With global attention focused on the outbreak of a new virus, what can you do to keep your body’s natural defences in tip-top shape? Frankie Brogan, Senior Nutritionist at Pharma Nord UK, looks at six ways to support your immune system.
Wherever you live in the world, it has become impossible to escape coverage of the growing spread of the coronavirus COVID19.
With efforts to find a vaccine still ongoing, many people are understandably concerned about the threat posed by the outbreak.
The coronavirus is a respiratory infection. Symptoms include shortness of breath, a persistent cough and fever. If someone believes they have the condition, they should ring the NHS helpline on 111. They should not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital.
While there is currently no cure for coronavirus, there are some sensible steps which people can take to help support their natural defences against viruses, colds and flu.
The body’s immune system is what helps to fight off the pathogens which cause illness. There are a number of ways in which you can support your immune system to make it as strong and effective as possible, including the following:
1. Take 1,3 1,6 beta glucans
In the body, white blood cells play especially important roles in fighting infections, such as digesting foreign invaders (phagocytes), inflammation (mast cells) and preventing the spread of infection (natural killer cells).
The activity of these cells is usually stimulated by an infection, but a nutritional substance has shown the ability to trigger the innate cells early - and that is 1,3 1,6 beta glucans.
1,3 1,6 beta glucans are a specific purified yeast derivative which are harmless, yet are able to trigger an unspecific immune response, priming the immune system in the same way as for a harmful flu or cold, but without the symptoms.
A number of research studies * have shown that this immunity boost reduces the chance of catching a cold or a flu, including during times at which infection rates are highest.
1,3 1,6 beta glucans is a very specific compound which is very challenging to obtain from diet alone. However, dietary supplements are available which contain 1,3 1,6 beta glucans and are designed to support the immune system.
2. Get your fill of the ‘sunshine vitamin’
Another important nutrient for immunity is vitamin D. The body will produce vitamin D provided there is an adequate amount of UVB light from sun exposure, meaning our intakes during the darker months aren't usually enough, particularly in the UK.
This is an issue because vitamin D is essential for a healthy functioning immune system. It's believed that vitamin D helps stimulate the production of peptide - substances in the body that are able to fight off bacteria, fungi and viruses*.
A meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) concluded that not only is vitamin D supplementation safe, but it also helps protect against respiratory tract infections (this covers everything from colds and flu to pneumonia).
Dietary sources of vitamin D include eggs and fatty fish but it is challenging to obtain recommended levels from food alone, so many people choose to take a vitamin D supplement – indeed the NHS recommends everyone considers a vitamin D supplement during the winter.
When choosing a vitamin D supplement, the form is important. D3 is overwhelmingly considered the best way to supplement with vitamin D. Compared to the D2 counterpart, D3 tends to be less toxic, more stable and twice as effective at raising serum D levels.
3. Stock up on Selenium
While many of us are low in vitamin D, many of us are also low in the trace element selenium – over 25% of men and 50% of women in the UK don’t get enough to support good health, according to the latest UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey.
This is an issue because selenium forms an important part of selenoproteins, substances in the body with incredible properties. The most powerful antioxidant available to the human body, glutathione is a selenoprotein dependant on good selenium intakes.
Antioxidants like glutathione are also able to protect the body from free radicals, substances which can eventually cause cellular breakdown and disease*.
The amount of selenium in foods such as grains depends on the soil that it's grown in. Selenium is unevenly distributed throughout the world, resulting in many parts of the world being naturally insufficient. The UK and Ireland have very low amounts of selenium in the soil, so local crops and subsequently our intakes reflect this.
Supplements can be a reliable way of ensuring selenium intakes, but opting for the organic selenium yeast variety SelenoPrecise offers superior absorption, safety and stability compared to inorganic selenium found in many supplements*.
4. Think Zinc
If a cold starts to take hold, it is possible to reduce its duration thanks to zinc.
Zinc-based lozenges specifically, have been shown to have significant benefits in shortening the duration of colds and flu. In a paper published in Lancet, Zinc lozenges were shown to reduce the duration of colds by almost 50%*.
It is proposed that zinc works by interrupting the ability of various pathogens to reproduce and spread within the body.
5. Keep fit
Regular exercise is a great way to support the immune system, and this may be due to various different mechanisms.
As exercise can help support good circulation, this allows our immune cells to travel through the body more effectively. Furthermore, these immune cells seem to be stimulated by even mild exercise.
6. Don’t scrimp on the soap
It may seem obvious, but keeping up good hygiene habits can really help when it comes to keeping healthy.
Washing your hands every time you visit the toilet, before and after preparing food and at other times during the day will really pay dividends. Invest in a good quality soap which is kind to your hands and ensure you cover and scrub every part, rather than doing a quick ‘splash and dash’.
The difference which this can make over time was demonstrated in a BBC documentary in 2018 called Contagion! which used computer modelling and mobile phone data to simulate a pandemic in the UK*. The simulation showed that regular hand washing between five and ten times a day halved the number of cases of the hypothetical virus and considerably slowed its spread*.
In conclusion, while there are no ‘magic pills’, cure-alls or treatments to stop the coronavirus, there are some sensible, well-founded steps which people can take to help prepare – and which will help them in their everyday health even when the current outbreak has passed.
* References available on request