Want To Boost Your Immune System This Winter? Here Are 3 Boosters You'll Want To Try
Winter is the perfect time for bugs to spread. Central heating, crowded indoor spaces, festive overindulgence and stress can all create the perfect conditions for this. When it comes to supporting our immune systems, we’re familiar with vitamin C and zinc; but there are other nutrients that definitely shouldn’t be overlooked. These include beta glucans, vitamin D and probiotics.
Chances are you may not have heard of these, although they’re sometimes mentioned in relation to lowering cholesterol, such as the kind found in oats. However, a different type of beta glucans, specifically beta 1-3, 1-6 glucans can help support our immune system. So, what are they? Beta glucans are found in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi and yeasts. They can stimulate cells in the immune system and also have anti-microbial properties (1)
Good food sources include: mushrooms
Who might particularly benefit from these? Anyone wanting an immune boost, especially anyone prone to upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs). Studies have shown beta glucans to boost immunity amongst endurance athletes (who tend to be prone to URTIs), and found that they reduced the incidence of post event infections (2). Ideal if you’re in the middle of marathon training just now!
These are generally safe to supplement with, although you’ll often find them combined with other immune support supplements, including vitamin C, zinc and selenium. You should check with a healthcare professional for any potential interactions with medications or other supplements. As an immune booster, you would of course need to avoid these supplements with any immunosuppressant medication, and certain other medications.
This is an especially important nutrient in the winter. Sunlight allows us to make vitamin D in our skin and so the lack of sunlight and shorter daylight hours at this time of year, makes it very easy to become deficient in this key immune-supporting nutrient.
Good food sources include: oily fish, butter and eggs. Mushrooms also contain vitamin D, especially sun-dried variations.
Who might particularly benefit from vitamin D? Pretty much all of us in a winter climate, and anyone on statin medication regardless of the season. Vitamin D is a cholesterol based nutrient and so its production is suppressed with this medication.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and so excess levels can accumulate in the body and be potentially dangerous. Supplementing over and above recommended daily guidelines (current government recommendations are for 10µg per day) should be done following testing. Private vitamin D testing is relatively cheap and easy – most companies offer skin prick testing.
The best form of vitamin D to supplement with, is vitamin D3 or cholecalciferol. This is the form that our bodies would naturally make with sunlight.
A large proportion of our immune tissue (around 70%) is found within our gut and so supporting gut health makes sense in order to boost our immune system as a whole. Certain species of probiotic bacteria (ie. The “good” kind) can present a low-level challenge to our immune system which keeps it on guard against infections.
Who might particularly benefit from these? Anyone who has taken a recent course of antiobitics, which can kill off our beneficial gut bacteria; people under chronic stress, and/or anhyone with IBS.
Good probiotic food sources include: Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables; fermented drinks, including kefir and kombucha. These more naturally produced sources are a healthier choice than sugar-packed yoghurt probiotic drinks – especially as excess levels of sugar encourage the growth of the more harmful bacteria in the gut.
(Sauerkraut and fermented beetroot)
(Water kefir grains)
Lactobacillus rhamnosus is a specific bacteria strain that has been shown to reduce the number, severity and duration of upper respiratory infections (coughs and colds) in children (3).
Supplementing: Probiotic supplements are widely available but do read storage instructions carefully, as many will need to be refrigerated. As with all supplements, you usually get what you pay for.
Although I’ve focused on just three (perhaps lesser obvious) nutrients to boost immunity, that’s not to discount the other more well-known ones.
Vitamin C is still our main go-to nutrient to stave off colds. Food sources are easy to find in fruits, berries, peppers and dark green vegetables. If supplementing, be aware that high levels (eg. in excess of 2,000mg per day) could cause stomach upset in some people.
Zinc also helps to stimulate production of immune system components. Food sources include meat, eggs, pumpkin seeds and wholegrains. Supplementing with levels over 25mg (especially over a long time period) are best directed by a professional as high doses can compete with other minerals for absorption in the body. When choosing a multi-nutrient, look for zinc citrate, gluconate or orotate forms. These are absorbed well by the body than zinc oxide.
Vitamin A, selenium, iron and antioxidants are all good immune supporting nutrients that you might want to look for in a multinutrient also.
Of course, nutrition plays a key role in immunity, but other factors can be just as important too! During the season of festivities try to make sure you get at least 7 or 8 hours of sleep, moderate the drinking, keep up the exercise, and take some time to de-stress.
Stay healthy this winter!
(1) Stier H, Ebbeskotte V, Gruenwald J. Immune-modulatory effects of dietary Yeast Beta-1,3/1,6-D-glucan. Nutr J. 2014;13:38. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-38
(2) Talbott S, Talbott J. Effect of BETA 1, 3/1, 6 GLUCAN on Upper Respiratory Tract Infection Symptoms and Mood State in Marathon Athletes. J Sports Sci Med. 2009;8(4):509-515.
(3) Hojsak I et al. Lactobacillus GG in the prevention of gastrointestinal and respiratory tract infections in children who attend day care centres: A randomised, double-blind, placebo controlled trial. Clinical Nutrition. 2010; 29 (3): 312-6.