With winter approaching and many employees returning to the office post-lockdown, it’s time to think about what we can do to boost our immune system and defend our bodies against infection. We spoke to nutritional therapist and wellness coach Vee O’Brien, read on for her top 4 nutrients & foods that will kick your immune system up a gear.
Firstly, what is the Immune System?
The immune system is the system of the body responsible for protecting us from environmental and external threats, such as diseases and toxins. It relies on a coordinated effort from a range of cells, organs and tissues to keep us healthy and safe.
Our first line of defence is actually our skin, a barrier keeping foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria out of our bodies. Potential entry points such as our nostrils, throats, and ears are coated in membranes and mucus (runny nose + sore throat, anyone?) which stops unwanted bugs in their tracks.
If a pathogen manages to sneak past our layers of protection and into our digestive system, never fear, for we have back-up. Our second line of defence is our stomach, which contains acid that kills some bacteria and other harmful pathogens. In addition, our white blood cells kick into action, tracking down the invaders and trying to destroy them. It is at this point that you might start experiencing a fever, or feel fatigued and drained.
In a healthy person, your white blood cells are able to ward off the invader within a few days or weeks (depending on the type of infection). What’s more, they also remember them so that if the same invader attempts to get you sick again, you have an army ready to pounce and destroy!
However, sometimes we might find ourselves with weakened or compromised immune systems. This can result from heightened levels of stress over prolonged periods, poor diet, or regular alcohol consumption. A weak immune system is an open invitation to sickness and disease, while a strong Immune system can stop sickness and disease in its tracks.
So how can we boost our immune systems, to help it stay on top of the cold this winter? Here are the 4 best nutrients and foods to look out for:
A number of antioxidant nutrients play a really important role in immunity.
Most invaders produce oxidising chemicals known as free radicals to fight off the troops of your immune system. Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E, zinc and selenium disarm these free radicals, weakening the invader.
Vitamin A – Helps maintain integrity of the digestive tract, lungs & cell membranes, meaning it helps prevent foreign agents entering
Vitamin E – Improves white cell production and function
Zinc – Is also critical for immune cell production and functioning of your white blood cells
Selenium – Stops viruses from reproducing and spreading in your body
Best sources of these antioxidants?
Vitamin A – Carrots, dark leafy greens, sweet potato, liver, bell peppers
Vitamin E – foods that contain fat. E.g. avocado, seeds, nuts
Zinc – Seafood, beef/lamb, spinach, pumpkin seeds, nuts
Selenium – Brazil nuts, seafood, fish and seaweed
2. VITAMIN C
Vitamin C is known as the master immune booster. It has been shown to play more than a dozen roles in fighting off invaders, including:
- Helping immune cells to mature
- Improving the performance of white blood cells
- Destroying toxins produced by bacteria
- It is a natural anti-histamine, meaning it calms down inflammation (think of the sprays you take for hayfever…)
- Stimulating other parts of the immune system to further protect cells by covering them in protein coats which make viral entry more difficult
- And many more…
It is important and interesting to note that these effects were only seen when dosages of 1000mg of Vitamin C was used. However, the RDA is a measly 60mg/day. Nonetheless, it is quite common for people to take a soluble 1000mg tablet (those tasty orange ones!) if they feel like they’re coming down with something.
Best sources of Vitamin C?
Citrus, tart fruits (berries), green leafy veg e.g. spinach/kale, red peppers, sprouts, broccoli, pineapple, papaya and mango.
Probiotics are known as nature’s antibiotics. You no doubt have heard of their benefits to your gut, but you might not be aware of their importance in aiding the immune system.
- They consume the nutrients that would otherwise feed the bad guys
- They block receptor sites that harmful bacteria latch onto to cause an infection
- They produce substances such which stop harmful bacteria from growing
- They are important in the treatment of cancer, allergies, and infections caused by viruses, parasites and yeasts
- They have lots of other benefits – such as improved digestive system, increased energy production (Vitamin B12), and helping weight loss
Best sources of probiotics?
Generally, anything fermented is a great source of probiotics, so things like sauerkraut, kefir, tempeh, and pickles, as well as unpasteurised cheese, miso soup, and Bio Live yoghurts.
4. AROMATICS AND SPICES
Turmeric, cayenne pepper, lemon juice, ginger, garlic and cinnamon are all extremely helpful in supporting the immune system to do its vital job.
I try to use most of these things in my daily routine, which looks something like this:
- A glass of water with a squeeze of lemon first thing in the morning before anything else – wonderful for cleansing the digestive system, boosting the immune system and supporting the liver!
- A mug of turmeric latte mid-morning or before bed, made with turmeric, ground ginger and cinnamon.
- I always try to add garlic to anything I cook, whether it’s a curry, a stir fry or a soup.
There are so many things you can do to help to support your natural defense system; you don’t need to do everything suggested, but just incorporating a few of these ideas will help your immune system get a head start on the colds and coughs this winter!
About the author:
Vee O’Brien is a nutritional therapist, wellbeing coach, and founder of Vee Vital, on a mission to help as many people as possible make transformational changes in their health, vitality, and overall happiness. Having overcome her own personal health struggles, Vee now offers coaching and nutritional support to others looking to do the same.
Editors note: This post was originally posted 22 November 2018 and has been updated to helps employees return to work safely post-lockdown.