Encouraging an optimally functioning immune system
***Please note this is not intended as medical advice. If you feel you are experiencing symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has coronavirus follow the advice of your health authority, which at this point seems to be to self-isolate for at least 7 days. You can call NHS 111 for help and advice on what to do.***
We often assume that there isn’t much that we can do to help our immunity, but this isn't necessarily the case and knowing that we can do something can give us a sense of power and hope in times of uncertainty. Before you read further, I just want to point out that although we can help our body to have an optimally functioning immune system it doesn’t necessarily give us immunity against viruses like Coronavirus as there are many factors at play and a lot that is unknown about it.
The food we eat is not only nutrition for our body to operate effectively but also information for our DNA and immune system. In order for all the systems of the body to function optimally we need to eat nutrients (vitamins, minerals), antioxidants, flavonoids, polyphenols, fibre - basically all the things found in vegetables, fruit, meat, diary, legumes, (70% chocolate), mushrooms and seaweeds. Most of these things are not found in high amounts in diets full of processed ‘dead’ food. We need to eat varied diets filled with lots of colour and flavour (but not of the made-made processed kind!). “The roles for nutrients in immune function are many and varied and it is easy to appreciate that an adequate and balanced supply of these is essential if an appropriate immune response is to be mounted. In essence, good nutrition creates an environment in which the immune system is able to respond appropriately to a challenge, irrespective of the nature of the challenge.”(1) There is also lots of evidence of the link between food and mood and immunity.
Below are some of the nutrients needed by your body to help the immune system. You can get these in your food or you can add them as a supplement if you think you need some extra support as a lot of people are depleted and low in some nutrients. Even though Coronavirus is not a cold or flu, the following supplements are thought of as helpful in a cold or flu situation and so may help to give your body some extra support. These supplements are also safe for most people to take.
Foods containing vitamin D are fatty fish (mackerel, salmon), cheese and a small amount in egg yolks. It has been reported that people who have low levels of vitamin D are more susceptible to respiratory infections and it is said to be one of the reasons that during the 1918 pandemic patients were treated outdoors and exposed to sunlight. It appears that vitamin D regulates the immune system. “Vitamin D intake is usually inadequate in most age groups worldwide, even in countries with mandatory food fortification, which can increase the risk of infection, especially respiratory tract infections”(2). We are in the lighter half of the year now, so trying to get outside as much as you can will really help to boost your vitamin D levels. Go for a walk, forage for some food, work in your garden if you have one. Supplementing - D3 is the most bioavailable form 1000-4000 IU/day, children’s doses are usually 400-800 IU/day. For best absorption take it with a meal that includes healthy fats or use a sublingual spray.
“A low vitamin C status increases susceptibility to infections such as pneumonia, possibly because low levels of antioxidants such as vitamin C are unable to counteract the oxidative stress observed in pneumonia”(2). Foods rich in vitamin c are rosehips, red peppers, kiwi, dark green leafy vegetables, parsley, brambles and wild garlic (which is currently in season in a woodland area near you). Supplementing - up to 2000mg a day, lysosomal is suggested as the most absorbable.
Low levels of zinc have been shown to lower the number and effectiveness of the body’s defence warriors and has a wide ranging effect on the immune response, making people more susceptible to infection. A dietary survey found that 5-30% of adults in the UK are chronically deficient in zinc, which is found in meats, shellfish, beans and seeds. Nettles are a suprising source of many nutrients including zinc...”The fresh leaves contain high concentrations of vitamins A, C, D, E, F, K and P, as well as of vitamin B-complexes. The leaves are also known to contain particularly large amounts of the metals selenium, zinc, iron and magnesium” (3). The suggested dose is 10-25mg, if you are taking a good multivitamin this is probably covered. Upper respiratory infections may be prevented and symptoms reduced by taking zinc (acetate) in lozenges form. There may be some medications that zinc interferes with, see here: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
“Prebiotics are identified based on the composition of fibers in them. Some of the commonly-known prebiotic foods are as follows: raw chicory root (64.6%), raw Jerusalem artichoke (31.5%), raw dandelion greens (24.3%), raw garlic (17.5%), and raw onion (8.6%). Apart from those mentioned above, mushrooms are also considered a potential source of prebiotics“ (4). Leeks, barley, oats, apples, burdock root, flaxseeds and seaweed are also good sources. Prebiotics are essential in helping the gut microbiota to thrive, and recent reseach suggests that the microbiome has a huge role to play in the wellbeing and immunity of the person.
Another way to help the microbiome is to include probiotics in the diet in the form of fermented foods. Fermented foods have, until fairly recently, been a part of diets on every continent. They provide a large and diverse number of probiotics. Research into probiotics is still in its infancy and although you can buy probiotics in capsules there is still much to learn and I think that taking them in the context of whole foods is probably more beneficial and is how we would have eaten them for centuries.
Herbs & foraging
Increase your use of herbs (oregano, thyme) and spices (like turmeric, cinnamon, ginger) in your cooking, trying to include some fresh herbs like parsley and nettles if you can as they are full of nutrients and great multivitamin pill replacements. We are coming into the spring and outside the plants are starting to emerge, many common weeds are fantastic sources of nutrients and would be ideal to add into your diet if you are able to. As with all foraging, though, make sure that you know exactly what you are picking before you eat it.
Common weeds that you might recognise and could include in your diet are: nettles (cook like spinach), dandelion leaves and flowers (tea/salad/cooked) has been used herbally to treat respiratory ailments, daisy flowers (tea/salad) high in vitamin C and may help with bronchitis and coughs, sorrel (salad) good source of vitamin C and A, wild garlic (salad/pesto/fermented) according Robin Harford’s research (www.eatweeds.co.uk) it was carried in people’s pockets to ward off flu during the 1918 pandemic, it was also used for coughs and colds, yarrow (tea/salad) can be used to support the body’s fever process, elderflower (tea/foods) also supports fever and may shorten the duration of illness, plantain (tea) may help to soothe a dry cough, violets (tea) may help to soothe a dry cough.
Beta-glucans are a group of compounds which have been shown to enhance the innate immune system (body’s physical and chemical defence mechanisms including skin, chemicals in blood, phagocytes, NK cells etc). They can be found in brewers yeast and mushrooms like shiitake, chaga, reishi, turkey tail, cordyceps, lions mane and maitake. You can find many of these mushrooms in Britain‘s woodland, but as with all foraging make sure you know exactly what you are picking before you do so. “Chaga have traditionally been boiled to make a tea, which is drunk to treat a range of conditions, including cancers, viral and bacterial infections, and gastro-intestinal disorders”(4). You can buy medicinal mushrooms as supplements, I feel that these are definitely something to include in your diet and health resilience regimen, they are used a lot in Japan and China.
Stress has a massive impact on all systems of the body and causes the body’s ability to fight infection to be reduced. Even though this is a very unusual situation we find ourselves in, try to find positives, try to remain focused on your day to day, moment to moment, breathe, exercise, get out in nature.
Getting adequate (7-9 hours) of sleep is a boost to help your immunity and wellbeing
as a whole.
There is a lot of evidence now for the benefit of getting out into nature, its ability to reduce stress and boost your immunity. Connecting with the plants that live close to you is a worthwhile activity, because of the aforementioned, but also if there is a shortage of food or medicine it is good to know that you can collect these from the plants in your local park, in between the cracks in the pavement, in the hedgerows, on disturbed farmland, or in your local woodland walk.
Stay safe and look after each other.
(1) Proc Nutr Soc. 2013 Aug;72(3):299-309. doi: 10.1017/S0029665113001286. Epub 2013 May 21. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society/article/feeding-the-immune-system/DF11303522DF3ED454536446EAAB6CEB/core-reader
(2) Maggini, S.; Pierre, A.; Calder, P.C. Immune Function and Micronutrient Requirements Change over the Life Course. Nutrients 2018, 10, 1531.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6212925/#!po=24.4186
(3) Kregiel D, Pawlikowska E, Antolak H. Urtica spp.: Ordinary Plants with Extraordinary Properties. Molecules. 2018;23(7):1664. Published 2018 Jul 9. doi:10.3390/molecules23071664 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6100552/
(4) Jayachandran M, Xiao J, Xu B. A Critical Review on Health Promoting Benefits of Edible Mushrooms through Gut Microbiota. Int J Mol Sci. 2017;18(9):1934. Published 2017 Sep 8. doi:10.3390/ijms18091934. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5618583/
***Please note this is not intended as medical advise. If you feel you are experiencing symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has coronavirus follow the advice of your health authority. Which at this point seems to be self-isolate for at least 7 days. You can call NHS 111 for help and advice on what to do.***