Vitamins & Minerals that support your immune system
The immune system is probably the most complex systems in the body. It acts to protect us from harm and also works to protect our cells and help prevent cancer. On occasions it can go rogue and attack our tissue in a case of mistaken identity, something otherwise known as autoimmunity. In this review I am going to provide you with some strategies to support general immune health and reduce susceptibility to colds, flu and infections.
How is your immune system functioning?
Reduced immunity is all to common and certain populations will struggle more with immunity than others. A good way of knowing if your immune system is performing well is to ask the following questions.
- Do you get colds more than a few times a year?
- When you do get a cold do you struggle to shake it off?
- Do you suffer regularly with herpes or fungal nail infections?
- Do you wake up feeling like you are about to get ill on a regular basis?
- Are your lymph glands often swollen?
- Do you have an underlying chronic infection that you are struggling to deal with or are recurrent even after treatment?
If you answer yes for any of these questions there is a good chance your immune system is not performing to the best of its capabilities.
What can you do to support your immune system?
First things first there are no one single magic pill or powder that is going to enhance your immune system. Supporting immune health as with all aspects of health is best achieved with a broad involvement and respect for the following areas:
- Optimising relaxation, recovery, rest & sleep
- Surrounding yourself with positive relationships – Emotions play a crucial role in immune health. The term psychoneuroimmunology is used to describe the interaction between emotions, the nervous system and the immune system.
- Eating a wholefood diet the majority of the time – “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” Michael Pollen.
- Appropriate daily movement & exercise to support the lymphatic system.
- Prioritise a healthy and happy digestive system – Around 70% of the immune system is housed in or immediately around the intestinal tract.
- Maintain a healthy body composition.
- Ensure an appropriate level of protein for your physical demands.
- Address any underlying chronic immune challenges such as digestive infections, viruses, mould exposure, food allergies/sensitivities etc.
Let’s assume you are already doing a reasonable job with these areas, yet you are still having some trouble with your immune system or just want to help prevent or reduce the duration or severity of illness; what next?
Nutrient deficiencies or insufficiencies are a leading cause of a depressed immune system. Below I am going to review specific nutrients that may help to improve immune function, especially if your nutrients status is sub-optimal.
Whilst complete deficiencies are quite rare these days, nutrient insufficiencies are somewhat common. Below are some nutrients that can support immune function.
Vitamin A plays a role in supporting the integrity and structure of the digestive lining as well as the skin and respiratory barriers. These barriers act as the junction between the outside world and our inner body. Breakdown of these barriers can result in foreign invaders getting into the body and increase the risk of infection or heighten immune response and inflammatory reactions.
This nutrient has long been associated with immune health. It has been shown to have anti-bacterial and anti-viral capabilities. It has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of colds and useful in modulating responses to stress, however higher levels of stress can deplete levels of vitamin C more readily.
Vitamin D is crucial for optimal immune function. Something that is hard to get from food and relies upon sunlight exposure means that it is a common insufficiency. Vitamin D is involved in the following:
- Improves the clearance of bacteria at various barrier sites in the body and in immune cells.
- Reduction of the frequency of viral infections specifically impacting the upper respiratory system.
Aiming for optimal levels of vitamin D is important, thus assessing vitamin D status is advised especially in the winter months. Vitamin D supplementation can then be judged accordingly.
This vitamin has been shown to increase white blood cell response and enhance other cells in the body that deal with infection. As we get older supplementation of vitamin E may be particularly beneficial. In one study supplementation of vitamin E at 200iu per day demonstrated a protective effect against upper respiratory tract infections and in particular the common cold.
Vitamins B6, B9 (folate) and B12
These nutrients are all involved in white blood cell production and formation of healthy white blood cells. They are the cells involved in fighting and preventing infections. Unfortunately these are common nutrients to become insufficient and for genetic reasons some people may require more support with these nutrients compared to others, especially with lifestyles and nutrition habits that are sub-optimal.
Zinc has long been associated with immune health and for good reason. It has been associated with the destruction of foreign bugs and is required for the white blood cells to function correctly.
Zinc is also involved in the inhibition of viruses and zinc lozenges in particular have been shown to help with the common cold.
This mineral supports the production of the enzyme glutathione, often known as the mother antioxidant. Antioxidants play a crucial role in supporting your immunity and protecting your cells from damage. In particular it is important to protect important immune related organs from damage, such as the thymus gland.
Based upon the above role of vitamins and minerals in supporting our immune system a high-quality multivitamin and mineral formula maybe good idea for some individuals, in particular those with high demands on their body such as those with significant amounts of physical and mental demands. Please remember though, that the foundation to optimal nutrient status is healthy nutrition choices and a healthy digestive system.
Taking vitamins and minerals without addressing areas such as your general nutrition, sleep, stress, movement and relationships is like building a boat out of rotten wood and golden nails.
- Seifter et al (1973) Thymotrophic action of vitamin A, federation preceedings, 32;947
- Semba RD (1994) Vitamin A, immunity and infection, Clinical Infectious Diseases, 19:489-499
- Bendich & Lengseth (1995) The health effects of vitamin C supplementation: a review, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 14: 124-136
- Jacob & Sotoudeh (2002) Vitamin C function and status in chronic disease, Nutrition in Clinical Care, 5:66-74
- Yamshchikov et al (2009) Vitamin D for treatment and prevention of infectious disease: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials
- Kelleher J (1991) Vitamin E and immune response, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 1991, 50:245-249
- Meydani et al (1997) Vitamin E supplementation and in vivo immune response in healthy elderly subjects: a randomised control trial, Journal of the American Medical Association, 277: 1380-1386
- Walker & Black (2004) Zinc and the risk of infectious disease, Annual Review of Nutrition, 24: 255-275
- Broome et al (2004) An increase in selenium intake improves immune function and poliovirus handling in adults with marginal selenium status, The American Journey of Clinical Nutrition, 80: 154-162