Now is a great time to make sure that your immune system is as strong as possible. Here you’ll find our guide from Nutritionist, Esther Mills-Roberts, on making sure it’s in tip-top condition.
Our immune system is the most amazing biochemical defence system against invaders from the outside world. Working away, every second in the day, our body continues its constant fight against allergens, pathogens and irritants. Whether it’s the food we eat, the environment we’re exposed to, or the germs and viruses that we come into contact with, you owe it to your immune system to maximise its fighting chances.
Immune system at a glance
The immune system is made up of antibodies, white blood cells, and other chemicals and proteins that attack and destroy substances, such as bacteria and viruses, which they recognise as foreign and different from the body’s normal healthy tissues.
The cells of the immune system can be categorised as lymphocytes (T-cells, B-cells and NK cells), neutrophils, and monocytes/macrophages. These are all types of white blood cells.
The major proteins of the immune system are predominantly signaling proteins (often called cytokines), antibodies, and complement proteins. These ‘tell’ other immune cells what’s happening, or needs to happen.
Get the basics right
Before you delve into specific immune health supplements and remedies, it’s important to consider basic nutrients because immune health can be compromised by deficiencies of key nutrients, such as selenium, iron and vitamin D. In fact, supplementation with 10mcg of vitamin D is now recommended by the Government, taken in the colder season when daylight hours decrease and sun exposure (which produces vitamin D precursors in the skin) reduces.
Historically, vitamins A, C, E and vitamin B6 were touted as the key immune health vitamins, and the minerals selenium, zinc and copper are also key players in strong immune function, mostly because they form part of antioxidant nutrients, but also their action within immune-system biochemical pathways. Research has shown that even mild deficiencies of these nutrients leads to impaired immune response.
Eating a diet that has plenty of good quality protein is vital for strong immune health, and this doesn’t have to be from traditional meat, fish and dairy. There’s great value to including nuts, seeds, beans and pulses too, which are naturally antioxidant mineral-rich, and which also increase intakes of omega 3 oils, which have been shown to favourably alter the immune response to a helpful, rather than an increased, inflammatory state. Nuts, seeds and pulses also increase fibre, which ties in with studies that show that people with slow gut transit times (constipation) have an increased build up of food breakdown toxins in the gut.
Gone are the days when our gut was viewed as little more than tubes full of waste. Now we know that this amazing feat of biochemical engineering doesn’t just help with digestion of food, but also plays a role in our immune system – not just at the gut level, but systemically for our whole body.
And, within this, recent research has highlighted the pivotal role that our gut microbiomes have in mediating immune responses. It’s fascinating reading and gives us food for thought about the need to take really good care of our digestive health, managing wind pain and bloating, constipation, diarrhoea or reflux. Of course, all of these can be greatly influenced by the levels of various gut bacteria within our digestive tracts.
Broadly speaking, we need to ensure that we have good levels of the bacteria in the upper gut (Lactobacillus) and the lower digestive tract (Bifidobacteria), so look for a formulation which includes these to maintain overall digestive health. For more specific purposes, there are all kinds of supplements with specific strains of bacteria that might be in low levels within the digestive tract. And we might also consider parasites, which can sometimes give symptoms such as cramps. Various tests, such as a stool test, can help to work this out. It’s also worth mentioning that medications called proton pump inhibitors, which are often prescribed for reflux, are known to negatively impact on mineral levels. As minerals are key antioxidant nutrients, this is something to consider for your immune health (not to mention bone health, as calcium levels might be reduced). In these cases, you might consider taking a mineral supplement.
Thirty years ago, immune health and nutrition centred around isolated nutrients – mostly vitamins A, C and E. But these days, a whole plethora of phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables are known to help immune support. Initially marketed as ‘superfood’ shakes, smoothies and supplements, these days they might be called antioxidant food complexes, phytonutrient formulas or mixed blends, such as carotenoids or bioflavonoids. Within this, we can include the green foods, such as spirulina and chlorella, barley and wheatgrass. There are certainly plenty of phytonutrint-rich foods and supplements to choose from:
- Carotenoids: The colour compounds in fruits and vegetables, including lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin and beta carotene.
- Flavonoids: Catechins, hesperidin, quercetin, and resveratrol.
- Polyphenols: Isothiocyanates in cabbage and broccoli, epigallocatechin in green tea, capsaicin in chili peppers, chalones, rutin and naringenin in apples, resveratrol in red wine and fresh peanuts.
- Phytoestrogens: Isoflavones.
With a focus on compounds from fruits and vegetables (including mushrooms, which have been studied for their immune-enhancing effects), it would be easy to overlook more recent research on spices such as turmeric/curcumin, which contains curcuminoids that are known to help in the management of inflammation. Turmeric has been used for centuries in many cultures and has a traditional use for conditions which have an immune-system inflammatory reaction, such as joint pain and swelling.
Turmeric’s effects on health are generally centered upon an orange-yellow coloured, lipophilic polyphenol substance called curcumin, which is acquired from the rhizomes (roots) of the herb. Curcumin has been shown to be a potent immunomodulator, working with the body’s B-cells, macrophages, neutrophils and natural killer cells – in short, an all-round immune supporter.
There are some studies on specific nutrients and health substances that have been used periodically in larger amounts. The most well-known of these is vitamin C, which has been found to reduce duration of the common cold when taken in large intakes. A practitioner can advise you of how much is needed to achieve this. Another study has found that regular supplementation reduces frequency of the common cold. You might prefer a low acidic form of vitamin C, so do ask your health food store about this.
Echinacea is a highly popular supplement that has been extensively researched and positively impacts the efficiency with which the immune system works as a whole. Echinacea has long been used as a popular herbal remedy over the colder seasons, and is often used as a staple supplement throughout autumn and winter.
Astragalus contains polysaccharides, which are known to have a variety of immune modulating activities, helping the immune system to work more efficiently and more effectively, including the action of the immune system’s T-cells.
Elderberries contain phytonutrients, which are known to help manage inflammatory reactions by increasing production of the body’s helpful cytokines. Black elderberry extract has been found to be effective against 10 strains of the ‘flu virus and has been known to reduce duration of ‘flu.
Bee products, whether manuka honey or propolis, have been used for immune health for many years as they contain compounds that are known to help manage infection. Studies have shown that propolis has good anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory effects, leading one scientist, Schmidt, to say that bees are ‘master chemists and chemical engineers’.
Olive leaf extract is, as the name suggests, made from the leaves of the olive tree, Olea eurpoea, which have been used for hundreds of years all across Europe and north Africa. Olive leaves contain all kinds of bioactive compounds, such as flavonoids, oleuropein and triterpenes, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- A.Vogel Echinaforce
- Natures Aid Beta-Glucans Immune Support +
- Otosan Fortuss
- Garden of Life Mykind Organics Vitamin D3 Spray