With illness and preventing illness on everyone’s brain these days, articles about “immune boosting” foods and supplements are overcrowding my inbox and browser.
I’m sure you’re experiencing the same!
Let’s clarify a few things right off the bat …
- No single supplement or concoction is the silver bullet that is going to prevent you from getting sick.
- You do not have to spend your hard earned money on supplements that claim to boost your immunity.
What is your immune system?
Your immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues and organs that work together to protect your body from pathogens and illness. Your immune system is working constantly to protect you!
Despite what you may have heard or read splashed across articles and media, there is no evidence to support the use of supplements to “boost” your immune system. In fact, taking high supplemental doses of some nutrients can actually impair your immune system. Remember, you can get too much of a good thing.
We do have evidence however to show us that eating a nutrient rich diet can help support your immune system.
Just like every other cell and system in the body, proper nutrition plays a key role in helping them to function properly. The cells, tissues and organs that make up your immune system are no different.
Here are some key nutrients that have been shown to play a role in supporting your immune function.
Just like other nutrients (aside from vitamin B12 and vitamin D), I always recommend taking a food first approach.
- Good plant-based sources: Tofu, tempeh, beans, peas, lentils, nut and nut butters, seeds and seed butters.
- Good plant-based sources: Whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.
- Good plant-based sources: Whole grains, seeds (pumpkin, hemp seeds), almonds and almond butter, edamame, spinach.
- Good plant-based sources: Chickpeas (garbanzo beans), fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, wheat germ, banana.
- Good plant-based sources: Dried apricots, sweet potato, carrots, spinach, kale.
- Good plant-based sources: Sunflower seeds/butter, almonds and almond butter, peanut butter, wheat germ.
- Good plant-based sources: Bell peppers, broccoli, red cabbage, guava, citrus fruits, avocado.
A word about vitamin C …
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, meaning that it helps protect our cells from damage. It is also important for collagen production, wound healing, improves the absorption of plant-based iron, and yes, does play a role in our immune function.
When the first signs of a cold or illness hit (scratchy throat, runny nose or headache), people often head to the vitamin aisle to pick up a big old bottle of vitamin C in hopes that it will cure them.
But what does the research say?
We don’t have evidence to support that the use of vitamin C ‘reverses’ a common cold. If you start taking vitamin C when you already have a cold, you aren’t likely to see any benefit. Taking a vitamin C supplement regularly also doesn’t seem to decrease the number of colds that you get but it may help shorten the duration of your cold.
It isn’t recommended to take mega doses of vitamin C, or more than 2000 mg per day in supplement form. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin C for adults is 75 mg per day for women and 90 mg per day for men. We know that high doses of vitamin C aren’t actually absorbed all that well either. At a dose around 30-180 mg about 70-90% of the vitamin C is absorbed. At or above doses of 1000 mg vitamin C, absorption falls to about 50%.
Moral of the story, try to stick to whole foods when it comes to vitamin C. Mother nature has gifted us great natural sources of the stuff!
Your gut health and your immune system – how they’re related.
Your digestive tract, aka your gut, is responsible for far more than just the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients. It also plays a big role in protecting us from pathogens and communicating with our immune system. In fact, the majority of your immune system cells are located in your gut in your gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT).
Although this is an area of ongoing research, we do know that one of the best ways to support and optimize your gut health is to get enough fibre through eating a variety of different plant foods daily.
Other lifestyle factors that can affect your immune system.
- Stress. Have you ever noticed that it’s during those periods of prolonged stress in your life – a big job interview, a huge work deadline, money struggles etc. – that you get sick? Chronic stress can take a toll on the function of your immune system.
- Sleep. Sleep is your body’s time to recuperate. Chronic lack of sleep can impair your immune function.
- Exercise. Getting regular movement and exercise is important for your overall health and well-being, including supporting your immune system!
- Smoking. Smoking can impair your immune function.
If you are sick take good care of yourself! Continue to eat nutrient rich foods to nourish your body, focus on getting adequate sleep and rest and stay hydrated!
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