Fab Five: Nutrients for Immune Health
With autumn fully upon us so is cold and flu season – people left, right and center (including me!) are coming down with things. While sometimes getting ill is inevitable, there are definitely things you can do to keep your immune system at its best and make it less susceptible to infection. Your diet and nutrition are undeniably related to your immunity - your immune system requires a range of vitamins, minerals and nutrients to work properly and fight off infections. We have all likely noticed that when we aren’t eating or sleeping very well is usually when we become ill. Having a varied, balanced diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables and getting plenty of sleep is the best thing we can do for our immune system but there are a few nutrients that are particularly important. With that in mind, here are 5 nutrients that are key for your immune system and will help you fight off these autumn colds:
1. Vitamin C
It is common knowledge to drink up the orange juice when you are feeling ill, but the reality is that keeping your vitamin C levels high in the first place is much more effective than trying to boost them when you are already sick. Vitamin C is a highly powerful antioxidant (it removes toxic molecules) and it is also necessary for the daily function of our immune cells. These cells need even more vitamin C than usual when we are fighting off an infection so it is important to keep our levels high to protect ourselves as much as possible. As our bodies cannot store vitamin C, we need to consume it on a daily basis. Some great sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits, bell peppers, tomatoes, strawberries and kiwis. Conversely to popular belief, oranges aren’t the best sources of vitamin C – the winner is peppers, with one yellow pepper containing 569% of your daily intake!
2. Vitamin E
This fat-soluble vitamin is another strong antioxidant that traps harmful free radicals, it also plays a role in the immune response to infection and reduces inflammation. People with vitamin E deficiency have been found to have increased rates of illness so it is vital we get enough in our diets! Vitamin E and vitamin C are thought to slightly dependent on each other so it is a good idea to make sure you are getting enough of each in our diets. Some great sources of vitamin E include almonds, sweet potato, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, spinach, kale, avocado and vegetable and nut oils.
This essential mineral is crucial for the development and maintenance of our immune cells to help them ward off infections. It is also important for skin health, which is the first barrier your body has against attacking bacteria and viruses. Zinc deficiency is fairly common in the UK, particularly amongst young women, and is associated with a weaker immune system among a range of other symptoms. Zinc is primarily found in animal sources of food such as oysters, beef, lamb, crab and lobster. However, some great vegetarian sources of zinc include chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and cashews.
4. Vitamin A
This is also necessary for normal function of our immune cells and it has been shown that vitamin A deficiency causes immunodeficiency – an immune system that is not working properly and is much more susceptible to infection. It has also been shown that deficiency causes atrophy (wasting away) of the spleen, lymph nodes and thymus – immune tissues that are crucial for our immune system to function!! Some foods that are rich in vitamin A include liver, sweet potato, carrots, dark leafy greens, fish, eggs and apricots. Something to note is that while vitamin A is essential for the development of a baby, too much can be harmful so it is important for pregnant women to pay attention to how much they are eating!
Another essential mineral that is vital for the normal immune response is selenium. It acts as an antioxidant, provides protection against viruses and it is also necessary for our immune cells to kill infecting cells. Studies have shown that increasing selenium intake can increase immune protection and decrease rates of illness. Selenium levels in our food vary based on where they are grown/harvested but some foods that are high in selenium include brazil nuts, grass-fed beef, tuna, halibut, sunflower seeds, eggs, turkey and spinach.