As the mornings gradually become colder and darker, the realisation that winter is lurking around the corner sets in. And if that isn’t enough to dampen the spirits, the NHS have reported that winter leaves you around “80% more likely to get a cold” – although if you are sitting there with the sniffles right now, you are probably already fully aware of that fact!
An optimal intake of nutrients is essential all year round in order to maintain general health and fitness. However, this is even more the case during the cold, winter months when viruses and infections are frequent throughout the UK.
In this week’s article we are going to look more closely at the nutrients that play a key role in the efficient functioning of the immune system and therefore help to protect against the dreaded winter snuffles.
The Immune System
The immune response to viral infection comprises innate and adaptive defences. The innate immune system is the ‘ready now’ system and is able to respond quickly to infection. The adaptive immune system, whose response includes antibodies, is slower to respond unless it has encountered that particular invader previously.
Most viral infections are controlled by the innate immune system, unless the infection overwhelms the innate system in which case the adaptive system is called into play. A key feature of the adaptive immune system is memory. Repeat infections by the same virus are met immediately with a strong and specific response that usually effectively stops the infection with less reliance on the innate system. Some viral infections are followed by a secondary bacterial infection and again both the innate and adaptive systems will be deployed.
Here are some of the nutrients most commonly associated with maintaining a healthy and efficient functioning immune system:
Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan is a natural form of soluble dietary fibre, derived from the cell wall of baker’s yeast. It is considered to provide a role in activating the immune system, alerting the body to help defend itself against viral and bacterial invaders. Because of its ability to assist in immune response, beta glucan is commonly used to prevent and support colds and flu.
Recent statistics cited in the article ‘Zinc Supplementation for Mortality, Morbidity and Growth Failure’ state that “the global prevalence of zinc deficiency is approximately 17% (Wessells 2012a), and rates of deficiency approach 73% in some regions”. Due to reduced levels of zinc in food and other factors, sub-optimal levels of zinc are even more widespread. Zinc levels in food are estimated to have reduced by 60% over a 60 year period.
The importance of zinc for plants and animals has been documented for many decades, but was only recognised for humans 40 years ago in the Middle East where studies noted zinc-deficient patients had severe immune dysfunctions and died of infections by the time they were 25 years of age (Prasad 2008).
“Zinc affects multiple aspects of the immune system. Zinc is crucial for normal development and function of cells mediating innate immunity, neutrophils, and NK cells. Macrophages also are affected by zinc deficiency. Phagocytosis, intracellular killing, and cytokine production all are affected by zinc deficiency. Zinc deficiency adversely affects the growth and function of T and B cells.” Prasad (2008)
An article on the >BBC Website from 2013 looks at how zinc ‘keeps the immune system in check’:
“A study shows that zinc stops the immune system from spiralling out of control, as happens when people develop sepsis. The researchers say the findings could also explain why taking zinc supplements at the start of a cold can stem its severity. It is thought the finding could have implications for other diseases.”
Zinc’s role in the immune system is recognised by the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) with the permitted health claim “Zinc provides a role in contributing to the normal function of the immune system”.
Food sources of zinc include meat, fish, nuts and seeds, especially pumpkin seeds.
Propolis is a sticky resin gathered by honey bees from leaf buds, the bark of trees and other botanical sources. Bees metabolise the Propolis and use it to seal, disinfect and protect their hives. Propolis is used by the bees for a range of protective purposes within the hive due to its natural antibiotic, anti-fungal and antibacterial properties.
Propolis is a complex food, and over 180 natural compounds have been identified including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids. Propolis is one of nature’s richest sources of bioflavonoids and this is one of the reasons that it is considered to be an excellent natural antioxidant to help protect the immune system. The use of propolis as a natural medicinal and health aid is documented back to ancient Greece and other civilisations.
The medicinal use of garlic dates back thousands of years to around the year 1550BC, when it was already regularly used as an ingredient in food and research suggests that it has antimicrobial properties:
“The in vitro antibacterial activity of essential oils obtained from fresh bulbs of garlic show a good antimicrobial activity against Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Escherichia coli. Even some bacteria normally resistant to antibiotics (including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) or strains of bacteria resistant to several antibiotic treatments (Escherichia coli, Enterococcus spp, Shigella spp) were sensitive to garlic treatment.” (Majewski 2014)
Another study showed taking a garlic supplement for 3 months resulted in fewer colds. The study was with a group of 146 participants. Those in the garlic group experienced a total of 24 colds in the 3 month period compared to 65 colds in the placebo group (Cochrane Review 2015)
Vitamin D is known as ‘The Sunshine Vitamin’. This is because sunlight is necessary for the synthesis of vitamin D in the skin and those lacking in sunlight are at high risk of deficiency.
An estimated 25% of UK children, 50% of UK adult white population and up to 90% of UK black and Asian people are affected by vitamin D deficiency. In addition to deficiency, many people have levels that are ‘sub-optimal’ for good health.
We can’t stress this point enough as vitamin D is not found in abundance naturally in foods. So simply put, not enough sunshine means not enough vitamin D and in the winter months this is even more of a problem for residents in the UK.
The amount of sunlight (UV) in our winter months is insufficient and we need to draw on our bodily reserves. Factors that can affect the skin’s production of vitamin D include latitude (in the UK the sun is only strong enough between April-October), time of day (10.00-14.00 H), air pollution, cloud cover, extent of clothing or sun-cream covering the skin, age, skin colour and obesity.
Anyone who works indoors, lives at higher latitudes (like UK), wears excessive clothing, uses sun-cream, is dark-skinned, elderly, obese or who consciously avoids the sun in the middle of the day is at high risk for vitamin D deficiency. Foods rich in vitamin D include oily fish and eggs however fish consumption is poor in this country and as the Vitamin D Mission note:
“Salmon and other oily fish are big in vitamin D, along with liver, eggs and fortified cereals. But because of the quantities needed it’s hard to get enough from diet alone.”
Vitamin D deficiency has been shown to be independently associated with increased risk of viral acute respiratory infection (ARI) in a number of observational studies, and meta-analysis of clinical trials of vitamin D supplementation for prevention of ARI has demonstrated protective effects (Greiller and Martineau 2015).
Vitamin D has a number of EFSA permitted health claims, including “Vitamin D contributes to the normal function of the immune system.
A white blood cell’s concentration of vitamin C is vital to its ability to act efficiently in destroying viruses and infections. It is considered that white blood cells need around 50 times the concentration of vitamin C normally found in the blood. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to keep an optimal level of vitamin C.
Food sources of vitamin C include vegetables and fruit especially dark green, leafy vegetables and citrus fruits.
Vitamin C has a number of EFSA health claims, including that it ‘contributes to the function of the immune system’.
The role of Sugar
Simple and ‘refined’ sugar – for example as found in sugary drinks and sweets can have a serious impact on the efficient functioning of the immune system. One of the mechanisms may be through sugar’s chemical similarity to vitamin C and the fact that they share cellular transport systems. Glucose has a very similar chemical structure to vitamin C. The implications of this are that when white blood cells attempt to absorb the vitamin C from the bloodstream, if there is a high level of glucose, the glucose can be taken into the cell at the expense of vitamin C.
Although coughs and colds are inevitable during the winter, the frequency and duration are not. One to two colds per year, each lasting 4-5 days, has some positive benefits for the immune system. More common today are colds that run almost back to back through the winter with people commenting they have had a cold lasting 4 or 5 weeks. If this is you, then you may want to look at boosting immune supportive nutrients through your diet, limiting sugar, taking a daily multivitamin to make up the ‘Nutrition Gap’ shortfall and adding in extra supplements as and when appropriate.
If you have any questions regarding the health topics that have been raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time.
[email protected], 01684 310099
Amanda Williams and the Cytoplan Editorial Team: Joseph Forsyth, Simon Holdcroft and Clare Daley
Propolis is a complex food, and over 180 natural compounds have been identified including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids. Propolis is one of nature”s richest sources of bioflavonoids and this is one of the reasons that it is considered to be an excellent and natural antioxidant.
Cytoplan whole garlic powder capsules are suitable for the whole family and have been certified organic by the Soil Association. Each capsule comprises 400mg of organic garlic powder that is free from live yeast.
90 Gluten-free capsules each containing 250mg of Beta 1-3 1-6 Glucan a powerful immune-priming nutritional supplement. Immunovite also comprises suitable levels of Vitamin C, Selenium and Zinc which each respectively contribute to the normal function of the immune system. Also comes in a size of 30 capsules.