In search of immunity

Sponsored: CH&CO’s consultant nutritionist and Education Board member, Amanda Ursell, talks immunity and nutrition

If you search the internet for foods and diets that can help boost your immunity, you’ll get back suggestions, ideas and promises galore.

Most though, have no science behind them as in reality we can’t ‘boost’ our immune system – we can, however, eat well to support it.

There is evidence, for example, that being deficient in certain nutrients can weaken our immune responses, which may leave us more likely to fall prey to illness and possibly to increased severity of symptoms.

There are two questions that come from this statement, which need answering.

What nutrients are essential for our immune systems to work normally?

They include: vitamins A, C, D, E, B2, B6, B12, folic acid, iron, selenium and zinc.

For example, we need vitamin A to help to keep the linings of our mouths and airways in good condition.

If we are deficient, the linings can become less strong making it potentially easier for bacteria and viruses to enter our bodies. A deficiency of vitamin D, on the other hand, may increase the risk of infection because it plays a role, among other things, in stimulating immune cell proliferation and regulating antimicrobial proteins.

Are we likely to be deficient in any of these nutrients?

If we are eating in a healthy and balanced way over time, then we should be able to reach our recommended intakes of these nutrients.

One exception to this rule, however, is vitamin D. In England, the Department of Health recommends that we supplement with this nutrient throughout the winter because we rarely eat sufficient vitamin D to meet our needs, and in winter months do not convert sufficient pre-vitamin D under our skin into the active form due to lack of sunlight on our skin.

Some groups of people, such as pregnant women, children under five and people over 65, are recommended to also supplement during summer months.

Another exception is vitamin B12, if following a vegan style of eating. It is crucial that a daily supplement is taken or that daily foods fortified with this vitamin are consumed. The Vegan Society website has excellent advice, prepared by registered dietitians, for further information.

A mineral that some people, especially women and teenage girls, may be struggling to get a sufficient intake of is iron.

If feeling constantly tired, it is a good idea to ask your doctor for a blood test to establish whether you have iron deficiency anaemia because as well as exhaustion, it is needed for our innate immune systems to work well. For instance, iron is involved with the process of white blood cells called neutrophils killing pathogens.

What is a healthy balanced diet?

The way it is presented differs pictorially in different countries but essentially the Department of Health’s Eatwell Guide in England describes things well. It is a pictorial expression with descriptions to help you get a balance of healthier and more sustainable foods.

It describes how much of what you eat overall is advised to come from each food group.

Eating in this style can help in providing a good intake of essential vitamins and minerals (with the exception of vitamin D, and B12 if following a vegan diet) and support physical wellbeing, which research in humans indicates may also help our immune systems to work normally.

In summary, to help our immune systems to work normally we need to think about:

● Eating the right amount of energy for our needs
● Having a variety of vegetables and fruits each day
● Switch from refined carbohydrates to wholegrain versions
● Try to have lean sources of protein
● When including fats in your diets, try to have oils such as olive oil and fish oils rather than saturated animal fats.

Watch Amanda’s video on nutrition and immunity by visiting:


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