Nutritional Support for Immune Health: Supplemental Considerations
The role adequate nutrition plays in supporting the function of our immune systems is well established. Insufficient status of any essential vitamin or mineral may negatively impact its functions, which may manifest as increased frequency, duration, and or severity of illness. A prime example of this is in the elderly, who commonly suffer from inadequate status of one or more micronutrients and are at increased risk for infections given their diminished immune function.
It is not surprising that nutritional support for immune health is at the forefront of many peoples’ minds in the midst of a viral pandemic, but such consideration should not end once the pandemic has passed. You can think of your health a little bit like a car. It’s best to perform regular maintenance to keep it running well rather than wait until there is a problem to fix. People should be thinking about providing adequate nutrition to support their overall health and immune functions daily and prior to illness, so that it can respond sufficiently to challenges when faced.
Population data shows that many Americans are not getting enough of various essential vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium and calcium, and vitamins A, C, D, and E. This is not surprising since many Americans do not eat recommended amounts of veggies, fruits, grains, and dairy, foods that tend to be good sources of these essential micronutrients. This is where dietary supplementation can and should be leveraged as a tool to discourage inadequate nutrient status and compromised immune functions.
A good multi-vitamin and mineral supplement is a good place to start but may not provide adequate amounts of certain nutrients and just because you ingested it doesn’t mean you absorbed all the nutrients into the body.
Key Supplements to Support Immune Health:
Vitamin D – supports the ability of immune cells to combat microbes and mucosal (e.g., gut, lungs, respiratory, and urogenital tracts) immune functions, and helps balance immune responses. You won’t likely get enough of this vitamin from the diet naturally and many factors influence the body’s production from sunlight exposure, so most people would benefit from supplementation as a safeguard against inadequate status that can compromise immune functions. During winter months, vitamin D levels are often at their lowest, which coincides with cold and flu season. Many experts recommend an average daily intake of at least 2,000 IU and some may benefit from higher amounts if their status is low.
Zinc – supports various aspects of immune function and antibody production, required for immune cell replication, and works with copper to help defend against oxidative stress. The body regulates zinc absorption based on its needs, so you are not likely to overdo it. Most of the zinc will not be absorbed from very high supplemental doses, which can also contribute to diminished copper status. Supplementation with 10 – 15 mg of zinc balanced with copper (900 mcg – 1 mg) daily or every other day, especially during cold and flu season, will help safeguard against low status. Since some dietary components can interfere with zinc absorption, taking on an empty stomach may best support its absorption, but some may experience gut irritation, particularly from higher doses, so can take with food in such cases.
Vitamin C – supports the survival, replication, and functions of adaptive immune cells, the production of antibodies, and contributes to antioxidant defenses to protect immune cells during a response from oxidative damage and compromised function. Vitamin C is concentrated in various immune cells and rapidly depleted upon infection, so keeping these cells saturated prior to an immune challenge and taking even higher amounts during an infection may be helpful. A daily intake of 400 mg should be more than enough to saturate immune cells in most people but upwards of a gram or more may be beneficial to support an ongoing immune response through its resolution. A daily dose of 500 mg can easily be multiplied to gram quantities during illness.
Probiotics – supports a beneficial balance of microbes in the gut, intestinal barrier function (a first line defense), and immune functions. With probiotics, more is not better, better is better. While all probiotics are microbes, not all microbes are probiotics as even strains from the same microbial species can be different. Select probiotic strains have been shown to support various aspects of immune functions. A probiotic is identified by genus (e.g., Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium), species (e.g., L. rhamnosus, B. longum), and strain (e.g., L. rhamnosus GR-1, B. longum BB536) as the strain is the link to the scientific support validating the microbe as a probiotic for a particular benefit such as supporting immune functions. Most clinically validated probiotic strains have demonstrated efficacy at dosing between 1 and 10 billion live cells daily, which highlights the importance of the strain rather than exceptionally high dosing that many naively equate to efficacy. If taking a probiotic to support immune function, make sure the formula contains strain(s) that have been shown to do so in human studies.
+These products have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease.