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The best supplements for your immune system

| NOV 16, 2023

Written by Nutritional Therapist Uta Boellinger.

It’s that time of year again where we’re all looking for that little bit of extra support to help us stay healthy. If this is a topic of interest for you, you’ve likely come across a wide range of information on ‘immune boosting’ supplements. It can be confusing and a little overwhelming so this article is designed to help you understand how your immune system actually works and which supplements are really worth including.

Our immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs working together to defend the body against harmful invaders. To keep this defense mechanism functioning at its best, it's essential to provide it with the right nutrients. These nutrients are needed for the creation of immune cells and feed those cells to help them function properly. Several key nutrients play a vital role in supporting immune health.

What Are The Best Vitamins For Your Immune System?

Vitamin C: The Immune System’s Fuel

Vitamin C is a powerhouse when it comes to supporting your immune system. It enhances the production of white blood cells, which are essential for fighting off infections. It’s also vital as it’s absorbed by immune cells and needed for the various cellular functions. Citrus fruits like oranges, strawberries and kiwi are excellent natural sources of vitamin C but so are yellow peppers which have a higher amount than most citrus fruit. However, if you find it challenging to consume enough through your diet, vitamin C supplements can bridge the gap and have been shown in studies to reduce the length of time required to recover from infections. 

Vitamin D: The Sunshine Vitamin

Vitamin D is often referred to as the sunshine vitamin because our bodies produce it in response to sunlight (it’s technically a hormone). This vitamin is crucial for immune function as it helps regulate the immune response and reduces inflammation. Spending time outdoors and getting sunlight exposure is essential. However, during the winter months or if you live in a region with limited sunlight (basically anywhere in the UK), vitamin D supplements can be beneficial. This is one of the few supplements which is recommended by the NHS for most people. 

Vitamin A: The Defender

Vitamin A is a key player in the immune response. It enhances the activity of immune cells, such as T cells, B cells which are responsible for identifying and eliminating harmful pathogens like bacteria and viruses as well as natural killer cells. These immune cells rely on vitamin A to function effectively.

Whilst preformed vitamin A is only found in animal foods such as liver, its precursor beta-carotene is easily obtained from most vegetables and particularly those which are red and orange such as carrots, sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Beta-carotene is also found in many immune support multivitamin supplements and again if lots of colourful vegetables aren’t a regular part of your diet, it may be worth considering supplementing. It’s generally recommended to supplement beta-carotenes rather than preformed vitamin A as it’s possible to take too much which can be harmful to the body particularly in pregnancy.

Probiotics: The Gut Guardians

A significant portion of our immune system resides in our gut. Probiotics, the friendly bacteria, help maintain a healthy balance in the gut flora. They not only support digestion but also enhance the body's defence against harmful pathogens. Yogurt, kefir, and fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut are natural sources of probiotics. If these foods aren't a regular part of your diet, consider taking probiotic supplements to promote a healthy gut and strengthen your immunity.

Omega-3 For Immunity

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that have numerous health benefits, including supporting a robust immune system. These fatty acids play a vital role in enhancing the activity of immune cells such as phagocytes which engulf and digest harmful organisms. Their main role though is in reducing inflammation. Whilst inflammation in and of itself is not a bad thing we often end up with chronic inflammation (i.e., the body’s inability to resolve the inflammatory process) which is a significant problem. Fish oil, particularly from fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, is the best source of omega-3. If you're not a fan of fish or don’t consume these at least 3 times a week, omega-3 supplements can provide the necessary dose to support your immune health. However, even if you do eat fish regularly you may still wish to supplement as omega 3 competes for uptake with omega 6 which unfortunately, we tend to have far too much of in the Western diet. 

Zinc: The Immune System's Secret Weapon

Zinc is a mineral that plays a pivotal role in immune function. It's involved in various processes within the immune system, including the activation of enzymes that help break down pathogens. Zinc deficiency can impair the immune response, making the body more susceptible to infections. Foods like meat, nuts, pumpkin seeds and legumes are good sources of zinc. However, if your diet lacks these zinc-rich foods, supplements can ensure you meet your daily requirements and keep your immune system in shape. You may also need more in the winter season as your body has to fight off more frequent invasions of viruses and bacteria. 

Choosing the Right Supplements for You

When it comes to choosing immune supporting supplements, it's essential to consider your individual needs and ideally consult with a healthcare professional. Here are a few tips to help you make informed decisions:

Evaluate Your Diet:

Assess your daily food intake to identify any nutrient gaps. If you have a balanced diet that includes all of the above, you may not need many supplements. However, if you have dietary restrictions, allergies, or specific health conditions, supplements can be a practical solution.

Consult a Healthcare Professional:

If you have underlying health conditions, are pregnant, or are taking medications consult a healthcare provider before starting any new supplements. A registered Nutritional Therapist can guide you on the appropriate dosage and ensure the supplements won't interfere with your current medications or health conditions.

Consider Quality:

When choosing supplements, opt for reputable brands that undergo third-party testing to ensure quality and safety. Look for certifications which indicate that the products have been independently verified for purity and potency. Reach out to your supplement brands and ask them some questions about how their products are made. A trustworthy supplier will always be willing to provide you with answers and additional information. 

Stay Active and Manage Stress

In addition to the right nutrients, staying physically active and managing stress are crucial aspects of supporting a healthy immune system. Regular exercise enhances immune function by promoting good circulation, which allows immune cells to move freely throughout the body. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week to reap the benefits.

Stress, especially chronic stress, can weaken the immune system and make the body more susceptible to illness. Practice stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, or hobbies that bring you joy. Adequate sleep is also vital for a well-functioning immune system, so prioritise getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night.

In conclusion, while supplements can certainly support your immune system, they work best in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle. A balanced diet, regular exercise, stress management, and sufficient sleep form the foundation of a robust immune system. By incorporating these habits and choosing the right supplements tailored to your needs, you can strengthen your body's defences and pave the way for a healthier, more resilient you. Remember, a holistic approach to wellness is the key to optimal immune function and overall well-being.

Uta Boellinger is a registered nutritional therapist who specialises in helping busy women balance their hormones, feel re energised and optimise their health. 

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