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Natural defence

How to optimise your winter immunity the natural way – check out our expert advice

The winter months, without a doubt, put more stress on our bodies,” says Sian Eustace of health store Healing Harvest, Kinvara, Co Galway. “There is less natural daylight and, therefore, less vitamin D to be had. It is colder so our bodies have to work harder to keep up our core temperature. We are often stuck inside without fresh air and with heating systems running. By supporting our immunity and making it less likely for us to catch regular colds etc, we can put less pressure on Covid-19 testing facilities.”.

“This winter because of Covid-19 we really need to keep our immune systems well up to par,” says Jill Bell of health store Well and Good in Midleton, Co Cork. “There is now a sound body of evidence that low vitamin D levels leave a person more prone to catching any virus, and in health stores we’ve seen an exponential increase in the number of customers taking vitamin D as a spray, drops, capsules or tablets.”

Food and immunity

“Eat wholefoods, as close to their natural form as possible,” says Sian Eustace. “Avoid processed foods and foods high in sugar and salt. Consider foods which are naturally antibacterial such as garlic, local honey, lemon, ginger and turmeric. Also support your gut bacteria by eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, natural live yogurt or kefir. Lemon balm tea is naturally antiviral and delicious.”

“Good food sources of vitamin C include kale, broccoli, peppers, citrus fruits, strawberries and blackcurrants,” says Jill Bell. “In health stores there are a number of options for increasing vitamin C levels, some food-derived, such as camu camu, and an effective complex of acerola, Indian amla and rosehips, and others in more conventional capsule, powder, effervescent or tablet form. Children can choose drops or a chewable tablet.”

“Your immune system relies on a full complement of essential amino acids (proteins), vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients for full body health,” says Paula Mee, CORU Registered Dietitian and consultant to Revive Active. “My food recommendations are:

Healthy probiotic bacteria – can modify the gut microbiome and enhance immune function. Beneficial bacteria must be active or ‘alive’ and reach the gut in sufficient quantities to resist the effects of stomach acids. Boost these friendly bacteria by eating low fat probiotic kefir and live natural yoghurt.

Vitamin D – vital for the normal function of the immune system. Vitamin D rich foods include oily fish (salmon and smoked mackerel), eggs and fortified foods and supplements.

Selenium – crucial for the immune system to function normally. Brazil nuts are the richest natural sources of selenium, followed by fish, shellfish, offal, meat, chicken and game.

Zinc – helps develop white blood cells, the immune cells that fight off foreign bacteria and viruses. Zinc is found in abundance in oysters, shellfish and lean red meat. Vegetarians will find zinc in pumpkin and other seeds, fortified cereals and low fat yoghurt and milk.

Vitamin C – contributes to the normal function of the immune system. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are good sources.”

Supplements and immunity

“The most useful vitamins, minerals and herbs for supporting immunity are vitamins C and D, zinc, probiotics, garlic, echinacea, olive leaf, oregano oil, elderberry, astragalus, ginger, plus ivy and thyme to support the chest,” says Sian Eustace.

“For lots of people herbs are the way to go, and top of the list is echinacea,” says Jill Bell. “Other herbs that help to guard us against ills and chills include garlic, anti-viral elderberries, Indian astragalus and reishi mushrooms for the immune-stimulating properties of their beta glucan content.”

Lifestyle and immunity

“We need to help ourselves by managing our lifestyle,” says Jill Bell. “Avoid smoking , excess alcohol and eat healthily, with low sugar intake. We should remember that exercise stimulates white blood cells to fight disease. Exercise also improves sleep quality and our ability to manage stress and anxiety, which in turn helps to support immune function.”

“Stress is hugely harmful to the immune response,” says Sian Eustace. “Try to do something every day which makes you happy. This could include taking a walk in nature; doing a guided meditation; soaking in a bath with Epsom salts or essential oils; having an early night; doing some yoga or t'ai chi; painting, drawing or other art activities; crochet, knitting or other crafts; taking an online dance class or just dancing around the kitchen to the radio. If you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to seek help. Talk to your healthcare provider or a trusted friend or family member.”

Choosing a Vitamin C

The human body needs vitamin C, but cannot make it, so we must get it from our diet. Regularly taking vitamin C supplements helps support your immune system, acts as an antioxidant, promotes vascular health, and boosts collagen. However, one downside to taking conventional vitamin C orally is absorption. Many people believe that when you take vitamin C, your body automatically absorbs the full dosage. However, studies have shown you only absorb 12-14% of vitamin C in an oral supplement form, and taking any dose over 200mg allows for only 50% absorption. The rest is secreted through your urine.

The absorption of liposomal vitamin C is significantly higher than that of a standard vitamin C supplement. Benefits of liposomal vitamin C include increased bioavailability, cardiovascular support, skin health, improved collagen production, and reduced oxidative stress throughout the body. Research shows that oral delivery of vitamin C encapsulated in liposomes promotes greater bioavailability than unencapsulated vitamin C. Once encapsulated the vitamin C cannot escape the liposome until the phospholipid bilayer is disrupted by absorption/breakdown in the body. The liposome protects its contents against the harsh acids of the stomach and allows easier absorption in the stomach and higher intestinal tract.

Natural immune support

Aloe vera – has immune-boosting and anti-viral properties, is a good all round tonic and as a booster during any infection.

Beta-glucans – derived from mushrooms, can boost a weakened immune system.

Vitamin C – studies have shown that viruses cannot survive in a vitamin C-rich environment.

Vitamin D – deficiency has long been associated with an increased risk of flu virus.

Echinacea – works to support your immune system.

Elderberry tincture or syrup – inhibits the adhesion of the (flu) virus to the cell receptors.

Garlic – an immune-enhancing herb . Cook and eat with it or take Kyolic garlic tablets.

Manuka honey – look for the UMF logo to guarantee anti-inflammatory properties.

Olive leaf extract – an antioxidant-rich immune supporter.

Selenium – the antioxidants in selenium can help the body fight a cold.

South American fruit camu camu – has amazingly high levels of vitamin C.

Zinc – can help fight infection and shorten the duration of a cold.

Herbal teas – ginger, peppermint, eucalyptus, elderberry and echinacea can be soothing on a sore throat or for respiratory infections.

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