The 2019-2020 flu season is currently underway in the United States, with all parts of the country reporting elevated levels of flu activity. So far, there have been at least 2.6 million flu illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations, and 1,300 deaths from the flu, according to CDC estimates.
Many of us have already taken preventive measures in the form of this year’s flu shot, which is designed to protect against four different flu viruses. But because our ability to combat viruses and infections wanes as we get older, taking further steps to bolster our immune defenses is imperative.
In the right balance, these six key nutrients are powerful immunity enhancers that can help ward off opportunistic pathogens and infections this cold and flu season:
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and WHO defines probiotics as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
Essentially, probiotics are foods or supplements comprised of live bacterial or yeast cultures that help to reduce the number of “bad” gut bacteria that cause illness or inflammation, while also replacing those bad bacteria with “good” or “friendly” bacteria. By doing so, probiotics help to balance the gut microbiome, which improves not only digestion but immunity as well. Prime examples of probiotic foods include yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, and sauerkraut, but if none of these are to your liking, probiotics are also available in supplement form.
The beneficial health effects of probiotics on gastrointestinal issues—such as inflammatory bowel disease, and diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome—are well known and have been extensively studied in the literature. Perhaps lesser known are the health benefits that probiotics may confer on the immune system, which may be of particular import during the cold and flu season.
According to findings from two Cochrane reviews published in 2012 and 2015, probiotic prophylaxis may shorten the duration of upper respiratory tract infections, decrease the number of sick days, and reduce prescription of antibiotics for such infections. Further support for these findings came from a 2014 review in which researchers found that probiotics can protect against viral infections, reduce the risk of getting the common cold, and lessen the number of symptomatic days from common colds in healthy people.
In yet another review, published this year, wherein researchers described the immunological mechanisms of probiotics and their health benefits on the host, they concluded the following: “Probiotic bacteria, their cell walls or probiotic fermented milk have significant effects on the functionality of the mucosal and systemic immune systems through the activation of multiple immune mechanisms.”
It’s important to note, however, that probiotics have been linked to serious and opportunistic infections in the postoperative patients, the immunocompromised, and those who are critically ill. Probiotics should, therefore, not be taken by these individuals, and should never be given to premature infants. In pregnant women, infants, and young children, probiotics should be used with caution.
Zinc is a powerful micronutrient most commonly found in proteins. Lean meats, poultry, and shellfish are particularly rich in zinc, but milk, whole grains, beans, seeds, and nuts are good sources, too. Zinc has been shown to be essential in neurocognitive health, wound and scar healing, and immune system defense against invading bacteria and viruses.
According to the NIH, “The body’s immune system needs zinc to do its job. Older people and children in developing countries who have low levels of zinc might have a higher risk of getting pneumonia and other infections.”
The agency added: “Some studies suggest that zinc lozenges or syrup (but not zinc dietary supplements in pill form) help speed recovery from the common cold and reduce its symptoms if taken within 24 hours of coming down with a cold. However, more study is needed to determine the best dose and form of zinc, as well as how long it should be taken before zinc can be recommended as a treatment for the common cold.”
Ohio State University researchers studied the metal at the molecular level, and found that it helps control infections by inhibiting a certain protein, thus preventing excess inflammation. They suggested that zinc supplementation may be extremely beneficial to a proportion of very sick patients receiving intensive care, especially those who are septic.
However, a word of caution: Although zinc is vital for strong immunity, excess consumption can actually lead to decreased immunity.
Protein deficiency can lead to poor immunity because antibodies and immune system cells not only rely on protein to help facilitate the repair of body tissue, but to fight off viral and bacterial infections as well.
Time and again, researchers have shown an association between low-protein diets and reduced immune system response. In one preclinical study, for instance, one-third of adult hamsters that were fed a low-protein diet and infected with Leishmania infantum, “had severe visceral leishmaniasis compared to only 8% of animals fed the standard diet.”
“It is well accepted that protein calorie malnutrition impairs host immunity with particular detrimental effects on the T-cell system, resulting in increased opportunistic infection and increased morbidity and mortality in hospitalized patients,” wrote University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers in one Critical Care Medicine publication.
In addition to eggs, fish, poultry, and meat, the following foods have high-protein content: milk, yogurt, cheese, soy foods like tofu, beans such as lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, quinoa, and chia seeds. While dark, leafy green vegetables, such as kale, contain protein, they are not enough to meet daily protein requirements when eaten alone. However, eating these vegetables in combination with other protein-rich foods can boost protein intake to meet requirements.
Vitamin A is one of the most important nutrients for a healthy immune system. You probably know that it supports vision through its precursor beta-carotene, but you may not know of its even greater role in strengthening and regulating the body’s largest organ: the skin.
Perhaps these authors put it best: “Vitamin A (VitA) is a micronutrient that is crucial for maintaining vision, promoting growth and development, and protecting epithelium and mucus integrity in the body. VitA is known as an anti-inflammation vitamin because of its critical role in enhancing immune function. VitA is involved in the development of the immune system and plays regulatory roles in cellular immune responses and humoral immune processes. VitA has demonstrated a therapeutic effect in the treatment of various infectious diseases.”
Vitamin A can be found in many natural food sources, particularly sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, spinach, red peppers, apricots, and egg yolks. And some foods, such as cereal and milk, are often fortified with vitamin A. The downside to this is that, because many foods contain vitamin A—which can accumulate in the body over time—it can put people at risk for toxicity if they are also taking supplements or medications that contain vitamin A. Getting too much of this nutrient has been shown to result in headaches, nausea, and dizziness, and even coma and death. Pregnant women should be particularly cautious, as large amounts of vitamin A consumption can lead to birth defects.
When people think of nutrients that play a role in immune health, vitamin C is probably one of the first—if not the first—to come to mind. This probably goes back to our early school days when we learned that sailors cured scurvy by eating vitamin-C rich citrus fruits, namely oranges, lemons, and grapefruit.
Looking at this on a deeper, more scientific level, vitamin C promotes the formation of antibodies that bind to and destroy dangerous toxins, bacteria, and viruses in our bodies before they can wreak havoc. Vitamin C also promotes wound healing by stimulating the production of collagen.
“Vitamin C contributes to immune defense by supporting various cellular functions of both the innate and adaptive immune system. Vitamin C supports epithelial barrier function against pathogens... Vitamin C accumulates in phagocytic cells, such as neutrophils, and can enhance chemotaxis, phagocytosis, generation of reactive oxygen species, and ultimately microbial killing. It is also needed for apoptosis and clearance of the spent neutrophils from sites of infection by macrophages…Vitamin C deficiency results in impaired immunity and higher susceptibility to infections… Furthermore, supplementation with vitamin C appears to be able to both prevent and treat respiratory and systemic infections,” wrote the authors of one article published in Nutrients.
Furthermore, with respect to the common cold, the NIH notes that “[a]lthough vitamin C has long been a popular remedy for the common cold, research shows that for most people, vitamin C supplements do not reduce the risk of getting the common cold. However, people who take vitamin C supplements regularly might have slightly shorter colds or somewhat milder symptoms... Using vitamin C supplements after cold symptoms start does not appear to be helpful.”
Because our bodies don’t produce or store vitamin C, we need to eat foods rich in this nutrient daily. Aside from citrus fruits, other vitamin-C rich foods include strawberries, papayas, red peppers, and tomatoes. Consuming too much vitamin C, however, may result in diarrhea, nausea, and stomach cramps. Importantly, in people with hemochromatosis, high doses of vitamin C can worsen iron overload and damage body tissues.
Vitamin E is generally found in whole grains, seeds like sunflower seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils, and works in conjunction with vitamin C to fortify healthy cells for increased pathogen resistance.
Concluded the authors of one study: “Vitamin E has been shown to enhance immune responses in animal and human models and to confer protection against several infectious diseases… Several considerations are warranted for the advancement in our understanding of vitamin E’s role in immunity. For in vitro studies to support implications for the regulation of immunological diseases, the physiological relevance of vitamin E levels used for treatment should be considered. Different forms of vitamin E exert differential effects on immune cells. Cell-specific effects of vitamin E provide valuable evidence regarding the immunomodulatory mechanisms of vitamin E, but the interplay between immune cells should not be ignored, because interactions between immune cells are critical in the regulation of immune function.”
According to the NIH, although most American diets provide less than the recommended amounts of vitamin E, deficiency in this nutrient is rare in healthy people. Additionally, high doses of vitamin A in supplement form can increase the risk of hemorrhagic stroke.