It’s slightly ironic that I’m writing this while also being smack dab in the middle of a head cold. Maybe that’s what inspired me to talk about nutrition for immune health in the first place. Mainly because there is just so much unsolicited advice surrounding this topic. “Eat more vitamin C!!” “Starve a cold!!” “Take your zinc supplements!!”
Is there any truth to any of what we’re told? First things first…
What exactly is our immune system?
The very basic definition of our immune system is a network which is made up of many cells, proteins, tissues and organs that are solely responsible for fighting off infection. Our skin, our stomach lining, our mouth…all have a part to play in immune function. And, for the most part, our immune system does a really great job at killing off bacteria, viruses and pathogens. However, every now and then, a germ is not killed off and we end up getting sick.
How do we boost our immunity?
In reality, we can’t. Our immune system is literally made up of thousands and thousands of pathogen fighting cells, and to boost our immunity would mean to literally increase the number of immune cells. Thus far, science hasn’t revealed how many immune cells are considered the “ideal level” in preventing us from becoming sick. Not to mention how unique each immune cell is, with each targeting “invaders” in different ways. There’s presently no way of knowing which dietary interventions will have an effect on specific immune cells.
Is there anything that I can do to stay healthy?
Instead of thinking about “boosting your immune system” during cold & flu season, focus on keeping your immune system healthy year round. The general rules of keeping your body healthy will apply. You know the drill:
- Eat a diet rich in colorful fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein like chicken, fish, beans, etc.
- Get adequate sleep. Most sleep experts say that 7-8 hours per night is ideal.
- Maintain a healthy weight. This means different things for different people. See an outpatient Registered Dietitian if you’d like to work towards obtaining a healthy weight.
- Wash, wash, wash your hands!!
- Get regular exercise. Whether it’s 30 minutes of dancing in your living room or a 20 minute walk with your friend/hubby/kids after work. Exercise keeps us healthy and strong, and it has been shown to keep our immune system healthy and functioning.
What about Vitamin C, Zinc, Vitamin E, etc.?
We need a certain amount of these (and many other) micronutrients to keep our body and immune system working efficiently. If you consider yourself a relatively picky eater and if you’re not regularly eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc., you may want to consider taking a general multivitamin. (1) However, focusing on improving your overall diet by including more variety in fruits, vegetables, whole grains will vastly improve your health beyond what a multivitamin can ever do.
And, while no mega dosing of any one particular nutrient has shown to prevent one from becoming sick in the first place, some research has shown that taking 1000mg of Vitamin C and 30mg of Zinc may decrease the severity of the common cold. Just don’t take this amount of Vitamin C on a regular basis, as it can interfere with vitamin B12 absorption. A daily amount of 70-100mg Vitamin C is all you need on a regular, daily basis (about as much as you get in one orange.)
As always, your best best is to follow the general guidelines of a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle. And don’t beat yourself up for a “bad immune system” when you do catch a cold. Get some rest, drink plenty of fluids, eat healthy food. You’ll be better before you know it.
- Watson R, Zibadi S, Preedy V. Dietary Components and Immune Function. New York, NY: Spring Science+Business Media; 2010.
- Wintergerst E, Maggini S, Hornig D. Immune-enhancing role of vitamin C and zinc and effect on clinical conditions. Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism. 2006;50(2):85-94. doi:10.1159/000090495