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Best Supplements for Immune System Support?

There are times of the year that we can feel personally attacked by the onslaught of bugs that come our way.  If you're catching bug after bug, it then becomes a vicious cycle of your immune system becoming overstretched, and then attacked all over again. Strengthening your immune resilience is a sensible action in these circumstances. There are a variety of ways that we can do this and some of the most important are the most accessible. Going to bed earlier, eating antioxidant-rich, nutrient dense foods and staying well hydrated are all important. There are a few additional supplements for the immune system that we can also add in.

What supplements should I take for my immune system?

There are many supplements that claim to boost your immune system and knowing which are the best vitamins and supplements to take for immune system support can be tricky. Whilst getting good rest, eating properly and keeping hydrated will give you a good head start there are a few vitamins and minerals to consider as part of your immune health plan. If you are concerned about a cold, cough or flu that is affecting your health you can find out when to call a doctor using the NHS website.

How do supplements help your immune system?

We are exposed to new germs every day and the body has a great way of making sure that we aren’t constantly getting sick. This is our immune system. It has 2 main parts to it; a fast response which isn’t very specific to what bug you are being attacked by, this works within a few hours; and we also have a very specific response that takes a few days to mount an attack on a new bug. Crucially this slower response is very powerful and remembers which bug it has fought off so that you can fight it more quickly the next time you are exposed. We also have natural barriers such as our skin, nasal passages, cell walls of our lungs, our stomach acid, and the walls of our digestive tract which are all a physical part of our immune defences. Ensuring that you have all the nutrients that you need to support each of these factions of the immune system is how we use vitamin and mineral supplements to support immune resilience.

What are the best supplements for immune system support?

Whilst you should be able to get all the vitamins and minerals you need from a healthy, balanced diet, you can give your immune system that much-needed extra support by adding some supplements to your daily regimen.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A supports the production of white blood cells in the body which are part of our fast immune responses. It is also great for supporting the cells of our natural barriers in the body, such as our gut lining and our lungs, and these membranes need integrity to function properly and maintain their physical barrier function and keep our body safe from attack.1 Pure vitamin A is called retinol and is found in eggs, dairy and liver. There is also a form of vitamin A found in plants called beta carotene but we need to convert this to retinol in the body which doesn’t always happen efficiently.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C has long been studied for its ability to support our immune system. It’s antioxidant properties alone are very helpful when fighting an infection but it can also help to mobilise your white blood cells when you are under attack. Vitamin C deficiency impairs immune responses.2 It’s important to note that vitamin C is used up rapidly during illness or infection and thus necessary to replenish regularly to help the body to meet these increased needs. For general health and wellness, and prevention of infection it is important to achieve dietary intakes that provide at least 100 – 200mg per day.3 In contrast however, when vitamin C needs increase such as during illness or infection significantly higher doses are needed to compensate for the increased metabolic demand.4,5,6

Vitamin E

Vitamin E interacts with vitamins A and C, acting as a primary antioxidant and scavenger of toxic free radicals. The activity of vitamin E is an integral part of the body’s complex defence system and has been shown to be effective in improving the functioning of specific immune cells called B- and T-cells in particular.7

Zinc

Zinc is involved in virtually every aspect of immunity. A deficiency of zinc is known to suppress immune function, and even mild to moderate deficiency can have a negative impact on the immune system’s ability to deal with infection. When zinc levels are low, the number of T cells decrease, thymic hormone levels lower, and many white blood cell functions critical to the immune response cease. Fortunately, all these effects are reversible upon adequate zinc administration.8,9

Zinc supports the function and proliferation of various immune cells, and without it, the capacity of the body to defend against harmful invaders is diminished. Everyone needs optimal dietary zinc for their immune system to function properly.10,11

Beta Glucans

Beta glucans are naturally-occurring polysaccharides. They are found in bacteria and fungi and are used to make cell walls and store energy. They also have an incredible, natural ability to modulate immune function. A 2018 randomised controlled trial studied the effects of beta glucan on immune function and found it reduced cold/flu symptoms following intense exercise12. These effects are significant since intense exercise is known to be a risk factor for upper respiratory tract infections.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is critical for immune health and maintaining optimal levels is vital for supporting the body’s ability to fight infection. A large 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal found vitamin D to be effective for preventing colds and flu13. Vitamin D deficiency is closely linked to a reduced function of the immune system and as lower levels of vitamin D are widespread it is now recommended to take 400iu of vitamin D throughout the year to ensure that your levels remain adequate to support your immune system.

References:
1. Amit-Romach E, Uni Z, et al. Bacterial population and innate immunity-related genes in rat gastrointestinal tract are altered by vitamin-A deficient diet. J Nutr Biochem 2009 Jan; 20(1): 70-7.
2. Carr AC, Maggini S. Vitamin C and Immune Function. Nutrients. 2017 Nov 3;9(11):1211. doi: 10.3390/nu9111211. PMID: 29099763; PMCID: PMC5707683.
3. Levine M., Conry-Cantilena C., et al. Vitamin C pharmacokinetics in healthy volunteers: Evidence for a recommended dietary allowance. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 1996; 93: 3704–3709.
4. Long C.L., Maull K.I., et al. Ascorbic acid dynamics in the seriously ill and injured. J. Surg. Res. 2003; 109: 144–148.
5. Rümelin A., Jaehde U., et al. Early postoperative substitution procedure of the antioxidant ascorbic acid. J. Nutr. Biochem. 2005; 16: 104–108.
6. Rümelin A., Humbert T., et al. Metabolic clearance of the antioxidant ascorbic acid in surgical patients. J. Surg. Res. 2005; 129: 46–51.
7. Burton GW and Traber MG. Vitamin E: Antioxidant activity, biokinetics, and bioavailability. Annu Rev Nutr 10, 357-382, 1992.
8. Dardenne M, et al. Contribution of zinc and other metals to the biological activity of the serum thymic factor. Proc Natl Acad Sci 79, 5370-5373, 1982.
9. Bogden JD, et al. Zinc and immunocompetence in the elderly: Baseline data on zinc nutriture and immunity in unsupplemented subjects. Am J Clin Nutr 46, 101-109, 1987.
10. Bao B, Prasad AS, et al. Zinc decreases C-reactive protein, lipid peroxidation, and inflammatory cytokines in elderly subjects: a potential implication of zinc as an atheroprotective agent. Am J Clin Nutr 91 (6) (2010 June), pp. 1634-1641.
11. Mocchegiani E, Romeo J, Malavolta M, et al. Zinc: dietary intake and impact of supplementation on immune function in elderly. Age (Dordr). 2013;35(3):839-860.
12. Mah, E, Kaden VN et al. Beverage containing dispersible yeast beta glucan decreases cold/flu symptomatic days after intense exercise: a randomised controlled trial. Journal of Dietary Supplements. Published online 31 Oct 2018.
13. Martineau AR, Joliffe DA et al. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. BMJ 2017; 356: 16583.

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