Megan Sheppard: Boosting your immune system

Do you have advice on how to boost the immune system? Every year, no matter the season, I seem to get at least four to six bouts of cold and flu.

It is a good idea to first book yourself an appointment for a thorough check up to ensure there aren’t any underlying deficiencies or conditions that are specifically impacting your immune function.

The immune system can be weakened by all kinds of stressors, including diseases or chronic conditions, invading organisms, poor diet or nutrient absorption issues, side-effects of medications, general organ health, and ageing.

Nutrition is a key factor in the health of your immune system, from the amino acids used to make antibodies and other immune compounds designed to prevent or manage infection, through to trace minerals such as zinc and selenium that provide immune support. Proteins, along with fruits and vegetables, provide plenty of amino acids.

It is also important to include seeds, nuts, fatty fruits (such as avocado), and oily fish for their omega fatty acid content.

These essential fatty acids (EFAs) are not only beneficial in managing inflammation, they also signal the immune system to stop attacking when the threat is no longer present.

This is why EFAs are a crucial addition to the diet for anyone with an autoimmune disorder.

Vitamins A, C, E, and selenium are all antioxidants that protect against free-radicals; harmful molecules that damage cells and DNA.

Vitamin A is present in fish, liver, eggs, and dairy, and its precursor betacarotene is found in brightly coloured produce and dark leafy greens.

A good level of vitamin A helps to maintain healthy mucous membranes, which works to reduce the incidence and severity of your illness.

Vitamin C is well documented as an immune supportive nutrient, and is believed to improve immune function by strengthening blood vessels, tissues, and mucous membranes.

Vitamin E works by enhancing T-cell activity. T-cells are basically specialised immune cells that are largely divided into two groups — helper and killer T-cells.

The killer T-cells effectively seek and destroy infected or cancerous cells, while the helper T-cells trigger immune response. Nuts, seeds, oils, and fatty fruits are great sources of vitamin E.

Zinc is associated with wound healing, although an excess in this mineral actually depresses immune function.

Good food sources include seafood, meat, eggs, dairy, beans, nuts, and whole grains. Selenium, found in Brazil nuts, oats, wheat germ and bran, brown rice, and some meats and fish, is part of an antioxidant enzyme called glutathione peroxidase that protects cells against toxins from the diet and environment.

Selenium has received a considerable amount of press for its promising role in preventing cancers of the ovaries, cervix, pancreas, bladder, rectum, liver, oesophagus, and leukaemia. The typical recommended daily dose is 200 to 400mcg daily.

Iron is required for the production of T-cells and B-cells. B-cells are lymphocytes that develop in bone marrow and circulate in the lymph and blood producing antibodies in response to antigens.

It is key in ensuring that cells get enough oxygen to function effectively and resist pathogens. Dried fruit, green vegetables, tofu, eggs, legumes, red meat, and fortified cereals are all sources of dietary iron.

It is important to know if you are deficient in this mineral before taking measures to increase your iron intake, as excess iron can cause serious damage.

Probiotics are important for gut and therefore immune function. Medicinal mushrooms have been shown to stimulate immunity by increasing the production of interferon.

Garlic and onions are rich in sulphur, which is thought to stimulate macrophages and T-cells and block organisms from invading healthy cells.

Finally, regular moderate activity is important in supporting immune health — just 30 minutes a day makes a difference.


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