It seems like during the winter months, you’re constantly either sniffling, clearing your throat, or forever holding a tissue up to your nose. But whether it’s the height of cold and flu season or some other time of year, bacteria and viruses find a way to bombard your body, causing your immune system works overtime.
Article at a Glance:
Your Immune System
- Your immune system helps your body fight off illness
- Many factors can compromise a person’s immune system response
- Inflammatory actions are part of your immune system’s response
- Various nutrients can help support your immune system
- Vitamin C is an antioxidant, which controls your body’s inflammatory actions
- Vitamin C helps strengthen your immune system’s white blood cells
- You need to replenish your body’s vitamin C supply on a daily basis
- Vitamin D fine tunes your production of peptides that power your innate immune system
- This action maximizes your body’s immune response to pathogens
- Colder months means less time in the sun, so the need for supplementation grows
- Phytonutrients help to protect plant life from environmental attacks
- These compounds can also support your immune system with antioxidants
- Flavonoids, in particular, are powerful antioxidant phytonutrients
Prebiotics & Probiotics
- Probiotics are good bacteria that fight against viruses
- Prebiotics ensure your probiotics are healthy
- Prebiotics also support proteins that manage your immune system, while also helping you absorb certain minerals
- Zinc is a trace mineral that is abundant in your body’s cells
- Zinc can regulate your immune system and control inflammation
- Studies show that zinc could help reduce the duration of the common cold
Of course, there’s some conjecture as to whether or not the seasonally cold weather has any impact at all on your body’s ability to fend off attacks from molecular agitators. And while your immune system needs support year round, no matter the temperature outside, research shows that a drop in temperatures can, in fact, adversely affect your immune response, making it more and more difficult for your body to fight off infections.
For starters, you tend to get far less sunshine during the fall and winter months, which means your body’s synthesis of vitamin D is markedly decreased. This is important because studies demonstrate that vitamin D plays an essential role in maintaining your immune system. Also, spending more time indoors usually means spending more time in close proximity to other people—making the spread of viruses more likely to occur.
What’s more, studies show that the rhinovirus—the most frequent cause of the common cold—replicates at a higher rate in cooler temperatures. This indicates an increased likelihood that you’ll get sick during the wintertime—which really puts the “cold” in the “common cold.”
With those factors working against your immune system, it’s vital that you maintain a proper and constant flow of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients into your body to strengthen your defenses against all the elements working to do you harm.
But what is the immune system? And perhaps more importantly, what are the top 5 nutrients you need to support immune system function? Let’s find out.
What Is The Immune System And How Does It Work?
The immune system’s main function in your body is to limit—or even prevent entirely—infections that can break down your body, one molecule at a time. When your immune system is functioning properly, it detects unhealthy cells and targets damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs) and pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs), which both trigger your body’s innate inflammatory response to sickness.
The immune system cells that are responsible for your body’s defenses are developed in your bone marrow. Those cells recognize the patterns and signals associated with getting sick and respond with a variety of tactics. Unfortunately, some of those tactics are rather unpleasant.
A fever, runny nose, sore throat, cough, fatigue—these are all inflammatory actions your body takes for your protection. Fever releases white blood cells, while also increasing your metabolism and stopping certain organisms from multiplying. Your damaged cells also release histamine, which brings about the helpful acute inflammation. This histamine causes your cell walls to dilate, creating redness, heat, pain, and swelling and this all limits the effects of whatever irritant has invaded your body. And all of this adds up to an over-taxed immune system—a system in need of nutritional support.
Vitamin C For Immune Health
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin that’s perhaps most well-known for its role in supporting a healthy immune system. As a potent antioxidant, vitamin C fights off the free radicals that can cause acute inflammation to mutate into far-worse chronic inflammation.
Vitamin C also boosts your immune system by lending a hand to your white blood cells by encouraging the production of lymphocytes and phagocytes, two types of white blood cells that help protect your body from infection. Vitamin C is also an essential part of your skin’s defense system, where its antioxidant properties enable it to help strengthen your skin’s natural barriers against environmental damage. It’s also been theorized that people with low levels of vitamin C are more likely to have poor overall health. In fact, studies have shown that people who get hit with upper respiratory illnesses tend to have lower levels of vitamin C.
And since it’s water soluble, vitamin C is easily flushed out of your system. This means you need a daily intake of the vitamin in order to gain its nutritional benefits. Add plenty of citrus fruits to your diet, along with red bell peppers, strawberries, tomato juice, or some cereals that are fortified with vitamin C.
Vitamin D To Boost Your Immune System
Vitamin D is created in your body when you get adequate sun exposure, where it then spreads to various areas, including the cells of your immune system. Once there, vitamin D adjusts the production of antimicrobial peptides—namely, cathelicidin, which serve a critical role in our innate immune defense against bacterial infection. And according to research, the vitamin D-cathelicidin connection has evolved over millions of years to efficiently promote healthy immune systems. That study concluded that the ability of vitamin D to regulate anti-bacterial proteins, like cathelicidin, is so specifically important to humans that it is shared only by primates—and no other animal species.
The researchers wrote in their conclusion that “the placement of the cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide gene under the regulation of the vitamin D pathway” maximizes the body’s immune response to pathogens while minimizing damage to the body. In another study, researchers incubated human white blood cells with varying levels of vitamin D, then exposed them to a molecule associated with a bacteria that promotes inflammatory responses. The results of that study showed that cells incubated with no vitamin D showed higher levels of inflammation than the cells incubated with vitamin D.
But as stated earlier, people tend to spend less time in the sun during the colder months. Plus, with most of our work occurring in-doors all year round, our time in the sun is much less than that of our forefathers. So, what’s an alternative source of vitamin D? Unfortunately, few foods contain the essential vitamin and the ones that do have vitamin D don’t boast all that much. You can get vitamin D from some fatty fish, as well as beef liver, cheese, egg yolks, and fortified foods, but supplementation could be your best bet.
Phytonutrients Protect Your Immune System Cells
Phytonutrients are naturally occurring compounds found in fruits, berries, vegetables, whole grains, beans, herbs, spices, nuts, legumes, and seeds, that help plants fend off fungal infections, insect attacks, radiation, and other environmental threats. Think of phytonutrients as immune system-boosting vitamins and minerals for plant life.
But these compounds can also deliver health benefits to us humans. Phytonutrients have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, giving them a strong efficacy in supporting your immune system. One of the most studied groups of phytonutrients are flavonoids. Currently, there are an estimated 10,000 different members of the flavonoid family that contribute to the colorful pigments of various fruits, veggies, and herbs.
Like most phytonutrients, flavonoids are known for their strength as antioxidants, scavenging free radicals before they can inflict oxidative damage on tissues and cells. And since such harm can prove detrimental to your immune system, guarding against it with antioxidant-rich flavonoids is crucial to a decrease in an array of physiological conditions.
Prebiotics & Probiotics For Your Immune System
Your immune system is constantly on high alert against invaders—and having an arsenal of good bacteria helps your body in the fight against an overabundance of yeast and fungi, along with attacks from viruses. That good bacteria living inside of you right now are called probiotics and you can support your natural supply—or microbiome—by eating probiotic-rich foods like certain yogurts, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
Certain strains of probiotics were found to be effective in protecting cells against bacteria-triggered infections by researchers. Meanwhile, this study showed that probiotics could potentially be adept at helping women keep urinary tract infections at bay.
But to maintain healthy levels of probiotics, you need to feed them the food they need to proliferate. That’s where prebiotics come in—they are the nutrition for your probiotics. This symbiotic relationship is called microbiome therapy, and its basic gist is that consuming them equals greater health benefits for you. Prebiotic foods include bananas, garlic, onions, asparagus, apples, oats, wheat bran, and more. For a glimpse of how prebiotics can support your immune system, research demonstrates that they jumpstart your gut’s natural levels of cytokine, which is a collection of proteins that manage your immune system and stave off chronic inflammation. What’s more, another study showed that prebiotics could help your body absorb minerals that also support your immune system.
How Zinc Can Benefit The Immune System
Speaking of minerals vital to the support of your immune system, zinc is the second-most abundant trace mineral in your body (after iron) and it’s found in every single one of your cells. Found in foods like oysters, crab, lean meats, poultry, baked beans, chickpeas, and yogurt, zinc appears to have a knack for regulating your immune response and helping control the inflammation that causes you to feel lousy.
Because of its involvement with your immune system and inflammation, a deficiency can lead to a weakened immune defense. And since your body doesn’t produce its own zinc, you must either obtain it from diet or from nutritional supplementation in order to reap the benefits.
And these benefits like the stimulation of immune cells and the reduction of oxidative stress are far reaching. In fact, results from several studies show that anywhere from 80-92 mg per day of zinc could potentially reduce the length of the common cold by more than 30 percent. Meanwhile, zinc supplements demonstrate a talent for reducing the risk of infections and promoting a strong immune response in older adults.
Maintaining A Healthy Immune Response
Your immune system is here to protect you—but it also needs you to supply the support it needs to function properly and keep you healthy. These means giving it a constant supply of nutrients that enable the immune system machinery to do its job. The above nutrients are only the beginning of the story—with other helpful elements including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, vitamin E, and the B vitamins. So, when it comes to your immune system, there’s value in a robust and varied health regimen—no matter what time of year or what the weather is like outside.