With the winter months fast approaching, the season for bugs looms large! However, nature has provided us with a wealth of nutrients to help fend off coughs, colds and worse. Interestingly, most people know that vitamin C and the mineral zinc are great immune-boosters but many are unaware of the wealth of other nutrients that can help fight off those nasty bugs, all winter long!
Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her five top immune-boosting nutrients!
Vitamin D tends to be associated with healthy bones and teeth. However, it’s also a really key player in the health of the immune system. Vitamin D is fondly known as the ‘sunshine’ vitamin because it’s primarily made on the skin in the presence of sunlight. It, therefore, follows that during winter months, people living in the Northern Hemisphere, including the UK, are likely to be deficient. This is the very reason that Public Health England are recommending supplementation for everyone, particularly during the winter.
So how does it work? It would seem that vitamin D activates a key part of the immune system – the T killer cells - that detect unwanted viruses and bacteria. T cells rely on vitamin D in order to activate otherwise, they would remain dormant.
As well as taking a supplement of vitamin D this winter, eat plenty of oily fish, particularly those containing small bones such as sardines, pilchards and mackerel. However, whilst they provide good sources of vitamin D, they may not be sufficient to keep your immune system in tip-top shape all winter-long.
Also known as ‘friendly bacteria’! You may be surprised to know that your gut is home to 70% of your immune system. It’s actually your body’s largest barrier against you and the outside world. These defences come in the form of beneficial bacteria or probiotics. One of the most prevalent strains of friendly bacteria is lactobacillus acidophilus, which is often found in yoghurt with active cultures.
However, probiotics need feeding! Foods such as Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, lentils, oats and bananas will all feed these good guys and boost your immune system at the same time.
Women, in particular, may associate vitamin B6 with good hormone balance. However, it’s also a mighty strength within the immune system. Vitamin B6 helps to uprate antibody reactions which fight infections, but it also stimulates T cells production, so it’s a force to be reckoned with!
The good news is that vitamin B6 is rarely deficient in the diet. However, increasing intake is going to have a positive effect on the immune system. Avocadoes (great on toast for breakfast), bananas (excellent afternoon snack), salmon (also packed with health-giving omega-3 fats), and foods containing wholegrain flour (such as wholewheat bread) provide excellent amounts of vitamin B6.
Beta-carotene is a colourful jewel within the health of the immune system! This is because it’s turned into vitamin A in the body when needed, which is essential for the health of the immune system as well as vision and cell integrity. Vitamin A itself is mainly available in animal produce such as liver, eggs, butter and cheese, so vegetarian and vegans may be lacking.
However, beta-carotene is widely available in lots of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables including carrots, butternut squash, broccoli, kale and cantaloupe melon. It’s converted into vitamin A when needed but it does require sufficient protein, zinc and vitamin C. A diet rich in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, which includes protein either from animal or vegetable sources, together with some nuts and seeds will ensure beta-carotene can carry out its work.
As with a number of other nutrients, vitamin E improves B and T-cell function (both key parts of the immune system), plus it protects white blood cells from damage. However, just like many nutrients, vitamin E doesn’t work in isolation; it works hand-in-hand with selenium. Wheatgerm and wholewheat flour both contain good amounts of these nutrients.
Vitamin E can sometimes be slightly confusing to understand; vitamin E is actually called alpha tocopherol and there are several natural tocopherols that demonstrate vitamin E activity. As we know, however, nature has our back, and these different forms are all found in various foods. Avocadoes, sunflower seeds and oils are all great sources of vitamin E.
So, as we realise, nothing works in isolation in nature, therefore eating a colourful ‘rainbow’ coloured diet every day is going to go a long way to keeping bugs at bay this winter!