NUTRITION AND IMMUNE HEALTH

By Natasha de Almeida

Nutrition and immune health has become a popular topic in 2020. Aside from Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, another google search of interest was that of immunity and how one could stop themselves from contracting the virus.  Terms such as ‘vitamin C’, ‘immune system boosters’, and ‘dietary supplements’ were searched on google up to 5000% more times in March 2020 than in previous months.1-3While this interest in nutrition and immune health is exciting to us, some information found on the internet may be rather misleading.

So, let’s try and clarify a few things!

Research has shown that a healthy, well-balanced diet can help strengthen the immune system. Does this mean that good nutrition can prevent you from contracting viruses like COVID-19? Not necessarily – viruses like these are incredibly infectious, meaning any one of us, well-nourished or malnourished, can contract it. But what it doesmean is that you can help prepare your immune system by maintaining a good nutritional status, thus potentially improving your outcomes should you contract an infection. And what better way to help strengthen the immune system than through food!

Certain nutrients have come under the limelight because of their abilities to improve immune health. These nutrients include: Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Zinc, Selenium, Omega-3 fatty aids and dietary fibre.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C has been shown to be protective against infectious diseases, particularly respiratory ones such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. It acts as an antioxidant, which helps protects our cells from oxidative damage, as well as an anti-histamine, which can help improve flu-like symptoms.4,5

Vitamin D

The vitamin that has created the most buzz in the scientific realm in recent months has been Vitamin D. It works as an anti-inflammatory and can reduce the severity of viral infections, particularly respiratory infections. Vitamin D is unique in that it can be synthesised by our skin when we are exposed to sunlight. 4,5,6 Fifteen to thirty minutes of sunshine everyday can do you wonders, just remember to protect your skin.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A deficiency has been associated with an increased risk of infection. Vitamin A helps with the growth of our immune cells, protecting us from illness and infection.5

Vitamin E

Vitamin E, like vitamin C, is an antioxidant and helps improve our bodies antibody response to infection.4,5

Zinc

Zinc is a mineral that acts as an anti-viral and helps recruit immune cells in the body to help fight infection.4,5 It is important for wound healing and can even improve the symptoms of a common cold.

Selenium

Selenium, also a mineral, help support the immune system as an antioxidant, which might provide protective effects against some types of cancer.7 Selenium deficiency has been associated with viral infections such as influenza.5

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are considered ‘healthy fats’ as they improve the healthy cholesterol levels in the blood. Omega-3 has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. 4,5

Dietary Fibre

Fibre is often overlooked. We always say, ‘less fat’ or ‘less sugar’, but sometimes we forget to say MORE FIBRE. Fibre gets fermented by the good bacteria in our gut, and the products of this fermentation have anti-inflammatory actions that can help improve our immune health.5,8 So not only does fibre help regulate our bowel movements, it also improves our immune health!

NutrientBenefitExamples of Food Sources
Vitamin CAntioxidant and antihistamineFruits and vegetables namely: Red and Green peppers Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit) Kiwi Tomato
Vitamin DAnti-inflammatoryFish Eggs Fortified milk Mushrooms
Vitamin AGrowth of immune cells and protection from illness and infection.Carrots Spinach or kale Liver (beef and chicken) Eggs
Vitamin EAntioxidant and improves immune response to infectionNuts (almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts), Sunflower seeds Plant oils (sunflower, soya, corn, olive) Wheat germ found in cereal products Broccoli Blueberries
Zinc Anti-viral and helps recruit immune cells to fight infectionRed meat and Poultry Oysters Dairy products Whole grains Beans Nuts
SeleniumAntioxidantNuts Whole grains Cereals Mushrooms Dairy products Poultry, Red meat and Seafood
Omega-3 fatty acidsAnti-inflammatoryWalnuts Flaxseed Canola oil Avocado Eggs Fish (salmon, sardine, tuna, mackerel)
Dietary FibreFermentation of fibre in the gut provides products that help strengthen the immune systemWhole grains Fruits Vegetables Legumes

Supplements: to buy or not to buy?

Our first choice of obtaining vitamins and minerals should be through food. A healthy and well-balanced diet will help you get the right nutrients that you need to help improve the functioning of your immune system. So no, you don’t have to sip on dissolved vitamin C effervescent tablets like they’re wine on a Friday night.

Vitamins and supplements are there for those who are deficient or are not meeting their nutritional demands. This could be for various reasons, such as disease, allergies, intolerances, or dietary preferences that cause you to avoid certain foods. Pregnant or lactating women, young children or the elderly may also need to use them. In these instances, the use of vitamins or supplements could be useful. If you are worried that you may need a nutritional supplement, you should discuss this with your doctor and dietitian first.9

The reasons for consulting your healthcare professional before choosing and purchasing supplements are five-fold9:

  1. Vitamins may not be necessary as you may be able to meet your needs through food alone. Food has benefits that supplements do not have and should always be the first option.
  2. Vitamins and supplements can be very expensive. Why put a dent in your budget if it is not necessary?
  3. Some supplements on the market are advertised as doing magical things to boost your immune system, without scientific evidence to back their claims. A dietitian will be able to do the necessary research to help you identify which supplements to get – that is, if you even need them.
  4. Taking vitamins in excess of what you need may be doing more harm than good.
  5. Some vitamins or supplements may interfere with certain medications and may be unsafe for you if you suffer from a medical condition.

In a nutshell, to help strengthen your immune system enjoy a variety of whole foods (those that are not processed, high in fat or sugar), drink clean and safe water, practice healthy eating habits and get some well-deserved SLEEP.

The theme for this year’s National Nutrition and Obesity week was Good Nutrition for Good Immunity. For more information about nutrition and immune health, please visit https://www.nutritionweek.co.za

Fighting a virus is your bodies equivalent of going to war. So, make sure it has the right weapons to use, like a well-functioning immune system.

References

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