with the intestinal innate and adaptive immune system, affecting different aspects of its development and function. The gut microbiota includes bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses. Trillions of bacteria colonise the gut. They play an imperative role in prevention of leaky gut syndrome caused due to disruption of the gut barrier by pathogens and opportunistic fungal infection. The anti-inflammatory property of millets could be suited to prevent environmental enteropathy and inflammatory bowel disease. The T helper cells (Th cells), also known as CD4+ cells, are a type of T cell that play an important role in the immune system, particularly in the adaptive immune system. They help the activity of other immune cells by releasing T cell cytokines. These cells help suppress or regulate immune responses and form the first line of defence.

It is necessary to avoid intake of junk foods and reducing consuming of sugars, drinking carbonated water as they have been shown to slow the activity of white blood cells in attacking microbes and reduce the efficiency of the immune system and reducing the intake of refined foods. The immunological memory of our body recognises food as organics, but junk foods contain synthetics, additives and artificial flavours, which are not recognised as "food" by our body. These do not give satiety because they are not organic in nature. Therefore disturbance occur in the gut microbiota and decreases the immunity in the body. Eating millets which are rich in vitamins and minerals helps to enhance immune system efficiency.

Therefore, millets which are identified with our tradition and grown indigenously by the poor dryland farmers must be recognised as an important food for not only as a nutritious food but also as enhancing immunity of human body for tackling diseases and virus. There are many sources of foods that are known as immunity boosters but being a staple cereal, millets may prove to be a promising source as far as our country is concerned. One of the crucial shields against Covid-19 is immunity. Research reports suggest that people with good immunity levels may better fight the infection. The most important elements that maintain our body immune system is a healthy balance diet, which contains all vitamins and minerals in balanced proportions. Millets containing minerals, vitamins and antioxidants, would fit well.

(Rao is Principal Scientist, M Sujatha is Research Associate and Tonapi is Director at Indian Institute of Millets Research, Rajendranagar, Hyderabad. Bhandari is a Member of National Technical Board of Nutrition, Government of India. They can be contacted at
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