The immune system is one of the most important systems of the body, and our most important defender against foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria. It is only when we begin to feel run down or can’t shake a cold that we give the immune system the attention it deserves. Fatigue, slow healing wounds and repeated or chronic infections are some of the signs that your immune system may not be functioning at its optimum. Herbal and nutrient supplements can help you recover faster, and improve your resistance to infections.
Here are some of the most important supplements to keep in your cupboard during winter:
This herb stimulates the immune system and studies have found that it reduces the severity of common cold symptoms such as sore throat, upper respiratory catarrh, bronchial cough and fever.1-4
Many of us have heard the name echinacea but may not be sure why it’s so popular; it has antimicrobial and antiviral activity and has been traditionally used to support immune function and provide relief of upper respiratory catarrh, sore throat and feverish conditions.3,5
Olive leaf has shown to possess antibacterial activity and is used in traditional western herbal medicine for respiratory ailments such as cough and sore throat.5-7
A classic remedy, vitamin C is a great addition to any immune-boosting regimen. Great for the lead up to the winter months, vitamin C taken prophylactically can help to build up immunity and ward off colds. Numerous clinical studies support the use of vitamin C in reducing the severity and duration of colds.8-11 Vitamin C, otherwise known as ascorbic acid, acts to dampen the histamine response which includes symptoms of runny nose and watery eyes.5,11,12
Vitamin C’s role in immunity can be enhanced when combined with other potent nutrients such as vitamin E, zinc, betacarotene and rutin. Vitamin E and rutin, like vitamin C, are potent antioxidants. Antioxidants are important for immune health as they are able to protect immune cells from free radicals in the body.13
Betacarotene is a precursor for vitamin A, which plays an essential role in regulating the immune system and helps the body fight off infections. It also boosts the activity of white blood cells, which defend the body from foreign substances.14
Known as the sunshine vitamin, the well-researched vitamin D enhances the immune response to bacteria and viruses. Being deficient in vitamin D has been linked to recurrent infections.
Zinc is a well known immune-support nutrient required for production of white blood cells that fight infections; its deficiency is linked to decreased immune function.15-17
Mushroom extracts including reishi and shiitake have traditionally been used to stimulate and support the immune system.
Tips for a healthy immune system
- Eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in saturated fat and simple carbohydrates.
- Exercise regularly.
- Get outdoors for regular sun exposure.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Drink alcohol in moderation only.
- Don’t smoke.
- Get adequate sleep.
- Avoid/reduce stress.
Speak to your healthcare practitioner for more information about supplementation. Make sure to always read the label and use only as directed. If symptoms persist, see your healthcare practitioner.
- Thamlikitkul V, Dechatiwongse T, Theerapong S, et al. Efficacy of Andrographis paniculata, nees for pharyngotonsillitis in adults. J Med Assoc Thai 1991;74(10):437-442.
- Caceres DD, Hancke JL, Burgos RA, et al. Use of visual analogue scale measurements (VAS) to assess the effectiveness of standardized Andrographis paniculata extract SHA-10 in reducing the symptoms of common cold: a randomized double blind-placebo study. Phytomedicine 1999;6(4):217-223.
- Mills S, Bone K. Principles and practice of phytotherapy. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2000.
- Coon JT, Ernst E. Andrographis paniculata in the treatment of upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review of safety and efficacy. Planta Med 2004;70(4):293-298.
- Braun L, Cohen M. Herbs and natural supplements: an evidence-based guide, 2nd ed. Sydney: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2007.
- Roxas M, Jurenka J. Colds and influenza: a review of diagnosis and conventional, botanical, and nutritional considerations. Altern Med Rev 2007;12(1):25-48.
- Bone K. A clinical guide to blending liquid herbs. St Louis: Churchill Livingstone, 2003.
- Douglas RM, Hemilä H, Chalker E, et al. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2007;(3):CD000980.
- Gorton H, Jarvis K. The effectiveness of vitamin C in preventing and relieving the symptoms of virus-induced respiratory infections. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 1999;22(8):530-533.
- Hemiliä H, Douglas RM. Vitamin C and acute respiratory infections. Int J Tuberc Lung Dis 1999;3(9):756-761.
- Douglas RM, Douglas RM, Hemiliä H, Chalker E, Treacy B. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2007;(3):CD000980
- Johnston CS, Martin LJ, Cai X. Antihistamine effect of supplemental ascorbic acid and neutrophil chemotaxis. J Am Coll Nutr 1992 Apr;11(2):172-176.
- Meydani SN, Santos MS, Wu D, et al. Antioxidant modulation of cytokines and their biologic function in the aged. Z Ernahrungswiss 1998;37 Suppl 1:35-42.
- Wintergerst ES, Maggini S, Hornig DH. Contribution of selected vitamins and trace elements to immune function. Ann Nutr Metab 2007;51(4):301-323
- Prasad AS. Zinc: role in immunity, oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2009;12(6):646-652.
- Shils ME, Shike M, Ross AC, et al (Eds). Modern nutrition in health and disease, 10th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006.
- Marone G, Findlay SR, Lichtenstein LM. Modulation of histamine release from human basophils in vitro by physiological concentrations of zinc. J Pharmacol Exp Ther 1981;217(2):292-298.