immune supporting nutrients hero

Immune-Supporting Nutrients to Help You Get Healthy

By: Sam Kramer, MS, RD, LDN, CSSGB, CISSN

With the temperatures fluctuating and steadily dropping towards winter, that also means increased rates of the common cold. While cold temperatures do not necessarily cause increased rates of the cold, there are associative factors including people spending more time inside and in close contact with each other that allow for germs to spread. Viruses take advantage of the cold dry air and drier nasal passages that allow them to spread more easily.

Staying active can support immune health, but that is only half of the equation. Nutrition also plays a key role in protecting your immune system and staying strong throughout the year. Fill your diet with the following foods and nutrients to help shorten the duration of your cold:

1. Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are rich in micronutrients, vitamins and minerals. These key nutrients, while they do not provide Calories, support metabolism and energy support at the cellular level. Think of the body as a car; if you do not have enough fuel or high-quality fuel, the car will not go very far or fast. The same goes for your body in terms of the types of nutrients you choose to feed it.

Fruits and vegetables are also rich in phytonutrients. These vitamin-like compounds provide additional functional and protective benefits to the body beyond classic metabolic function. Most importantly, these phytonutrients act as antioxidants, which stabilize compounds known as free radicals or reactive oxygen species, which are damaging scavengers that attack DNA and cell membranes to attempt to become stable. Some vitamins, such as C, E, and A can also act as antioxidants to further protect the body.

Research has demonstrated that antioxidants from various sources can improve markers of immune health and decrease exposure time to the common cold by decreasing medication intake and facilitating return to work more quickly.

2. Essential Fatty Acids (Omega-3s)

Omega Fatty Acids are a class of essential fatty acids (EFAs). The word “essential” in nutrition means that the body does not make the compound, so it must be consumed in the diet either through food or supplementation. Within the omegas, there are omega-6s and omega-3s. Both are extremely important but perform different functions.

Omega-6s act as pro-inflammatory biomarkers. While most people think inflammation is always negative, it depends on the context. Inflammation is very necessary if you have a cut or are sick. The inflammatory process kicks on and activates your internal soldiers to fight whatever battle it needs to, and then turns off when the fight is over. This is called an acute response.

Inflammation becomes a problem when it is chronic, or long term, as it is with obesity. If you are in a constant state of inflammation, there is a greater risk for chronic illnesses. Another compounding problem is that omega-6s are found in most of the foods we eat in a standard Western diet, especially vegetable oils. This is not to say vegetable oils are bad, but because omega-6s are omnipresent in our food supply it be analogous to throwing kerosene on the fire if one is also obese or overweight.

This is where omega-3s come in. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. They counteract the omega-6 pro-inflammation and can therefore also support your immune system. Unfortunately, very few Omega-3 rich foods, like salmon, flax, or chia, are common in a typical Western diet.

Supplementation is an alternative option. Keep in mind that consuming animal-based sources of omega-3s means you are directly consuming the two common “active” omega-3s known as EPA and DHA. If you are consuming plant-based sources like flax or chia, you are consuming the parent fatty acid known as ALA and the conversion rate within your body is extremely low (0-7%). To combat this poor conversion, your intake of these plant-based sources must be about 10 times higher compared to the animal-based sources, in most cases.

3. Probiotics

Probiotics are the final frontier of nutrition science research. With the recent discovery of the gut-brain axis, there are implications that your enteric nervous system located in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract can influence the brain.

Probiotics are the live cultures that live within your GI tract. Also known as the gut microbiome/microbiota/flora, these live bacteria flourish mostly in your small and large intestine. Don’t be scared by the term “bacteria.” While some strains, such as E. coli can be harmful, most are beneficial. Common probiotic species include Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium longum, and L. rhamnosus. Foods that provide probiotics include yogurt and fermented products such as kefir, kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut.

While foods do contain probiotics, the research is becoming more transparent that supplementation with specific strains may be warranted. Technology that allows probiotic capsules and tablets to survive the acidic environment of the stomach guarantees potency and allows the probiotics to not only survive, but flourish in the GI tract. While there is no “best” probiotic, a minimum of 1 billion colony forming units, with clinically researched strains (i.e. B. longum SP07/3), and enhanced technology may improve the likelihood of receiving benefits.

Traditionally, probiotics have supported GI health and immune health. While the exact mechanisms are unknown, it has been proposed that the probiotics can modulate the expression of immunity biomarkers and the generation of short-chain fatty acids as a byproduct can improve intestinal integrity. Specifically, with colds, research has demonstrated that probiotic supplementation has decreased symptoms and duration of colds and may even be preventative in both adults and children. More research is certainly needed, but based on the information above, it can’t hurt to include probiotics in your regimen.

Adding these three types of nutrients to your diet can play a significant role in keeping you healthy throughout the year. Incorporating these into your diet one at a time can make the task less daunting and provide numerous benefits to the body.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.

Find more healthy living inspiration from our team of experts here.