With the flu season in full swing, many people take even greater precautions to avoid falling sick through diet and exercise. We go over some nutrients that are known to play a role in supporting your defenses against germs and other infectious agents.
The following text is based on information by the US National Library of Medicine, Harvard’s School of Public Health and the Australia Nutrition Foundation (Nutrition Australia). It is meant for general purposes only and does not constitute any form of medical advice. Do not rely on it as a substitute for proper guidance or diagnosis from your doctor or healthcare provider.
As obvious as it may seem, it’s worth noting that the list is by no means exhaustive. Pinpointing just a few substances that magically make your immunity go up is not realistic. Instead, your immune system is a very complex network of cells and proteins that is closely linked to nutrition. The actual number of nutrients involved is bigger and changes constantly, as scientists discover new patterns and associations. It’s not for nothing that the best way to aid your immune system is to simply follow a balanced diet that ensures you get all of the nutrients from many different sources.
Also known as ascorbic acid, you may associate vitamin C with citrus fruits. This nutrient helps you against infections because it acts as an antioxidant, which means that protects your cells and tissues from harmful substances called free radicals. These originate when your body obtains energy from the foods you eat, but you can also be exposed to free radicals from other sources, such as tobacco smoke or UV rays present in sunlight.
Vitamin C also helps your body heal open wounds, as it is necessary to produce collagen. Because it is water-soluble, your body is unable to store it, so you should get enough of it daily, experts note.
Zinc is a particularly important mineral for your defenses, because it helps your body produce antibodies that fight germs and also enables healing. Nutrition Australia recommends obtaining zinc from food rather than supplements, as they can impair the absorption of other substances, like iron.
Zinc is mainly found in meat, poultry and fish, but is also present in wholegrain cereals, nuts and dairy products.
The next stop in the alphabet would be vitamin D, an important nutrient that we hardly get from food naturally. As Harvard’s School of Public Health explains, it regulates your immune system, and its deficiency is linked to several conditions, since people with lower vitamin D levels have a higher risk of developing certain autoimmune diseases and becoming infected, although scientists are still trying to understand why.
Aside from fortified foods, we barely get any vitamin D through diet. Deemed the “sunshine vitamin”, we depend on sunlight to produce it. Your body produces this nutrient after your skin is exposed to sunlight. That is why, depending on where you live, you may need to take supplements during winter to ensure you get enough of this vitamin — always talk to your doctor first —.
Like vitamin C, vitamin E is also an antioxidant, and it’s thought to help your immune system by playing a role in inflammatory processes and other mechanisms that are still being investigated. Aside from that, it also widens your blood vessels so blood doesn’t form clots within them. Cells also depend on vitamin E to interact with each other.
You can find vitamin E in many types of nuts and seeds, as well as in vegetable oils (wheat germ, safflower and sunflower oils). Aside from natural sources, other types of foods are also fortified with vitamin E, like cereals, fruit juices and margarines.