Immune Support. I write this at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic when we fear a new and novel virus that has the ability to infect many and potentially kill many thousands of people. The fear is generated when we feel we have no control over the situation. It’s understandable as very little that is said about how the human body fights infections every day. But the body does and can fight infections. And it will do this with this new virus and new ones that will occur in the years to come.
But like every other organ and system of the body, we need to support it so that it can be strong and mount an effective response. Here I’ll talk you through my ten step plan to help build a strong immune system.
Our immune system- this wonderful complex system of specialised cells and antibodies that has enabled the human race to survive and thrive.
By definition the immune system mounts defences to fight infection or disease. There are two arms to it: the innate system that acts quickly and attacks anything foreign it comes into contact with; and the acquired system that learns to recognise a specific bacteria, virus or pathogen and send out specific antibodies to neutralise the threat and prevent it from proliferating. The acquired system is much slower to act as it has to be mobilised once it recognises the “antigen” but once it does it is highly effective.
Step 1: Vitamin D
What is Vitamin D’s significance to immunity? It has a very significant and pro-active role in the function of the immune system as immune cells have vitamin D receptors. It helps to enhance the function of the immune cells. Low levels have been shown to enhance susceptibility to infections. Vitamin D also helps to modulate your immune response (meaning it is neither too weak or too strong). If immune signals are not turned off at the appropriate time it can lead to autoimmune conditions.
Check your Vitamin D levels and if it’s Winter (October-March inclusive) supplement 400IU daily of Vitamin D3 ideally a sub-lingual formula as this is effectively absorbed straight into the bloodstream. These are actual NHS guidelines but very few people seem to know this or possibly do not understand the significance of the advice.
Vitamin D (actually a hormone) is activated from sunlight coming into direct contact with the skin. In the Winter in the Northern hemisphere the sun has too little UVB to provide sufficient vitamin D plus our bodies are covered in clothing. In the Summer it is important to allow some exposure to skin with no suntan lotion without burning: -20 minutes a day is ideal.
Can we obtain vitamin D from food? Yes from fatty foods (oily fish like salmon, egg yolks, dairy like butter and cheese) but for optimum levels we require sunlight on our skin.
In March our vitamin D stores will be at their lowest after the long winter (unless you’ve been fortunate to have some foreign sunny holiday).
There is a difference between “deficiency” and “optimal” levels and whilst no one optimum vitamin D level has been defined the MS Trust suggests a level of 75nmol/L. However by the end of Winter approx. 40% of the population has an average Vitamin D level of <25nmol/L (SACN 2016).
When you can, get out in the sunshine, expose your arms and soak up your daily dose of vitamin D.
Step 2: Vitamin C
How are humans similar to guinea pigs? We are the only mammals who cannot manufacturer vitamin C so must obtain it from our diets!
This unassuming vitamin has remarkable immune fighting properties. So much so that whilst you don’t hear these stories in the media, other countries use intravenous vitamin C to help fight viral infections.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that you look to do this, but optimising your intake of vitamin C is a simple, low cost and safe option that is high up on my immune fighting protocols.
Vitamin C is involved in the fight against infections by helping to speed up the production of immune fighting cells. It has anti-viral properties that has been shown in research to help prevent a virus from entering cells (where it replicates). It is also a powerful antioxidant scavenging and neutralising free radicals helping to prevent damage to cells.
Whilst we have an “RDA” level of just 60mg, this is set at a level designed to prevent disease (scurvy), but is not a level designed for optimal health. Most nutritional therapists often recommend much higher dosages. As a water soluble vitamin, the excess is excreted if not required and in very high dosages this may lead to loose stools. It my experience this is unlikely to occur in dosages of 1000mg per day.
For some people the acid based formulas may irritate the stomach lining so choose a gentle version using calcium ascorbate or “Ester C” instead. Try to choose one with flavonoids as they have a complementary effect together and a “time release” formula so that there is a “drip feed” of the vitamin into the bloodstream, helpful as the vitamin cannot be stored in the body.
We tend to think of oranges having the highest vitamin C levels, but they are not top of the list. The following foods are rich sources: dark green leafy vegetables (kale, cabbage, broccoli, parsley, Brussels Sprouts, cauliflower), kiwi fruits, peppers, cherries, berries, tomatoes, lemons. And at this time of year (April), why not go and (carefully) collect nettle leaves and make a soup (I promise the cooked leaves do not sting). It’s free, extremely healthy and tasty too!
Step 3: Always eating a nutrient dense wholefood diet
In very simple terms what I mean by this is a vegetable rich, processed food and refined sugar free diet. It’s common sense isn’t it? But can you honestly say that your diet matches this description?
Processed food is high in cheap processed fats, chemicals and sugar delivers no nutritional benefit to your body. In fact your body may utilise more nutrients metabolising this “junk” creating what is known as a nutritional debt. Other than the obvious signs like sluggishness, poor sleep, mood swings and difficulty coping with stress, you are not giving your organs and cells the fuel to thrive. And in the context of this article, it will impair the immune system. After sugar consumption it has been shown to suppress the immune system for up to five hours.
What do I mean by a “vegetable” rich diet? If you struggle to achieve “5 a day” on vegetables (not fruit) you are in for a shock. I bang on about this all the time, but an ideal diet is closer to “10 a day” with the majority from vegetables. Vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals. They are high in fibre (that keeps our gut healthy). And compounds called phytonutrients- plant based nutrients like flavonoids- that confer their health benefits to humans. When you look at your plate (lunch and dinner), half should be covered in vegetables.
Why not fruit you may ask? Do enjoy a couple of pieces of fruit a day but be aware of the sugar content. And aim for as much diversity and colour of vegetables as possible. Go on- try something new this week!
Avoid refined carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, rice, crackers and the foods they are baked in) and choose wholegrain every time, but keep portions low. We really don’t need more than 20% of our plate in these starchy foods. The remainder of your plate should be protein with good fats.
I’m no saint and don’t expect my clients to be either. So think of the Pareto rule and aim for (at least) 80% of your diet fitting these healthy rules and aim for a maximum 20% less healthy. In fact, 90:10 ratio would be even better! Enjoy an occasional biscuit, but pile up those vegetables every day. You’ll be surprised how good it makes you feel. And think of the boost it is giving your immunity too.
Step 4: Supporting gut health
Did you know that 70% of your immune system is in your gut? Like elsewhere in the body, the gut contains high amounts of specialist lymphatic tissue. This is home to white blood cells which fight infection. Some produce antibodies which attach to foreign invaders, some alert other cells to danger and some literally devour the invader!
A healthy mucosal lining traps bacteria and secretes its own anti-microbial compounds and the powerful Secretory IgA (SIgA) secretes antibodies that prevent pathogens penetrating the mucosal lining. This is also found in the respiratory tract.
Not forgetting the 100 trillion bacteria “microbiota” which reside in the colon – ten times the cells in your body. When we have a healthy diversity of beneficial (commensal) bacteria it promotes resilience and defence against pathogens. And with greater numbers of these bacteria it crowds out the bad pathogenic ones. By providing a home to these bacteria they provide innumerable health benefits to us that we are only just beginning to understand.
As a specialist in gut health, I frequently see poor gut health status: low levels of beneficial bacteria, extremely low SIgA, leaky gut, an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria. The body is unable to mount a strong immune response.
What can we do? Following a high fibre diet is essential. A very high vegetable diet, with berries, nuts, seeds, pulses and brown rice should be the foundation of your diet. The average fibre intake is 17g when we require 30g/day. Aim to consume 40 different plant foods each week to obtain various plant compounds and fibre which feed these gut bugs. Different bacteria require different fibre sources. And in turn they produce compounds that keep the gut healthy.
Slowly increase your fibre intake whilst increasing your fluid intake to 2L per day. Initially it may cause some flatulence as the good bacteria start to feed and grow, so don’t give up it should settle! There is so much more to gut health but follow my Steps 3 and 4 and you’re on the right path.
Step 5: Zinc and Selenium
These are both trace minerals. And whilst only required in small amounts they may be deficient in people’s diets. But both are essential for the immune system so we should take care to be eating foods that are a rich source of each.
Zinc has a crucial immune role. It is involved in the normal development and function of most immune fighting cells. It helps immune cells fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Some studies have shown that supplementation may shorten the length of the common cold but it should only be taken short-term.
The richest source by far is oysters! More common foods are meat, seafood, dark meat of poultry, dairy, cashews, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas and almonds.
Selenium is essential for an efficient and effective immune response. A low selenium status has been shown to correspond with an impaired immune response to viral infections. Selenium consumption is considered to be declining in part as our soils tend to be more deficient in this mineral. Plants and animals eating the plants are not obtaining the levels they once did and therefore humans may have a lower intake too.
The richest sources are organ meat, seafood and brazil nuts. It’s also found in meats, wholegrains, eggs and dairy.
As I mentioned in Step 3, you can see why eating a dense wholefood diet is essential to obtain these less well known nutrients.