What the science says
In recent years, scientists have been studying many natural products for their potential roles in supporting our immune systems, and preventing or treating illness. Here are some making headlines.
As always, it’s crucial to chat with your health care practitioner before taking any new supplement, as not every product is right for every person.
A well-known herb for targeting colds, extracts of echinacea have demonstrated a positive effect on the immune system by increasing the number of white blood cells, which fight infections. In a 2014 review of 24 studies involving more than 4,500 subjects, echinacea was found to help in preventing colds.
Otherwise known as vitamin B9, folate is essential in the body’s ability to make red blood cells and in the development of the fetal nervous system, DNA synthesis, and cell growth. Deficiency is thought to hamper immunity.
These beneficial bacteria are found in foods like yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and pickles and also sold as capsules, tablets, and loose powder. Probiotics can help promote immune health by secreting protective substances in our gut that then activate the immune system, preventing pathogens from taking hold.
An important trace mineral for human functioning including for the central nervous, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems; muscles; and immunity, selenium is found in meat and dairy products as well as nuts, seeds, and brown rice. Also taken as supplements, selenium has been the subject of ongoing studies focusing on selenium’s beneficial impact on white blood cells and immunity.
Vitamin B complex
The B-complex family includes eight vitamins, all of which work together to convert the food we eat into fuel. A lack of B vitamins, such as B12 and B6, has been linked specifically with poor mood and a decrease in immunity. Because B12 is found mainly in animal products, vegans and vegetarians might need an extra boost as may older people who are more at risk of B12 deficiency.
An antioxidant that can be taken as a supplement on an ongoing basis to stimulate components of the immune system, vitamin C may help to shorten the duration of the common cold. Research has shown that people with higher vitamin C stores have lower risks of hypertension, coronary heart disease, and stroke.
Supplementing with vitamin D helps to ensure we get enough in our system, since sun exposure can be a challenge in Northern climates, and food sources are few. Studies have shown that vitamin D can strengthen our immunity to infections due to vitamin D receptors on cells of the immune system.
This super antioxidant is also involved in boosting the body’s immune function, helping to fight off bacteria and viruses. Vitamin E is also important for healthy skin and eyes. Good food sources of vitamin E include vegetable oils, green leafy vegetables, red bell peppers, eggs, seeds, and nuts, and supplements are readily available.
Research has demonstrated that people who supplement with zinc seem to catch fewer colds and those who already have colds experience reduced duration and symptoms with zinc supplementation. Zinc stimulates the production of our own immune cells so we have a better defense against viruses and bacteria.