Immune Boosting Tips to Get Through the Rest of Winter

It’s that time of the year folks, where everyone is feeling generally “under the weather”. It’s the final bit of winter and everyone is slowly trying to make it out without coming down with the common cold. Did you know the US population comes down with an estimated 1 BILLION colds a year. In both Canada and the US, this translates into a major financial burden to not only the individual who contracts the cold, but employees, workers, and families. Just in the month of February, Toronto got hit with not one but FOUR extreme cold weather alerts. While we’d all like to snuggle up in bed with a warm beverage and a good movie (myself included), unfortunately life goes on and we’ve got things to do! With that said, there are a few simple immune boosting foods you can incorporate into your diet to help you beat the winter blues.

1. What’s the deal with Vitamin C?

Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that is helps to increase iron absorption of non-heme iron from plant-based foods, prevent cell damage, and protect against infections by keeping the immune system healthy. One might think Vitamin C is the super hero when it comes to fighting off a common cold, however, various high-quality randomized control trials comparing Vitamin C versus the placebo have shown no difference in either the duration, or severity of symptoms. There is some research to show that in cases where there is EXTREME cold or the body is undergoing extreme physical activity, it may be helpful in preventing the common cold.

I wasn’t too convinced just yet, so I did some more digging, and in another research paper comparing 29 trials of over 11,000 participants taking Vitamin C during a cold, there was a 8% marked reduction in the duration of colds experienced by adults, and a 14% reduction in children. The severity of colds was also reduced by 18% with consistent Vitamin C intake. The authors concluded there was no overall efficacy to supplementation in order to reduce the incidence of colds in the general population. That being said, since there was some research to show that it reduces the duration and severity of colds, and it is generally cheap and safe, it may be useful for people to experiment with what works for them individually. However, it is important to note that high doses of Vitamin C have not been shown to prevent colds, and may in fact cause digestive problems.

I absolutely love the ‘Greened Out’ smoothie at Live Organic Food Bar. This immune boosting, iron rich drink includes: kale, spirulina, moringa, banana, dates, vanilla, cinnamon.

Foods rich in Vitamin C: Raw red and yellow peppers, cooked red and green peppers, papaya, kiwifruit, lychee, strawberries, grapefruit. You NEED to try the Papaya Bowl at LIVE, it’s an absolute dream (invite me). Made with, almond butter, house-made granola, fresh berries, banana, hemp seeds, gogi berries, and maple syrup. What better way to get excited for spring?

2. Let’s talk Zinc and Echinacea

The next mineral important for normal development and function of cells that play a role in immunity, such as white blood cells and lymphocytes. It may also help to fight off infection by interacting with proteins in the body. Researchers out of Ohio State University studied zinc’s activity in ICU patients experiencing SEPSIS, a fatal systemic response to infection. However, researchers extrapolated the findings to the general population and explained zinc tablets taken at the beginning of a common cold, might help deter the effects of the illness. Moreover, a zinc deficiency may increase vulnerability to infection. Zinc also acts as an anti-oxidant and plays a role in wound healing through the preventing free radical damage during an injury. Zinc deficiency is quite common and impacts around two billion people worldwide, including 40% of the elderly in the US. The good news is Zinc is available in many foods, I listed some below.

Foods rich in Zinc: red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, some shellfish, whole grains, fortified cereals and dairy products. The recommended dietary allowance ranges from 8 to 11 mg for adults. Throw in a side of legumes. Next time you’re at LIVE, check out the trainers bowl made with: steamed greens, carrots, chickpeas, sweet potatoes, burdock, tempeh, and house- made sauerkraut.

Echinacea is a traditional herbal medicine that may help to strengthen the body’s resistance to illness through effects on the immune system. In several clinical trials, herbal extract seemed to shorten the duration and severity of cold and other upper respiratory tract infections (URIs) when taken as soon as cold symptoms appear. On the other hand, long term studies have not shown it to have a preventative effect. In one of the largest Cochrane reviews of meta- analysis (ie. high quality research papers), trials investigating Echinacea for cold prevention did not have a statistically significant reduction in illness, however, all prevention trials appeared to have a small positive effect. Moreover, the pooled results of all the ‘best studies’ revealed that study participants who took Echinacea were 10-20% less likely to develop a cold.

Next time you feel a cold creeping in, you could try to take Echinacea and see if it works for you (my doctor recommended the capsules with zinc). I do want to mention that these studies were conducted in healthy individuals, however, there has been recommendations that advise those with underlying conditions such as an auto-immune disease, should not to take this herbal medicine. As always, it is important to discuss what you are taking with a healthcare professional.

3. How about Vitamin A?

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble micronutrient that plays a key role in maintaining and promoting growth and development of eyesight (through the production of retinol), healthy teeth, and protecting tissue in the body. Importantly, it has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects on the body due to its part in enhancing immune function. It is also part of the development of the immune system through regulatory processes that mediate our bodies’ immune response at the cellular level. Research has shown that our immune organs, such as lymph vessels, need adequate amounts of Vitamin A in order for our bodies’ defense cells to develop and mature. This is critical when it comes to fighting infectious diseases, including measles and pneumonia, to name a couple.

Food rich in Vitamin A: Carrots, spinach, dried apricots, cantaloupe, red bell pepper, sweet potato, grapefruit, pistachios, broccoli, gogi berries, mango, butternut squash.

4. What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are molecules that help to fight damage produced by free radicals, unstable molecules that can harm cell structure, by donating a particle (ie. electron) thereby stabilizing them. Two dietary vitamins in particular, E and C, have strong evidence to support their role in maintaining good health. α-tocopherol, or Vitamin E, helps to protect against fat damage in the body by preserving cell membrane damage to free radicals. Vitamin E has also been studied in the prevention against colon, prostate and breast cancer, and other diseases. High doses are cautioned above 400 IE, which may increase the risk of death, however, doses below 200 IU may have some benefit.

Food sources rich in Vitamin E: Vegetable oils (ie. extra virgin, wheat germ, almond, and sunflower), whole grains, nuts, cereals, fruits, eggs, poultry, meat.

My favorite Live cold-pressed juices are Green Kick, Everyday Greens and Red Balance! If you’re in a hurry and feeling like you need a quick shot to help boost your immunity, check out their cold pressed tonics and fresh shots too. I love the Turmeric Tonic, Dr. Feel Food, and Get Up and Go!

DISCLAIMER: I want to end this post by addressing the difference between the flu and the cold. The former is associated the influenza virus (of the family of viruses known as orthomyxoviridea), there is a vaccine you can get yearly to help protect against infection of the viruses. Flu causes over 3000 deaths every year in Canada and is the 10th leading cause of death overall. Check out this blog post for an awesome FAQ on the flu. A cold on the other hand, is largely caused by single- stranded RNA known as rhinoviruses. There are 200 types of viruses that can cause the common cold, and these particular viruses are able to change and become unaffected by your bodys’ defence system and “antiviral” combinations. The purpose of this blog post was to shed light on some of the ways to boost your immune system through helping to reduce and/or prevent the common cold. However, the most important thing to do when feeling under the weather is to rest and stay hydrated! Your body is fighting off a virus, NO antibiotics will help you get better. Stay nourished, and be kind to it.

Yours in health,

Alexis Silver is an aspiring Registered Dietitian, and currently a Masters of Public Health Nutrition and Dietetics student at the University of Toronto, Dalla Lana School of Public Health. She is presently completing her clinical placements at hospital sites a part of the University Health Network in downtown Toronto. She has a passion for disseminating nutrition related research, and helping the general public sift through the misinformation.

Follow her on Instagram at @lextalknutrition and check out her website for more information on her journey to becoming an RD!