Our immune system is a vital part of our overall well-being. It is the body’s defense system that protects us from harmful bacteria viruses, tumors, etc. The immune system is comprised of many glands, vessels, organs and more such as the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus gland, bone marrow, etc. as well as cells including granulocytes, mast cells, monocytes, dendritic, neutrophils, natural killer (NK) cells and many more.
Despite the obviously complex defense system our bodies have, every year we are still faced with the concept of “flu season” which is a time when our immune defenses are weakened. We become vulnerable to unwanted bacteria and viruses which can enter our bodies. It is a time when contagious diseases can spread easily and quickly. When many immune cells are hard at work, resources to help it stay strong can be temporarily exhausted. Therefore, there are certain things we can do to keep our immune systems strong.
Why are our immune systems weak during certain times of the year?
Lack of sun exposure
The reason is mostly due to the fact that our exposure to sunlight is significantly reduced during this time. Skin exposure to the Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays of the sun, with help from your kidneys and liver, allows your body to produce the active form of Vitamin D called 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D.
Vitamin D is known as an immunomodulator, which means that it helps to regulate our immune system. Some immune cells have Vitamin D receptors which help to promote anti-microbial activity. As previously mentioned, you can get a good portion of Vitamin D through sun exposure.
When To Get The Best Sun Exposure
For those in the Northern hemisphere, it is typically between the months of April through around September that you are most likely to be exposed to more sunlight. However, even then, the only times you can really benefit from sunlight Ultraviolet B (UVB) Rays is during the months of June, July and August. Despite having more sunlight, there are many factors that can affect how much of the sun’s UVB rays you are getting to help your body properly absorb them. These factors can include skin tone. For example, the lighter the tone the easier it is to get the rays and less time needed to stay in the sun (about 15 minutes) as opposed to the darker the skin tone the longer exposure time needed (at least 30 minutes). Air pollution such as smog can block the rays also making it harder to receive.
Food sources of Vitamin D.
UVB rays from sunlight is not the only way to get Vitamin D. During times when sunlight is scarce you can get it through food sources. Some examples are:
Milk 2% Vitamin D (Fortified)
Almond, Soy, and Oat milk (Fortified)
White Mushrooms (Exposed to UV light)
Vitamin D Supplements
Another source where you can get vitamin D is through supplementation. Because Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin (dissolves in fat), you will find such supplements (ex. Vitamin D3, cod liver oil) in some form of oil/fat capsule. It is important that before taking any supplement, including Vitamin D, you consult your doctor. One reason is, you have to get bloodwork to know how much Vitamin D you have in your blood so your doctor can properly prescribe the correct dose. Second, you can actually have too much Vitamin D supplement in your system which can cause adverse reactions such as excessive amounts of calcium resulting in calcification (calcium deposits/hardening) of your heart and blood vessels, kidney problems and many more.
How much Vitamin D should I take?
There are certain recommended daily intakes for each age group on how much vitamin D you should get according to the National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements.
Age 0-12 months: 400 IU (International Units) / 10mcg (Micrograms)
Age 1-70 years: 600 IU /15mcg
Lactating/Breastfeeding: 600 IU / 15mcg
Ages 71 and Over: 800 IU / 20mcg
Of course in cases of certain health conditions these doses can change. For example, according to Harvard Health, those who have a hard time absorbing vitamins through food due to celiac disease or those who have low functioning kidneys or liver may have a hard time getting adequate amounts from the sun due to not being able to synthesize properly. The best way to truly know exactly how much Vitamin D you need and how to get it is to consult your qualified healthcare physician.
One of the roles Vitamin C, a water soluble (easily dissolves in water), plays in the immune system is support for various immune cells such as neutrophils in killing harmful bacteria in the body. It also enhances the development and function of T and B immune cells which are responsible for telling the immune system how to handle invading bacteria and viruses.
Food sources of Vitamin C.
Sources of Vitamin C include, but are not limited to, the following:
How much Vitamin C should I be getting?
Recommended daily intake of Vitamin C for different ages are:
Age 0-6 months: 40 mg(milligrams)
Age 7-12 months: 50 mg
Age 1-3 years: 15 mg
Age 4-8 years: 45 mg
Age 9-13 years: 45 mg
Boys Age 14-18 years: 75 mg
Girls Age 14-18 years: 65 mg
Men Age 19+: 90 mg
Women Age 19+: 75 mg
Pregnant Teens: 80 mg
Breastfeeding Teens: 115 mg
Pregnant Women: 85 mg
Breastfeeding Women: 120 mg
Too much Vitamin C can result in diarrhea and accumulating too much iron in the body causing tissue damage. Check with your doctor prior to taking supplements or starting a new eating regimen.
Another important mineral that is crucial in the function of the immune system such as T, B and natural killer cells amongst many others is zinc. It helps to increase our immune defense against bacteria and viruses.
Food sources of Zinc.
Zinc is prevalent in many foods such as:
Seafood (example; Oysters, Shrimp, Crab)
Whole Grains (example; Brown Rice, Rye, Wheat)
Nuts (example; Cashews)
According to studies, the best form of zinc as a supplement is Zinc Picolinate because of it’s ease of absorption compared to other forms of zinc. In my personal experience, taking a zinc tablet/lozenge at the first sign of any sort of viral infection such as a cold immediately got rid of all the symptoms. That’s the only time I take them. I haven’t had a cold or flu in years. It is something I keep on hand in my medicine cabinet at home.
How much Zinc should I have?
The following recommendation on daily intake of zinc, according to the National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplement, is:
Age 0-6 months: 2 mg (milligrams)
Age 7-12 month: 3 mg
Age 1-3 years: 3 mg
Age 9-13 years: 8 mg
Boys Age 14-18 years: 11 mg
Girls Age 14-18 years: 9 mg
Men Age 19+: 11 mg
Women Age 19+: 8 mg
Pregnant Teens: 12 mg
Breastfeeding Teens: 13 mg
Pregnant Women: 11 mg
Breastfeeding Women: 12 mg
Keep in mind it is important not to exceed the maximum recommended amount outlined here otherwise you risk adverse reactions, including nausea. Always consult your doctor prior to taking any zinc supplements so you know what is best for you.
There are also some herbs that have been known to help boost immunity. Some of these herbs include:
Shitake (Lentinula edodes) and Maitake (Grifola frondosa) mushroom extracts taken together have been shown in research to boost the immune system. Reishi (Ganoderma Lucidium) Mushroom has helped to increase white blood cells in cancer patients which are important fighter cells of your immune system. A formula of all three mushrooms already premade are available online or in stores. Please consult your doctor for guidance on herbal supplementation.
Good Hygiene Practices
Implementing good hygiene regimens helps to reduce the likelihood of carrying a significant amount of germs, bacteria and viruses that can cause many illnesses including the flu. Amongst many practices, this includes always washing hands after using the toilet and blowing your nose, bathing daily, using hand sanitizer when you don’t have access to soap and water and more.
While there are certain “seasons” in which our immune systems are susceptible to being weakened, we should strive to keep our immune systems healthy, functioning properly and strong all year long. Getting adequate sunshine, eating balanced meals to ensure you are getting vital minerals, taking supplements, herbals (upon doctor’s supervision) and staying clean are all various methods to ensure a strong and healthy immune system.
What About Those With Overactive Immune Systems?
On another note, when dealing with immunity issues, it has been known that individuals with overactive immune systems such as lupus should not be regularly boosting it because of it’s very nature. To boost means to make stronger and if the immune system is attacking the body (such as in autoimmune conditions) boosting the immune system will only make it stronger in it’s attack against the body.
So what can people with overactive immune systems do to ensure they stay healthy and protected as best they can against harmful bacteria and viruses? As mentioned before keeping good hygiene is one way. Following your treatment plan given to you by your doctor such as medicines and eating proper whole foods is another. Most importantly, avoid people with contagious diseases as you are at increased susceptibility to catching them as well as putting your condition into a flare.
Stay well and remember to stay active in your self care!