Your immune system is your body’s first line of defence against illness and disease. Many factors play a part in how robust your immune system is including your genetic makeup, lifestyle and also your diet. What we eat can have a big impact on how efficiently our immune system works, so today I’d like to explore what vitamins and nutrients are essential for a healthy immune system and what steps we can take to support our immune system.
The first line of defence: The immune system
Understanding our immune system is the step towards being able to make choices that benefit and support our bodies natural functions. Our immune system is a group of cells, tissues and proteins that work together to fight disease. Your white blood cells store a record of every harmful microbe or disease it has ever fought off. Upon recognising one or more of these harmful microbes your body, your white blood cells flood you with antibodies designed to fight off and prevent disease.
Most of the time we go through our day to day unaware of the microbes and illnesses that our immune system is fighting off, because it is working efficiently. However when our immune system is not functioning efficiently these harmful microbes can spread, making us feel and display the physical symptoms of illness. Epidemiological studies have found that those who are poorly nourished are at greater risk of bacterial, viral, and other infections. This is why it is important to care for our immune system and provide it with the right vitamins and nutrients to promote a healthy immune system.
The Nutritional Approach To Your Immune System
A balanced and healthy diet is a great way to support your immune system and prevent illness, vitamins and minerals are a vital part of this. Vitamins such as B, C, D, E, A, and zinc, along with minerals and antioxidants, play vital roles in supporting immunity. These vitamins have several functions including: working as an antioxidant to protect your healthy cells, promote activity and production of white blood cells and producing antibodies. Let’s examine these vitamins, where we can find them, and what they can do for us.
Vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin that plays a role in producing antibodies and T cells, the type of white blood cells that identify pathogens. Vitamin A also plays a vital role in repairing mucosal barriers in the respiratory and digestive tract. These help to trap bacteria, viruses and other infectious agents. Vitamin A is most commonly found in oily fish, liver, butter and cheese. Vitamin A can also be found in yellow or orange coloured vegetables such as pumpkin or squash.
Vitamin B is largely responsible for the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen around your body. Deficiency in vitamin B has been found to increase your risk of depression, anxiety, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Vitamin B has also been found to be effective in preventing heart disease and decreasing your risk of a stroke. Vitamin B12 is the most common vitamin B we speak about when referring to immune boosting properties and can be found in foods such as meat, fish, milk eggs and some fortified cereals.
Vitamin C is one of the most talked about vitamins when discussing the subject of nutrition and immunity. Vitamin C helps facilitate a number of bodily functions such as healing wounds and repairing and maintaining healthy bones, teeth, skin and cartilage. Our bodies do not produce vitamin C naturally, so it is essential to make sure the food you consume contains some. Vitamin C can typically be found in citrus fruits (lemons, limes, oranges), bell peppers, tomatoes, berries and Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower).
Vitamin D often refers to two vitamins: D2 and D3. Vitamin D2 is a naturally occurring yeast that can only be absorbed through our diet. Vitamin D3 is synthesised in our skin and makes up the majority of our vitamin D intake. Most of the time our bodies produce more than enough vitamin D that there is no need to supplement your intake through diet or supplements. However during the winter months our bodies can not be exposed to enough sunlight to produce the level of vitamin D necessary for our bodies to function efficiently. Vitamin D has been found to prevent fractures and bone injuries, whilst promoting good muscle and bone repair. It also plays a role in preventing diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Vitamin D can commonly be found in foods such as: oily fish, egg yoke, red meat and cereals.
Vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin that can come in several forms. Its main role is to provide antioxidant properties and remove loose electrons known as “free radicals” that can damage cells. Vitamin E also enhances the immune system and prevents arteries from becoming blocked or clogged. Vitamin E can be found in a number off foods including: sunflower oil and seeds, almonds, peanuts, pumpkin and avocados.
Zinc is a micronutrient that our bodies require for a number of roles such as neurological development and supporting growth. Zinc is also vital to our immune systems, effecting how our cells fight off infections and also reducing inflammation. Zinc deficiency is rare in the western world but can be more likely to occur in vegans or vegetarians who avoid oily fish and shellfish. Zinc can however be found in a number of food sources such as chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, cashews, spinach, meat and dairy.
Our immune system plays a vital role in preventing disease and maintaining our bodily functions. Making sure we fuel our body with all the correct vitamins and nutrients can present a bit of a challenge. By ensuring that you are eating a mixed and balanced diet you will find that you wont need to worry about deficiency in vitamins as there are so many vitamins to be absorbed in nearly everything we eat. Fresh fruit and vegetables are essential to boost our immune system, but so oily fish, red meat, and dairy, can also play an important role in a balanced diet. By just eating a few different meals a week, you can provide your body with all the tools it needs to survive and thrive.