Fighting a cold? 5 ways to get your immune system back on track.

Immune system tips

Top tips to get your immune system back on track!

This article first appeared on Alternatively Healthy - A premium natural health, healing & wellness destination  based in London, UK. 

The common cold is most often associated with winter, but although unexpected, summer colds are surprisingly common.  Instead of being caused by the highly versatile and robust rhinovirus like many winter colds are, the summer cold is often caused by the somewhat more delicate, but more vicious enterovirus which prefer warmer climates.  Although sharing the same symptoms, summer colds tend to hand around for a while causing lingering coughs and tiredness. 

The triage theory:  In the triage theory, the body will use nutrients in short supply to meet basic survival needs. Because generating an immune response to an infection requires a heightened metabolic and nutrient consumption, we we need to make sure we have adequate intake of key nutrients that fuel our immune response.  Let’s take a look at some of those which are in higher demand when our body is fighting a cold. 

1. Up your Vitamin C 

When we are healthy, it’s easy to get sufficient intake of vitamin C from a varied healthy diet.  But when infection hits, our demand goes up.  Research shows that supplementing our intake when we are healthy doesn’t prevent our risk of catching a cold but can help speed up recovery.   Remember high dose of vitamin C can be futile due to maxing out the channels which take it up into our bodies and so excess will be secreted in urine.  Too high a dose can also lead to loose stools.  So, if you are supplementing with vitamin C, spread it between your meals and Stay off the sugar!  Vitamin C and blood glucose share the same channels to get into our cells from the blood stream.  In other words, a bottleneck effect may occur when there is too much glucose in the blood making it difficult for vitamin C to enter the cells (including our immune cells).  This explains why diabetics are more vulnerable to infections.

2. Max on Zinc & Selenium.

Zinc is involved in supporting over 300 enzyme reactions in the body, many of which are directly involved in our immune system.  According to recent research, short term use of high dose zinc supplements can help immune defences fight a cold much faster and helps our tissues to return to normal once the infection is over.  You can get zinc from foods like sesame and pumpkin seeds, lentils but animal sources like turkey and shellfish have the best bioavailability.  If you do decide to supplement, look for zinc gluconate, rather than zinc sulfate or oxide, as these are less well absorbed.  And remember, our ability to absorb zinc from our diet is impaired as we age and by things like birth control and certain dietary styles such as vegetarian and vegan.   Selenium is a key nutrient utilised by our Natural Killer Cells, a type of white blood cell that is key to viral defence.  It also helps prevent mutating of viruses as they try to escape detection but our immune system.  We get selenium from fish and shellfish, organ meats, eggs, dairy products and Brazil nuts (a particularly good source), but it can also be worth incorporating selenium supplementation during the period that you are unwell. 

3. Plenty of Plant Polyphenols

Infections results in inflammation which uses free radicals to fights the bugs. But also cause us some of the unpleasant symptoms of being unwell.  Primary antioxidants such as vitamin C, zinc and selenium mentioned above help to keep this in check while a number of plant phytochemicals including polyphenols can help turn up our cellular repair mechanisms to get us back on track.  Ginger has been demonstrated to have anti-inflammatory properties and from the same plant family, curcumin found in the spice turmeric, is a well-studied example of an infection fighting polyphenol.   But the bioavailability of Curcumin is notoriously low.  Consuming turmeric fresh with a pinch of black pepper & combined with a source of fat causes absorption of curcumin to skyrocket!   Likewise, allium vegetables such as onion and garlic are renowned for their infection fighting properties.  This is due to them being a rich source of the functionally active antioxidant compound allicin.  Crushing or chopping garlic is required to release the enzyme aliinase which catalyses the formation of allicin and some scientists recommend leaving to stand for 10 minutes after crushing to max out on this powerful plant chemical. 

4. Cook up a Chicken Soup. 

Garlic, onions, ginger and turmeric – sounds like the basis of an immune nourishing soup! Other than the insistence of well-meaning people everywhere, is there any truth in chicken soup as a remedy for colds and flu? The idea of hot soup as a remedy has been around since the 12th Century and may actually help with symptoms; comforting, soothing and hydrating, dilating the vessels around the face and nose, increasing blood flow and allowing mucous to flush everything out, alleviating congestion.  Soups are also hydrating containing water but also salt, necessary for hydration but also keeps mucus at the correct consistency and velocity.  However, scientific research has provided us with greater insights into the science behind chicken soup.  Specifically, a compound called Carnosine (beta-alanyl-L-histidine) found in chicken soup, shows pharmacologic levels of protection against immune damaging oxidative stress during viral infections.

5.  Keep warm & Take plenty of rest.

During the winter, it’s easy to wrap up indoors and let yourself recover while its cold outside.  While FOMO of summer fun, we tend to keep going a bit more, diverting energy away from our immune system and towards our summer escapades.  Intuitively we know that when our sleep patterns are disturbed, we are more likely to get sick.  We now know that much of the immune system is under circadian control with both symptom intensity and response to treatment of many illnesses, varying across the 24-h day.   

Remember, we actually have symptoms for a reason.  Cough, sneeze and runny nose help expel the virus and while a high temperature is never fun, least of all during the summer when it’s hot outside, it is an essential part of the immune system’s attempt to beat the bugs.  Fever improves the efficiency of the immune system while the infection is much less efficient at multiplying at higher body temperatures.  This raised body temperature also increases our demand for energy so get plenty of rest and nourishing nutrition.  Taking some over-the-counter medicines, might curtail your symptoms enough to enable you to battle on with your day-to-day work, but they won’t directly kill the virus and so might actually result in your body taking longer to get well again.