Derval O'Rourke: How you could boost your immune system with nutrition

Derval also shares her recipe for some healthy homemade chocolate spread
Derval O'Rourke: How you could boost your immune system with nutrition

Derval O'Rourke. Picture: Denis Minihane.

This week I am sharing tips on your immune system and foods that may help to boost it. I am sharing a recipe for nutritious chocolate spread — chocolate is something I crave as the weather gets colder, and this is a fabulous healthy homemade chocolate spread.

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 nutrients, their function, and where you can find them:

1. Vitamin A: It helps to keep the membranes in our nose/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 and broccoli.

3. Vitamin D: 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 synthesize enough Vitamin D to meet requirements, this means that many of us can benefit from a supplement during this time. I always take a Vit-D supplement from October - March.

4. Vitamin B6: This vitamin helps to make antibodies that fight off diseases. Fish, lean meats and poultry are good sources but one of the best sources 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 suppressed immune function. Eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C and keep away from tea/coffee to boost its absorption. Iron-packed foods include red meat, leafy greens, 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, dairy foods, and chickpeas.

7. Garlic: This has been used as both a food ingredient and medicine for centuries. It possesses antibacterial/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.

8. Omega 3 fatty acids: These are anti-inflammatory and may help regulate immunity. Omega-packed foods include fish, nuts, and plant oils.

9. Probiotics and prebiotics: These are essential for gut health which is essential to immunity. More than 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 (colony-forming units) such as Optibac or Biokult. Probiotic-rich foods include kombucha, 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, beans, and nuts.

Fitness Tip: NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is a key area to focus on. It can account for anywhere from 15-50% of our total energy expenditure each day and includes all activity outside of planned exercise like parking further from the entrance or getting off the bus a stop earlier. I monitor this every day with my tracker. I aim for 10,000 steps a day which isn't easy!

Wellness Tip: Take a look at your diet this week & consider whether you’re getting enough of the above nutrients. If not, try to make small changes for improvement; or look at picking up some supplements/vitamins.

Nutritious Chocolate Spread:

Healthy homemade chocolate spread

Healthy homemade chocolate spread

You don’t have to try to ignore your chocolate cravings anymore with this nutritious homemade chocolate spread recipe. I love to have this spread on toast, crackers, or stirred through some oats!

Prep time: 20 minutes

Serves: Makes one jar.


  • 1 cup hazelnuts
  • 1/2 cup cashew nuts
  • 1/2 cup almonds
  • 8 medjool dates (pitted)
  • 1/2 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tbsp raw cacao
  • 1 tbsp coconut oil


Blend the nuts in a food processor for 5 mins, until almost completely broken down.

Add the remaining ingredients and blend for 15 mins, until completely smooth. You will need to stop from time to time to scrape the edges.

Store in an airtight container in a cool dark place.

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