Want to keep healthy this winter? Then you need a robust and balanced immune response. The choices we make when it comes to diet and lifestyle have a profound effect on how our immune system responds. A weakened defense system can lead to a host of health issues and in addition to concerns around COVID-19 there are many regular winter germs to face.
Tackling Colds & Flu
Firstly it’s worth mentioning that both colds and various influenzas are caused by a range of viruses (not bacteria). This is why typically antibiotics are not appropriate – however remember that sinus, ear, and lung infections (bronchitis and pneumonia) are examples of bacterial infections where antibiotics may be needed.
Common symptoms of a cold include runny nose, congestion, cough, and sore throat. The symptoms of the flu tend to be far more severe, as the influenza viruses are capable of causing severe lung infection, pneumonia, and even respiratory failure. They also tend to affect your joints—hence that general achy feeling over your body. The most common way these viruses are spread is via hand-to-hand contact – so washing your hands and basic hygiene is important if other family members are affected. Often the reason we suffer with the flu is that the immune system is compromised. This can be due to a number of reasons including low levels of key nutrients.
Here are some of the top immune supporting nutrients to optimise:
Vitamin D. There are many studies to show that people with higher vitamin D levels contract substantially fewer cold, flu, and other viral infections. Vitamin D also down regulates inflammatory compounds and optimal levels may help reduce the risk of autoimmune diseases. Studies also suggest that higher vitamin D levels are associated with a decreased risk of contracting a seasonal viral infection. There are only a few food sources of vitamin D as our main source is sunlight. Oily fish, mushrooms, full fat milk will contain a little but most people may benefit from a supplement. For this reason the UK Government recommends all adults take a supplement of 10mcg through the Autumn/winter.
Antioxidants. Immune cells like other cells need protection from damage by free radicals. Free radicals stop our immune system from functioning optimally. This is one of the reasons why antioxidants are important immune-system aids. Studies have shown that supplementing with antioxidants like vitamins C, E, and A stimulate immune function. Vitamin C is a key component of the immune system and also helps lower inflammation in the body. Vitamin C enhances the production and action of white blood cells; for example it increases the ability of neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) to attack and engulf viruses. Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the chances of catching a cold, and may speed up recovery from a cold. As it is water soluble take a supplement in doses through the day – 500mg every 2-3 hours up to 3g daily. Excess can have a laxative effect.
Vitamin E is a powerful fat-soluble antioxidant. It protects the cell membranes of the immune system and other cells and enhances the effectiveness of lymphocytes. Avocados are a great source of vitamin E. Other good choices include nuts and seeds.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), synthesized from the amino acid tyrosine, is important for the production of energy for all the body’s cells and low levels may be linked to low energy levels and fatigue. It also has an important role in the stimulation of the immune system. Unfortunately as we age levels of CoQ10 decline not only making our energy production systems less efficient but also may adversely affect our immune health too. While you can get some through the diet e.g oily fish, a supplement may be helpful.
Other immune supporting antioxidants are phytonutrients including proanthocyanidins found in berries, grapes and grapeseed extract. In laboratory studies, proanthocyanidins increased the power of natural killer cells, and decreased inflammatory chemicals. Elderberry supplements have been shown to be effective in the prevention and treatment of influenza, which may be due to its high flavonoid content.
Whey Protein. Sufficient protein is important for a healthy functioning immune system. Whey protein in particular has many benefits. Whey protein is easily absorbed by the body and contains glutamate and cysteine, precursors to glutathione. Whey protein can activate natural killer cells and contains several substances that enhance the immune system, including beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, lactoperoxidase and lactoferrin. Lactoferrin, a major component of whey protein, also acts as an antioxidant. It can inhibit the absorption of bacteria through the intestinal wall.
Colostrum. I am a big fan of using colostrum. Soon after giving birth, female mammals produce colostrum, which is a milk-like substance that jump-starts a newborn’s immune system. Researchers have also found it beneficial for boosting overall immune health. Colostrum has two groups of components: immune system factors and growth factors. These show anti-microbial and antiviral properties. Colostrum powder can be a useful way to get these natural immune supporting components.
Zinc and Selenium. Among children, deficiencies of zinc, copper, and selenium have been linked to immune deficiency and infection. One of the roles of selenium is in helping to recycle glutathione ( a major antioxidant) in the body.
Zinc helps support the function of lymphocytes and can decrease inflammation in the body. Zinc deficiency can lead to reduced immune function increasing your risk of an infection. If you want to increase your intake of zinc naturally include plenty of pumpkin and sesame seeds, lamb, beef, oats, yogurts and prawns. When you are suffering with a sore throat or feel a cold coming try sucking zinc lozenges every 2 to 3 hours for first day or two.
Beta Glucans. Beta glucans are polysaccharides that can activate the immune system, enhance macrophages and natural killer cell function and inhibit tumour growth. Beta glucans can naturally boost the immune system by optimizing its response to diseases and infections. Because the body does not produce beta glucans naturally, the only way to get them is through foods or supplements. Food sources of beta glucans include oats, barley and mushrooms. You could include medicinal mushroom powders for a further boost which are delicious added to smoothies especially combined with raw cacao.
Probiotics. Over 70% of our immune system resides in your gut. The gastrointestinal tract relies on friendly bacteria to help support a robust immune response. These probiotic bacteria help prevent foreign bacteria and allergens from passing through the intestinal wall and are important to the overall health of the intestinal immune system. You can boost your levels of probiotics by eating fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and miso.
Quercetin. This polyphenol has hit the press recently for its ability to lower inflammation and prevent viral replication. Naturally found in capers, red onion, red apples, green and black tea it is also readily available as a supplement. Another useful plant compound is curcumin. Curcumin is a compound present in turmeric and known for antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. To improve absorption add a little black pepper and fat. Drinking turmeric shots or lattes as well as adding it to curries and soups is a great way to increase your intake.
Don’t forget foods like mushrooms. Medicinal mushrooms are potent immune modulators rich in polysaccharides as well as providing key vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Medicinal mushrooms such as shittake, cordyceps, reishi, chaga have been widely researched and known for their anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.
To keep our immune system healthy it is important that we address not just our diet but our lifestyle too. Stress, over and under exercise, lack of quality sleep, excess alcohol can all impact the immune response.