When was the last time you really considered what your immune system does for you and how important it is? It quietly works away to prevent infection, mobilising all kinds of biochemical helpers to make sure that external germs, viruses and environmental agents don’t destroy our bodies. It’s not until we’re ill that we know it’s there, working with an army
of protectors, to fend off bugs. So, how can you support your immune system to make sure it can do its job?
Get the basics right
To stay alive, our body breaks down the foods we eat, or the supplements that we take, to grab vitamins and minerals, phytonutrients and other health substances that the body recognises as immune health builders. From citrus fruits rich in vitamin C, through to dates rich in immune-boosting iron, it’s important that our diets are rich and colourful to provide us with a wide range of immune-strengthening nutrients. Knowing this, researchers have also wanted to discover the effect that higher levels of nutrients have on immune function, or what happens when levels in the blood become too low – in effect, when you are deficient. For example, research has found that supplementation with large amounts of vitamin C could help to reduce the duration and severity of the common cold. Iron status, that is, the amount that you have in the body, was found to influence how well people could fight off infection, and vitamin D helps to reduce susceptibility to infection. Thankfully, the Government now advises that supplementation with vitamin D of 10mcg daily is necessary, especially in the months where daylight hours are diminished.
Gut feeling about it
Digestive health research over the past 10 years has exploded the myth that our digestive system is little more than a tube for processing food. In truth, when it comes to helping our immune systems, the gut is vital. These wonderful microbes provide vitamins, the right acid or alkaline balance and assist with the breakdown of foods within the digestive tract, and this can influence how the immune system responds to infections or tissue damage.
Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables will provide fructooligosaccharides, which are a food source for good gut bacteria. We know that pickled vegetables, in particular, encourage a wide range of helpful bacterial species to grow, as do other fermented foods, such as kombucha or kefir (whether home-made or bought). Most probiotic supplements include a diverse range of gut bacterial species for the upper and lower digestive tracts (mostly Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria). Taking these is a useful safeguard of bacterial digestive health.
Supplements for constipation will also help. Poor gut transit times lead to a more toxic gut environment, so keep things moving along with fruit cubes, senna, psyllium or linseeds, aloe vera or fibre supplements. This will ensure that your digestive system has the best chance at positively influencing immune function.
Of course, immune reactions can occur in the gut itself. There are some nutrients which are especially useful for healing the bowel, such as L-glutamine, friendly bacteria supplements, as well as a good high potency multi-nutrient to safeguard a wide range of nutrients in your diet.
Antioxidant minerals are powerhouses of immune health activity. Many of the key antioxidants in the body are partly formed using minerals such as selenium, zinc, copper and manganese, in the most incredible biochemical pathways.
As well as quenching the effects of highly reactive (and potentially damaging) free radicals, they have been found in research to positively influence immune function, helping to modulate the way that immune cells respond to infection, allergic reactions and encouraging tissue repair.
Studies have shown us that those with poor body levels (‘status’) of key immune health minerals have compromised immune function. Research shows us that these minerals influence the functioning of all components of the immune system and its ability to respond to infection. It’s found in significant amounts in immune tissues such as the spleen, lymph nodes and the liver. It reduces production of free radicals, helps the killing capacity of immune cells that attack unwanted microbial invaders and helps mobilise a whole host of immune cells to recognise and respond to infection.
There are many mineral formulations on the market, some of which combine minerals, or they are available on their own. A skilled nutritionist will be able to assess what dietary levels you might supplement with to help support your immune health.
Really helpful herbals
For thousands of years, people from many different cultures have turned to herbal formulations to help manage inflammation and infection. At this time of year, you might like to consider:
- Turmeric: Contains curcuminoids, which have been shown to help manage various steps in the inflammatory pathway.
- Echinacea: This herb has the ability to increase the efficiency with which the body deals with infection.
- Black elderberry: Rich in flavonoids, especially quercetin (which can also be found as a single supplement) and anthocyanins, which help protect cells from damage by potentially harmful free radicals.
- Garlic: Can stimulate the activity of macrophages (white blood cells) to engulf foreign matter and micro-organisms. It also helps increase the activity of helper T-cells, which are pivotal to the entire immune response. Garlic has proven effect against Streptococcus and Staphylococcus, which are responsible for many common illnesses, such as skin infections, throat infections and vaginal infections.
- Horseradish: Rich in volatile oils, which have antibiotic properties, explaining why they’re effective for treating throat and chest infections.
- Oregano: Well-known to be a strong anti-microbial, but it is also incredibly rich in antioxidant nutrients. Oregano oil has been found to positively influence immune reactions that can occur on the surface of the gut, where damage might have been caused, leading to ‘leaky junctions’ (as can happen with food allergies and intolerances), thus helping them to heal.
As well as basic micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), antioxidant vitamins and minerals and having a healthy gut microbiome, we know that specific health substances in foods can work to help keep the immune system healthy. These are phytonutrients, better known as plant nutrients. Research has found that:
- Olive leaf extract is rich in many natural antioxidants, such as tocopherols (vitamin E compounds), flavonoids, anthocynanins and polyphenols. Because of this, olive leaf extract is gaining real popularity as a supplement in its own right and is chosen over colder season months as a safeguard for immune health.
- Beta glucans are sugars that are found in the cell walls of fungi, yeasts, algae and cereals, such as oats and barley. They’ve been found in research to help increase resistance to infection.
- Polyphenols are powerfully antioxidant, with the most well-known sources being grape extracts and cherries. These have been made into all kinds of supplements, including powdered, concentrated extracts, and drink concentrates.