Tis the season for building a strong immune system! Immunity is the talk of the town these days, especially within the health and wellness sector.
During the colder winter months many of us do end up catching a cold or the flu but the good news is that we can make daily choices that can help to protect our health and ensure we stay as healthy as possible.
Today we are giving you some of our favourite tips and dietary supplements to help you strengthen your immune system, improve immune function, and reduce the risk of falling ill, naturally.
Health & Wellness Tips
Pay attention to your nutrition
It goes without saying, but we'll say it anyway, a healthy and balanced diet is essential to keeping your immune system in tip-top shape. The immune system requires a variety of nutrients in order to function at its best, keep inflammation down, and have the energy and resources to fight foreign invaders and ultimately keep you healthy.
The usual culprit foods that will dampen the immune response may include processed foods, sugar, fried foods, fast food, alcohol, and vegetable oils, so we would recommend staying away from those as much as possible especially if you are immunocompromised or fighting a cold or flu.
On the other hand there are many foods that can help to build a more resilient immune system in fighting infections and even reducing symptoms. These may include fruits and vegetables, bone broth, garlic, ginger, green tea, and turmeric. Focusing on a variety of nutrient-rich whole foods will help you to obtain a variety of nutrients to keep your immune system robust.
The benefits from being outdoors in nature are plenty and are now even confirmed by science! Being in nature can help to reduce stress levels, improve vitamin D levels from sunshine exposure, increase immune cell production, and contribute to a healthier gut microbiome, all contributing to a happier immune system. Whether it's gardening, tree-hugging, hiking, walking barefoot, or swimming, these are all great practices to cultivate to improve physical health and mental wellbeing.
Move your body
We all know we should be moving daily but did you know it also contributes to a healthy immune system?
Moderate-intensity exercise has been shown to exert a protective effect on the immune system by stimulating cellular immunity, releasing anti-inflammatory molecules, and increasing blood circulation (1). As always if you overdo anything it can be detrimental and this has also been shown with exercise. It is recommended to invest in lifestyle practices such as regular and appropriate intensity levels to benefit your wellbeing and the immune response.
Get enough sleep
Sleep has become highly underrated but it's absolutely essential for a healthy body and immune system. In fact, research now supports that sleep and the circadian rhythm exert a strong regulatory influence on immune functions (2).
It has been shown that persistent sleep loss can impact different parts of the immune system which can not only promote the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals, but also chronic low-grade inflammation, which can lead to immunodeficiency and health disorders. Sleep deprivation has been linked to a higher risk of infections, higher production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, reduced activity of natural killer cells, and an increased risk of chronic disease (3).
Consistent sleep on the other hand can help to strengthen the immune system and improve immune defence and protection.
Sleep hygiene is an important part of a healthy lifestyle and should include at least 7 hours of sleep preferably before midnight.
8 Vitamins & Minerals You Need for a Healthy Immune System
A popular immune-supporting supplement, Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant with many health benefits, including contributing to a healthy immune defence by supporting various functions of the innate and adaptive immune systems (4).
Oxidative stress has been shown to negatively impact immune health and also increase the risk of many diseases. The immune response is strongly modulated by oxidative stress and inflammatory processes and vitamin C can act as a natural free radical scavenger helping to lower inflammatory chemicals and protect cells from damage (5).
Vitamin C supplements can help to reduce the severity and duration of upper respiratory tract infections as well as symptoms of the common cold and flu (6).
As this vitamin is water-soluble and quickly used up by the body, it is recommended to consume vitamin C-rich foods or supplement vitamin C on a regular basis to receive the most benefits.
Another antioxidant vitamin, vitamin E has been shown to improve immune system function by modulating nitric oxide levels, increasing natural killer cell activity, and reducing oxidative stress (7).
Vitamin E can inhibit the production of reactive oxygen species and the propagation of free radicals which are molecules that can damage tissues and increase inflammation in the body.
As a fat-soluble vitamin that is found in many foods, it isn't commonly deficient unless there are issues with digestion and absorption or underlying health conditions, in which case supplementation may be recommended.
Vitamin E is said to work best when combined with vitamin C as they work synergistically.
Vitamin A is an anti-inflammatory vitamin well known for its role in growth and development but also its enhancing effects on immune function (8).
It specifically works at regulating the function of B cells and T cells, types of white blood cells that protect your body from infections while also lowering levels of oxidative stress (9).
Low levels of vitamin A can result in increased inflammation in the body which can negatively impact the functioning of the immune system (10).
Animal-based foods are the richest sources of vitamin A which is why vegans and vegetarians need to be vigilant about obtaining enough vitamin A and if deficient, supplementation may be recommended though we recommend checking with your health care provider to avoid the risk of toxicity.
Probably one of the first vitamins that comes to mind when you think of immune health, vitamin D plays an important role in fighting disease and infections and improving resiliency (11).
Low levels of this vitamin are linked with a higher risk of respiratory infections, viral infections, and even autoimmune disease (12).
Vitamin D supplementation has been shown to decrease the risk of respiratory tract infections according to clinical studies (13).
You can improve your daily intake of vitamin D by consuming foods rich in vitamin D such as wild fatty fish, and to lesser extent egg yolks, dairy products, and mushrooms. It is also important to get sunlight exposure if you can as this is said to be the best source of this vitamin.
The recommended daily amount is 400 IU of vitamin D however this will depend on various factors and higher doses will be required if deficient.
A deficiency in folate specifically affects cell-mediated immunity, decreasing the activity of T cells which can compromise the immune system's ability to fight infections.
It's important to note that folate is the natural form of vitamin B9 whereas folic acid is the synthetic version. Look for folate or methyltetrahydrofolic acid when looking to supplement to improve efficacy and the benefits received as many people cannot properly convert folic acid due to a genetic polymorphism involving the MTHFR gene.
Unmetabolized folic acid can actually be harmful and negatively impact the immune system and several body systems (14). Excess folic acid can also cause problems, inflicting unfavorable effects on the immune response and more specifically lowering natural killer cells. Test your levels if you are unsure to assess whether a supplement is needed or not.
Low iron is typically associated with heavy menstrual cycles and low energy but did you know it also plays a role in immune function?
This mineral is essential for the normal development of the immune system as it delivers oxygen to damaged tissues and cells and supports the body in fighting infections
Iron deficiency has been associated with an increased susceptibility to infections and an impaired immune response (15).
Iron overload can also negatively influence the immune system and toxicity levels should be avoided which is why it is best to test your levels with your doctor before supplementing.
Another powerful antioxidant, selenium is associated with inflammatory and immune responses (16).
It helps to lower oxidative stress, which can improve and strengthen immune function and protect immune cells from damage while also protecting against infections.
Deficiency in this mineral may lead to an increased risk of infections and a compromised immune response (17).
Selenium can be found in brazil nuts, salmon, turkey, tuna, chicken, mushroom, halibut, and eggs but you can also supplement as needed.
Zinc is often included as part of an immune health protocol because it is essential for healthy immune system function.
It plays an important role in the proper development and functioning of cells that mediate nonspecific immunity such as neutrophils and natural killer cells which protect the body from harmful pathogens (18).
Let's not forget that zinc also acts as an antioxidant!
Zinc deficiency can predispose to increased susceptibility to pathogens and infections as well as a state of inflammation in the body (19)(20).
Zinc rich foods include oysters, red meat, legumes, pumpkin seeds, whole grains, dairy products, and dark chocolate. If you are not eating enough of these foods or may be at risk for deficiency verify with your doctor if a supplement is right for you.
About the Author
Laurence Annez is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and Health Coach, specializing in PCOS and women's hormones. She also holds a degree in Creative Writing and has extensive experience writing on health and wellness topics. Laurence's mission is to inspire and motivate individuals to take control of their own health and reach their ultimate health goals.