The ten nutrients you need for a strong immune system this winter

Pictures: Leah Barbour

This week I’m chatting about eating for a strong immune system leading into the winter. Recipe wise, I’ve got midweek dinners covered with a delicious chicken curry and a slow cooker sausage casserole, writes Derval O'Rourke

Our immune system is an intricate, complex and amazing system. It protects us from viruses, bacteria and other pathogens that try to gain entry to the body on a daily basis.

We all know that back to school time and the onset of winter weather can be challenging for our immune system.

What we eat can affect our immunity and good nutrition allows our body to respond quicker to threats.

To function properly, the cells of our immune system need a variety of nutrients.

Here are 10 ones I consider key:

1. Vitamin A: It helps to keep the membranes in our nose and throat healthy, these are a key line of defence to keep bacteria out. Vitamin A packed foods include carrots, sweet potato and spinach.

2. Vitamin C: This is an important antioxidant and helps to stimulate the formation of antibodies. It has been shown to reduce the duration and severity of colds. Vitamin C packed foods include red peppers, strawberries, kiwi and broccoli.

3. Vitamin D: It helps to stimulate the cells in our body that fight infection. We can produce it in our skin following exposure to sunlight and can get it through our diet from foods like oily fish, eggs and fortified milk or can take it in supplement form. In Ireland, from October to March there is insufficient quality or quantity of sunlight for our body to synthesis enough Vitamin D to meet our requirements, this coupled with the fact that it is almost impossible to meet requirements from diet alone, mean that many of us can benefit from a supplement during the winter time. Vitamin D is a supplement I always take from October to March.

4. Vitamin B6 : This vitamin helps to make antibodies that fight off diseases. Fish, lean meats and poultry are all good sources of Vitamin B6 but one of the foods richest in this nutrient is chickpeas.

5. Iron: Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world. Anemia decreases the body’s ability to transport oxygen in the blood, this can result in fatigue and supressed immune function. Note that animal sources of iron (haem iron) are easier for our bodies to absorb than plant sources (non haem iron). Eat iron rich foods with vitamin C and keep away from tea and coffee to boost absorption. Iron packed foods include red meat, liver, leafy greens, tofu, dried fruit and beans.

6. Zinc: This is essential for wound healing and has been shown to decrease the incidence of colds and reduce the duration of symptoms if you do get sick. Zinc packed foods include meat, shellfish, eggs, dairy foods and chickpeas in your diet for a boost.

7. Garlic: This has been used as both a food ingredient and medicine for centuries. It possesses antibacterial and antiviral properties. It is affordable, delicious and easy to incorporate into meals. Eating garlic can provide a variety of health benefits including reduced risk of heart disease and improved gut health. Pack your meals with garlic wherever you can.

8. Omega 3 fatty acids: These are anti-inflammatory and may help regulate immunity. I’m always looking for ways to get omegas in my diet. Omega packed foods include fish, nuts and seeds and plant oils.

9. Probiotics and prebiotics: These are essential for gut health and gut health is essential to immunity. In fact, over 70% of our immune system is located in our gut. If you are buying a supplement look for one with a broad spectrum of bacteria and at least 3-5 billion CFU for example Optibac or Biokult.

Probiotic rich foods include kombucha, sauerkraut, yoghurt and other fermented foods

10. Protein: Protein is part of the body’s defence mechanism and is a critical component of many hormones, enzymes and antibodies involved in immunity. I would advise including a source at each of your main meals and to obtain your protein from a variety of different sources. Protein packed sources include fish, eggs, tofu, beans and nuts.

If you are going to use supplements be mindful to use ones that are well researched and talk to your doctor or pharmacist before purchasing.

Fitspiration: Eating Freely

Emma Murphy is a qualified psychotherapist who specialises in food, weight and body image issues. She is passionate about helping people who have been trapped in the diet-crash-binge-guilt cycle to finally break free to make peace with food and their bodies. Her Facebook page is full of useful advice.

Mid Week Chicken Curry

This is a great curry to have mid week. It’s packed full of flavour and will easily last for a couple of dinners. If you are in a big hurry mid week consider buying pre made rice packets, these can be popped in the microwave and heated up super fast. This recipe can be adapted to the slow cooker if you use chicken legs or thighs.

Serves: 8

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Nutritional information (per serving): Protein – 13.9g Fat –13.5g Carbohydrates – 6.4g Calories - 198


  • 1 tbsp. coconut oil
  • 1 large onion, finely sliced
  • 4 free range chicken fillet, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tbsp. ginger, grated
  • 2 tbsp. tikka masala powder
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tin coconut milk
  • 1 tin chickpeas
  • 1 handful of baby spinach
  • Brown rice, follow instructions on pack.
  • Method:

    Melt the coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.

    Add onion, ginger, garlic and tikka powder fry for 3-4 minutes until the onions begin to soften.

    Add the chicken followed by the tin of tomatoes and coconut milk.

    Turn up the heat and gently simmer for 20 minutes.

    Add the chickpeas and spinach and cook for 1-2 minutes.

    Serve with brown rice in warmed bowls.

    Slow Cooker Sausage Casserole

    This recipe is inspired by my constant desire to make really easy dinners that are toddler friendly. My daughter attends crèche a few days a week and I’m always looking for dinners that can be made in bulk and sent in with her. I like to eat this with potato but Dafne’s preference is pasta!

    Prep time: 5-10 minutes

    Cook time: 4 hours in slow cooker

    Serves: 8-10

    Nutritional information (per serving if serving 8) Protein – 6.8g Fat –11g Carbohydrates – 10.9g Calories - 170


  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 12 good quality sausages
  • 2 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 4 celery sticks, roughly chopped
  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 1.5 litres beef stock
  • 1 tin of tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 6 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 3 large sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • Method:

    Heat the oil in a pan on medium heat.

    Add the sausages and cook until lightly brown on all sides.

    Remove the sausage from the pan and chop into bite sized pieces.

    Place all the ingredients into the slow cooker.

    Turn it on to high and cook for 4 hours.

    If you are out for the day you can pop this on low for around 8- 10 hours.

    This is also a good recipe to do over night.

    I suggest serving this with potatoes.

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