By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness
As another season of colds and flu gets underway, many of us are looking for ways to bolster our immune systems – a critical step to fighting off the estimated two to four colds that will afflict most Americans this year.
A healthy immune system produces fighter cells, killer cells and scavenger cells that search and destroy foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. But this highly complex defense arsenal depends on an adequate and steady supply of nutrients to protect you all season long.
Getting older takes its toll on your immunity. One reason is that, as we age, we are more likely to be deficient in the amount of protein, zinc and vitamin B6 we consume, which makes us especially vulnerable to disease. But you can bolster your defenses against disease by supplementing with the following nutrients:
B Sure: The B vitamins are vital to cell reproduction, including cells involved in the body’s defenses. Even borderline deficiencies of vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid can wreak havoc with your immune function. For insurance, take a B-complex supplement that provides at least 50 mg. of each of the B vitamins.
C the Difference: Vitamin C is renowned for preventing colds. It’s also a critical component of a healthy immune defense. While the Daily Value recommended by the government is a mere 60 mg. a day, you really need at least 2,000 mg. a day during cold and flu season. While you can get part of that by eating plenty of citrus plus other fruits and vegetables, taking 1,000 to 1,500 mg. in supplement form will assure that you are getting all the C you need.
Get E-nough: Not getting enough vitamin E can also derail the immune system. Look to wheat germ and almonds as super sources. Although most nutritionists recommend a daily dose of 400 IU, the amount of E for optimal immunity may be as high as 800 IUs daily – levels available only with supplements. Such amounts have been shown to restore age-related declines in immune function.
To get the most bang from your vitamin E, look for a natural form of the nutrient – listed on labels as “d-alpha tocopherol.” The natural form is more active and better absorbed. Also, look for a mixed tocopherol supplement that contains a combination of alpha, beta, gamma and delta tocopherols. Although little is known about the importance of the beta and delta forms of vitamin E, studies show that gamma tocopherol is more effective than alpha tocopherol in protecting against certain specific types of oxidative damage.
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A-void Too Much: Some nutrients—notably vitamin A—can backfire and actually suppress immune function if you get too much. Vitamin A is essential for a healthy immune system, but too much of the retinol form of A is detrimental to immunity, bones and liver. How much should you be getting? To ensure adequate vitamin A stores, the FDA recommends that men get a minimum of 900 mcg. a day while women need 700 mcg. Traditionally, most multivitamins provide 1,500 mcg (5,000 IU) of vitamin A – substantially more than the current RDA for vitamin A. But because vitamin A intakes of 5,000 IU a day have recently been associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis in older adults, some companies have reduced the vitamin A in their multivitamin supplements to 750 mcg. (2,500 IU).
To make sure you’re getting enough – but not too much – vitamin A, look for a multivitamin that provides no more than 2,500 IU of vitamin A. And make sure that at least 50% of that vitamin A comes from beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is a natural substance found in dark green and orange-yellow vegetables that the body converts into vitamin A. It’s a considerably safer way to meet your vitamin A needs.
Mind Your Minerals
Several minerals are also key to a healthy immune system. While these minerals are plentiful in lean red meats, whole grains, nuts, beans and fortified cereals, cold and flu season may require more than the amounts found in our diet.
Zinc is an essential mineral that is a component of more than 300 enzymes crucial for normal immune cell development and growth. Particularly vulnerable to a zinc deficiency are cells that replenish rapidly, like those in the outer layer of skin and in the lining of the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. Even borderline deficiencies of zinc leave older people vulnerable to attack by opportunistic infections.
While zinc can be found in oysters, meat, eggs, seafood, black-eyed peas, tofu, and wheat germ, taking just 15 mg. of supplemental zinc can keep you healthy during the winter months – and taking too much on a long term basis can actually impair immunity. The only exception to this rule is when you actually have a cold. Studies show that lozenges providing 13–25 mg of zinc in the form zinc gluconate, zinc gluconate-glycine, or zinc acetate can help alleviate cold symptoms. Just make sure you don’t take them for more than a few days.
A copper deficiency can also reduce acquired immunity. When under attack, a copper-poor body is less able to produce T cells, B cells and antibodies—immune-specific cells that help activate a cascade of events to kill off invaders. Plus, a copper deficiency causes a decline in the white blood cells that gobble up invaders. Bur most people get less than the recommended amount of this mineral from the foods they eat so it’s wise to supplement the average diet with 1–3 mg of copper per day.
Iron is also essential for keeping immunity strong, but too much can be as detrimental as too little because extra iron fuels invading organisms. Men and postmenopausal women do not need extra iron unless they are anemic, so be sure to choose a multi without iron.
Getting older takes its toll on immunity and these age-related changes make the body less able to fight off infection. Letting yourself get “run-down” – skimping on sleep, eating a poor diet and failing to effectively deal with stress – makes it more likely that you’ll catch a bug. If you want to fend off unwanted illnesses be sure to take your immune-boosting supplements and follow the common-sense advice you’ve probably heard before:
• Get Moving. Moderate exercise boosts your immunity with each session. Research shows that over time this translates to fewer days of illness.
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• Look on the Bright Side. People who see the cup as half-full have healthier immune systems than those who see the cup as half-empty.
• Get Your Zzzz’s. Shortchanging yourself on sleep can shortchange your body’s ability to make natural killer cells.
One Last Thing . . .
High cholesterol isn’t just bad for your heart – it may also impair immunity. Researchers at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston compared the immune function in people eating a high-fat diet (38% of calories) versus a low-fat diet (28% of calories). They found that the low-fat diet enhanced T-cell-mediated immunity in older people, especially those with elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
But ditching all fat may not be the answer either. It turns out that skimping on the right fats can be just as harmful. Your body needs alpha-linolenic acid, an essential omega-3 fatty acid in flaxseed, walnuts and canola oil, and a precursor to the more potent omega-3 fats in fish. Also essential is linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid in vegetable oils, some margarines, nuts and seeds.
So, while you want to keep your fat intake below 30% of total calories, choosing immune-boosting fats can enhance immune function without adding too much fat to your diet. Smart choices include olive, flax and canola oils instead of butter, margarine or other oils.
This Just In . . .
Holidays are notorious for throwing even the most well-intentioned weight-loss efforts off course. At this festive time of the year, overeating is the norm and exercise falls by the wayside. It’s no wonder that, for many of us, weight gain often follows.
New research suggests that erratic eating, another holiday season hazard, may further exacerbate weight gain. English researchers have found that irregular eating significantly reduced the number of calories the body burned after eating. So if your holiday munching habits linger into the New Year and beyond, you could be faced with unwanted pounds.
Here are some tips to rein in holiday weight gain:
• Don’t skip meals. Eating erratically signals the body to conserve fat. Spacing meals 3-4 hours apart keeps your energy levels constant and banishes hunger pangs and mood swings.
• Never go to a party hungry. Have a nutritious snack, like fruit or yogurt, before you head out.
• Fill most of your plate with lower calorie, fiber-rich choices, like fresh salad, vegetables and fruit.
• Enjoy holiday favorites in small portions. Moderation, not deprivation, is key.
• Starved? Fill up on fiber. Studies show that fiber-rich foods add bulk to your diet and tend to produce a sense of fullness – which helps you consume fewer calories.
• Speaking of fiber, try chitosan. Chitosan is a fiber-like substance extracted from the shells of crustaceans such as shrimp and crab. Animal studies suggested that supplementing with chitosan reduces fat absorption. In one double-blind study, Polish researchers found that people taking 1,500 mg of chitosan three times per day during a weight-loss program lost significantly more weight than did people taking a placebo with the same program.
• Drink nonalcoholic, low-calorie beverages such as seltzer mixed with fruit
juice. Better yet, drink green tea. New research from a pilot study shows that drinking green tea on a daily basis lead to significant weight loss. The reason? Green tea may speed up the body’s ability to burn fat.
• Plan activities that burn extra calories and combat holiday stress. Good ideas for the season include ice skating, skiing or even walking the neighborhood with a group of carolers.
While these tips can help prevent the holiday spread, remember that this is a season of fun, food, friends and family. Don’t become a scrooge by trying to stick too closely to the ideas listed above. Enjoy the season!
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Zahorska-Markiewicz B, Krotkiewski M, Olszanecka-Glinianowicz M, Zurakowski A. “Effect of chitosan in complex management of obesity.” Pol Merkuriusz Lek 2002;13:129–32