As cold and flu season approaches, let’s explore 5 nutrients to include for good immune health. First, it is important to note that there is not one particular food or supplement that can help the immune system on its own. However, we do know certain dietary patterns of eating can help.
Let’s review the immune system
Our immune system includes organs, cells and chemicals that fight infection. Diet can support immune health by keeping our cells healthy, including those immune cells. The body’s immune response also relies on the presence of many micronutrients. Which means, we want to make sure we are eating variety of nutrients.
There are factors that may suppress our immune system. These include: older age, environmental toxins, excessive alcohol intake, chronic disease, stress or lack of sleep.
Certain dietary patterns may help the body prepare for the body’s immune response. These nutrition recommendations include:
- eating a balanced diet that focuses on antioxidants such as vitamin C, A, E and D
- includes whole grains
- adequate protein
- includes unsaturated fats and omega 3 fats
- optimizes gut health
- minimizes highly processed foods, saturated fats and sugar.
Keep in mind, it is better to take a food first approach whenever possible and only take supplements to fill the nutrient gaps as discussed with your health care professional.
5 Nutrients for Immune Health
Vitamin C: An antioxidant that is important for growth and repair of tissue in the body and that protects cells from damage (including your immune defence). Excess vitamin C is removed in the urine, so consuming more isn’t better.
- Choose foods like red pepper, oranges, kiwi, strawberry and broccoli.
Vitamin A: Is important for normal growth, development and function of our eyes, skin and immune system. High doses of vitamin A can be toxic, so taking a vitamin A supplement is not recommended.
- Choose foods like sweet potato, carrot, pumpkin, squash, spinach, cantaloupe or milk.
Vitamin E: Is an important antioxidant that can protect cells from damage and important for your immune function. It is also important to note that vitamin C and E work together. So, it is important that you get enough of both.
- Choose foods like nuts, seeds, avocado, leafy greens, olive oil and salmon.
Vitamin D: Many people know the importance of vitamin D in working with calcium for strong bones, but vitamin D has roles outside of bone health. It is important for helping our muscles, nerves and immune system function properly. Vitamin D is found in milk and fatty fish; so it is not found in many foods. Although vitamin D is made from the sun, we often don’t get enough unprotected sun exposure to meet our needs. For this reason, you may want to supplement with vitamin D. You can start with 400 IU in babies who are breastfeeding, 600 IU for toddlers and children, and 1000 IU for adults. Keep in mind, depending on your bloodwork you may need an increased dosage, but more is not better and there is an upper limit.
Zinc: Is important for normal growth and development, it also is important for strengthening the immune system. You can typically meet your nutrition needs easily through these foods. Research has shown that taking zinc within 24 hours of cold symptoms can improve length or severity of symptoms. Before taking a zinc supplement, speak with your health care provider as it can be harmful if you take too much. There is an upper limit of 40 mg per day from food and supplements.
- Choose foods like meat, fish, shellfish, beans and lentils.
Gut Health & Immune Health
Our gut is a major site to our immune system. Our diet plays a large role in what kind of microbes live in our gut. A high fibre plant-rich diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes support the growth and maintenance of these beneficial microbes. Probiotics or fermented foods could further support the healthy bacteria in the gut. Try kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha or probiotic yogurts
Will Natural Health Products Improve our Immune Health
There are many natural health products promoted to help boost our immune system. However, studies are lacking enough consistent evidence to support with strong recommendations.
Echinacea may help with the severity and length of colds, but results from the studies have been small or insufficient.
Elderberry has also been used for centuries and is now be found in syrups, lozenges, pills or gummies. Elderberries have some antioxidant properties; however, research is still lacking on its effectiveness in preventing colds or flu. Some studies have shown elderberry can reduce the severity and duration of colds and flu. You must also use caution as there as been reports of poisoning from inadequate preparations as the elderberry itself can be toxic in its raw form.
There is more research needed in this area to determine which natural health products, preparations, and dosages can be beneficial for our immune health.
Putting it together
Overall, remember that no one supplement can replace the benefits of a nutritious diet. Speak with your health care professional before starting any supplements.
Along with prioritizing an antioxidant rich balanced diet, washing your hands, getting adequate sleep, managing stress, getting physical activity and staying hydrated are all important for our immune health.
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