It’s the time of year when colds, coughs and flu are back on the agenda and immune health is the number one priority. This month, I thought I’d share my recommendations for supporting your immune system so that it can fight back, and keep you feeling healthy and full of energy this winter.
Key nutrients for immune health
Key nutrients for supporting the immune system are vitamins A, C and D, and zinc. They can boost the function of the different components of the immune system, as well as showing individual benefits for reducing the length of the common cold1 and supporting the health of the respiratory system.
Vitamin A can found in a pre-form of the vitamin – beta-carotene – in orange and green vegetables. The body then converts this into active vitamin A. It is also found in oily fish, liver and egg yolks.
Vitamin C can be found in fruits and vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes, kiwi fruits, berries; and broccoli and other green veg. It is destroyed by heat, so eating some of these raw each day is important. Opt for steaming over boiling vegetables as vitamin C will also leach into any cooking water.
Vitamin C is rapidly depleted in times of stress, so finding ways to relax each day can really help support levels in the body.
Vitamin D is made by our bodies through the action of sunlight on our skin. Sadly the sun at this time of year is not strong enough for this to happen optimally. Therefore obtaining vitamin D from oily fish, dairy or mushrooms is recommended. Top tip: leave your mushrooms out in daylight for a couple of days after buying them to boost levels of vitamin D.
Zinc is the key mineral for immune system support. Seafood (especially oysters), pumpkin seeds, eggs and meat all contain good levels of zinc.
Link between immune health and gut health
Did you know that over 70% of our immune system resides in our gut? We can support our friendly bacteria with a wide range of brightly-coloured plant foods. Adding in fermented foods such as live yoghurt, sourdough bread and sauerkraut can also help increase their numbers. I have recipes for a carrot and ginger ‘kimchi’, and a beetroot, ginger and garlic fermented pickle in the recipe section of the website if you’re interested!
If fermented foods are not something that you consume regularly, then it’s worth supplementing with a good quality probiotic through the winter months.
So what’s a good diet for robust immune health?
The foods we eat are the building blocks of our body. Protein is broken down into amino acids that we then use to repair and build. Carbohydrates provide our cells with energy. Fats are the backbone of hormones and keep cell walls throughout our bodies in a healthy condition. Not to mention all the vitamins and minerals that we absorb from fruits, vegetables and other foods.
A poor diet contains anti-nutrients, things that deplete our resources and can lead to ill-health. Excess alcohol, smoking, refined sugar and processed foods not only lack nutrients to contribute to our health, but deplete nutrients during the process of detoxifying and eliminating them from the body.
Looking at the vitamins and minerals that are key to immune health, it is clear that a diet full of fruits, vegetables, protein from seafood, meats, dairy and eggs and healthy fats from oily fish, nuts and seeds, can support our immune system and build resilience.
Is there anything else I can do to support my immune system?
Key to supporting the immune system from a lifestyle perspective is reducing stress; taking gentle exercise outside regularly; and ensuring a good night’s sleep.
Stress can cause the rapid depletion of nutrients meaning there are less available to fight infections. If you recognise that you are often stressed or anxious, making time each day to relax and recharge is an important step to take to support your immune health. Block out a dedicated ‘me time’ slot each day – just 20 minutes can make a big difference.
While the sunlight at this time of the year is too weak to contribute to vitamin D synthesis, getting outside each day, particularly if it’s sunny, can help boost general wellbeing and mental health. This can be a way to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Maybe meet up with friends for a walk or jog in the fresh air to enjoy it even more.
Finally, ensuring a good night’s sleep is an underrated habit that can reap huge rewards. When we are tired, feelings of stress increase and we often turn to sugary foods and caffeine to boost energy levels. Allowing the opportunity for eight hours’ sleep each evening is the first step in making sure we start the next day feeling good and ready to make immune-boosting choices.
1. Peroni, G. et al. Self-Care for Common Colds: The Pivotal Role of Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Zinc, and Echinacea in Three Main Immune Interactive Clusters (Physical Barriers, Innate and Adaptive Immunity) Involved during an Episode of Common Colds-Practical Advice on Dosages and on the Time to Take These Nutrients/Botanicals in order to Prevent or Treat Common Colds. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2018