It is possible to get a full range of vitamins and minerals the body needs by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. But is it realistic each and every day? Probably not. In an age when “immune system” is at the top of our vocabulary, how can we be sure our bodies are well-equipped to face a foreign invader? Immune supporting supplements can be a beneficial addition to a healthy diet, but which ones are experts calling “the best?”
The word “supplement” can be tricky in the medical world. It can bring immediate thoughts of unregulated pills or dietary additives. However, “supplements” can also be thought of as anything that is added to an already healthy, balanced diet to further support health based on a person’s unique needs. Consuming a sufficient supply of vitamins and minerals through a healthy diet takes a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and lean protein, as well as getting enough exercise, sleep, and sunlight. For many, this can be difficult to achieve on a regular basis. In some cases, extra care must be taken to ensure the body is fully supported on a consistent basis, especially when the threat of illnesses, like COVID-19, are lurking. This can mean supplementing the diet with high-quality sources of vitamins and minerals. When the body is provided with nutrients that support an optimally functioning immune system, it can better protect the body from foreign invaders. The below supplements are considered the most beneficial when it comes to immune system health, according to top health experts.
Vitamin D is crucial in supporting immune system function. According to research from the NIH, vitamin D can “modulate the innate and adaptive immune responses” whereas deficiencies can be “associated with increased autoimmunity as well as an increased susceptibility to infection.” Vitamin D also has anti-inflammatory properties and can enhance the function of immune system cells that are designed to defend against pathogens. While it can be taken in pill form, your body makes a majority of vitamin D with help from sunlight. In this case, a “supplement” to your regular healthy meals may be a brief walk in the daylight. As little as 10 minutes of direct sun-skin exposure can provide adequate daily vitamin D levels.
Not the most obvious supplement when considering immune function, but an incredibly valuable asset to overall health: probiotics. Probiotics can inhibit the growth of harmful gut bacteria that may contribute to poor immune system function. They have also been shown to promote natural antibodies and boost immune system cells. Certain lactobacillus strains have been shown effective in fighting the common cold and respiratory infections. A good rule of thumb when choosing a probiotic supplement: take a probiotic with least 1 billion “colony forming units” from a high-quality, stable source. While side-effects of probiotic supplementation may be uncomfortable at first (gas, indigestion, etc.), digestion will improve over time, as well as overall health.
Again, not what you may imagine as an important addition to your arsenal of immune-supporting supplements, but scientific evidence of improved resistance to infectious diseases through melatonin intake dates back to the mid-1920s. Typically known as the “sleep hormone,” melatonin has been shown to play a part in regulating immunity, having both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. In addition to helping the immune system, studies have shown melatonin exhibiting anti-cancer, anti-diabetic, anti-aging and neuroprotective activities. Sources of melatonin beyond the 1-10mg supplement typically taken before bed include foods like fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and mushrooms.
Omega-3 fatty acids have long been touted for their health benefits, from helping with inflammation to depression. However, new research is showing these fatty acid chains, typically found in fish, flax and chia seeds, and walnuts, to be widely beneficial to immune system health by supporting white blood cell function. Omega-3s come in three forms, ALA, DHA and EPA through various forms of food: in fact, we must get them from our diet, as the body cannot produce its own. Like most substances that can be taken in supplement form, too much of a good thing is not beneficial, which is certainly the case for omega-3s. Both deficiencies and excesses of omega-3s have been linked to poor immune system function. Also, it is important to balance omega-3 levels with omega-6 fatty acids, as the ratio of these two are crucial. Too much omega-6 can cancel out the benefits of omega-3s. For those who do not consume a wide range of foods containing omega-3s, a supplement may be beneficial.
Last, but in no way least, zinc is one of the most significant minerals that aids immune system health. Zinc is important in cell division, cell growth, wound healing and the development of cells that support the immune system. Deficiencies in zinc have been shown to “adversely affect the growth and function of T and B cells,” both major components of the adaptive immune response. Oysters are one of the top sources of zinc of any food, followed by beans, nuts, whole grains, and red meat.
It’s important to note that some vitamins and minerals at high levels can actually be dangerous in the body. The key is understanding which may be beneficial to supplements to your diet, and in what quantity and how frequently they should be administered. Working with a trained nutritionist or physician who can measure any insufficient levels in the body through blood or urine tests is the safest way to determine a plan that best supports your health.
While supplements are not a “cure-all,” they can be a valuable addition to fill the gaps where diets fall short, or if a person requires more support due to compromised health. It is best to talk to your doctor to determine an appropriate supplement protocol for your health. In short, there is a time and place for supplementation that requires a full range of knowledge before including them in a regular dietary routine, but when done correctly, they can be a huge benefit not only to immune system health, but overall wellness.
The content in this post is not intended to provide medical information. Please consult with your doctor before considering adding supplements to your diet.