The last two years have been challenging for the world at large. While we have always dealt with immune challenges in the past, they paled in comparison to what we have collectively dealt with in the current pandemic. This period has really hammered home the idea that the health of our immune system plays a critical role in overall health and that in order to feel safe and protected from the worst immune challenges, we need to do all we can to ensure that it functions optimally.
While the challenges of the current pandemic situation have been somewhat unique in the history of the world, by no means have we reached the point where we can let our guard down. For this challenge is one that we need to heed lessons from, and the future promises to bring with it even more immune challenges. If nothing else, the lesson we should take from our current situation is that supporting our immune system is important all year long and for our entire lifetime.
Whether it’s seasonal challenges that we face this holiday season in the form of colds and flus, or year-round challenges from other immune stressors, supporting long-term immune health by incorporating healthy dietary and lifestyle practices as the foundation is essential.
On top of this, doing all we can to ensure our body has the key vitamins and minerals it needs to help the immune system remain at peak vigilance is crucial. This starts with eating nutrient rich-foods and a diet that is adequate in fruits and vegetables but extends to taking supplements to make sure our nutritional gaps are filled. It also means reducing and eliminating those things that suppress our immune function, like excess sugars and processed foods.
Then, it is about adding those targeted nutrients, phytochemicals and other natural compounds that enhance immune resilience and increase the function of our immune cells and processes. So, supporting healthy immune function requires a holistic approach and requires year-round attention. If we’re able to promote immune health for the long-term, our body will become resilient to the immune challenges we face in our environment.
Vitamin D and Zinc for Your Immune System Health
When it comes to nutritional approaches to immune health, it is always best to first focus on the fundamentals. There are many important vitamins for immune system health. However, two of the most important nutrients for immune function are vitamin D and Zinc. Both play crucial roles in priming the immune system to robustly respond to immune challenges and both tend to be deficient or lacking in many individuals.
In general, the importance of vitamin D for immune health is well-documented. Vitamin D deficiency is also highly prevalent, with some estimates suggesting that more than half the population fails to get adequate vitamin D. Known as the sunshine vitamin, the natural synthesis of vitamin D in the body requires direct exposure to the sun. In areas where sunshine is not prevalent or where exposure to the sun is not possible, it follows that a significant portion of the population may not be getting the required amount. This makes it even more critical to get vitamin D through supplements on a year-round basis.
Vitamin D plays an integral role in immune system function. Its actions on the immune system are broad, and our immune response can’t function without it. However, recent research has highlighted some key areas where it is particularly useful. Most scientists agree that 70-80% of the immune system is based in the gut. This makes sense since the gut is a key route of exposure for humans to the outside world, where many immune challenges exist. It turns out that vitamin D confers protection to the gut barrier by enhancing the integrity of the mucus layer that protects the lining of the intestines. This protective effect may reduce inflammation that can injure gut cells and support the healing of the gut lining as well as the function of the tight junctions between cells. While vitamin D deficiency can have negative effects on immune health, having adequate vitamin D can, prevent immune challengers from getting through this barrier and causing adverse consequences to the immune system.
The second way that vitamin D can support the immunity is through direct effects on the innate and adaptive arms of the immune system. The innate immune system is known as the first line of defense and jumps into action swiftly when it perceives a threat. The adaptive immune system lags in terms of activity but is a more targeted defense system. Vitamin D supports the innate immune response by facilitating release of antimicrobial proteins in the intestinal tract to begin fighting off immune challenges. It also directs the function of T cells and other immune cells that are components of the adaptive immune system. By playing these important roles, vitamin D is an essential actor for a fit immune system.
While vitamin D is a significant immune system booster, the role of zinc is just as critical. Nearly two billion people worldwide are zinc deficient. Its overall function on the body can be summarized by two actions: the first is balancing the inflammatory response and the second is reducing oxidative stress. Zinc has a broad role on immune function and is often considered a gatekeeper of immune health.
Some critical areas in which zinc is active is in facilitating immune cell formation, maturation and differentiation. This means that zinc is critical for the development of immune cells and zinc deficiency has been found to reduce immune cell function.
When zinc levels are low in the body, the effectiveness of T-cells and B-cells, which are crucial facilitators of the immune response, is diminished. Another key role for zinc is in immune cell signaling. Changes in zinc concentrations inside and outside cells are key factors in sending signals to immune cells to increase or decrease their activity, so a decreased overall concentration of zinc leads to inefficient communication between cells and a diminished immune response. In this way, zinc plays an integral role on immune health and ensuring adequate zinc levels is a significant factor for optimal immune system function. There are many forms of zinc available; however, the best zinc supplement for immune system function is the one you can take. In other words, getting sufficient zinc regardless of the source is the first step in ensuring your immune system has what it needs.
While there are many nutritional factors that are important to immune health, the question of how to boost your immune system starts with the basics. Vitamin D and zinc are two nutrients that are fundamentally core to the functioning of the immune system. Thus, it is important to make sure these nutrients are available in adequate amounts through the diet and through supplements. Maintaining immune health has become a year-round challenge. Keeping the immune system’s basic requirements in mind as you develop a robust immune support plan is essential for this holiday season as well as the years ahead.
- Fakhoury HMA et al. 2020. Vitamin D and intestinal homoeostasis: barrier, microbiota and immune modulation.
- Holick MF. 2017. The vitamin D deficiency pandemic: Approaches for diagnosis, treatment and prevention.
- Wessels I et al. 2017. Zinc as a gatekeeper of immune function
- Maares M and Haase H. 2016. Zinc and immunity: An essential interrelation