Protein is for more than just building muscle. Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of life. These are essential for making the antibodies that help to fight infection and disease. Protein is also essential for the production and activation of immune cells, including lymphocytes, natural killer (NK) cells, and macrophages.
There are nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own, so we need to get these from our diets. Not all protein sources are considered “complete, ” meaning they do not contain all nine amino acids.
Examples of complete proteins include eggs, poultry, beef, pork, seafood and dairy. Incomplete protein sources include legumes, tofu and nuts. You can combine protein sources to make them complete. Those following a vegan or vegetarian diet should be mindful of complete protein sources and how to make sure they are getting enough protein.
Copper is an essential trace mineral that most people don’t get enough of. It’s involved in many vital processes in the body, including energy production, iron metabolism, nerve function and immune system support.
Copper helps to produce white blood cells, which are key to fighting infection. It also helps produce collagen, which is important for wound healing. Copper also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
The best food sources of copper include oysters, lobster, scallops, beef liver, dark chocolate, cashews, sunflower seeds, lentils, beans and chickpeas. You can also take a copper supplement. Like most supplements, copper can be harmful if you take too much. If you take a multivitamin, check if it contains copper before adding a copper supplement to your daily routine.
Iron is best known for its role in making haemoglobin, the part of red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body. But iron is also involved in many other important processes in the body, including energy production, cognitive function and immune system support.
Iron’s role in the immune system is through the proliferation of white blood cells and antibodies. Low iron can reduce your T-cell and B-cell responses to infections, leaving you vulnerable.
Iron is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide and can lead to anaemia. Symptoms of anaemia include fatigue, weakness, pale skin and shortness of breath. It can also leave you more susceptible to colds. A simple blood test will confirm if you are anaemic, in which case, you may need to add an iron supplement to your diet.
Good food sources of iron include beef, lamb, pork, chicken and seafood. Vegetarians and vegans can find iron in tofu, lentils, beans, chickpeas, spinach, kale and quinoa.
Melatonin is a hormone best known for its role in regulating sleep. The pineal gland in the brain produces it and helps to regulate our natural sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin levels start to rise in the evening as darkness falls, making us feel sleepy. Levels stay high throughout the night before falling in the morning to help us wake up and tackle the day.
But melatonin does more than just regulate sleep. It’s also an important antioxidant and immune system regulator. Melatonin levels are highest at night, which is when our bodies do the majority of repair and regeneration. Healthy sleep patterns are also associated with healthy immune system function.
Several studies have shown that melatonin supplements can help to boost the immune system, particularly in older adults. Melatonin has also been shown to help reduce the severity and duration of viral infections such as the flu and COVID-19.
Your body produces melatonin naturally, but you can also take it as a supplement. Taking too much melatonin can have the opposite effect and make you feel drowsy during the day, so it’s essential to ensure you don’t exceed the recommended dose.
Vitamin B6 is a water-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in many biochemical reactions in the body. It’s involved in protein metabolism, red blood cell production and immune system function.
Vitamin B6 is also thought to help regulate immune responses associated with infection, inflammation and even some forms of cancers. Deficiency is common in women of childbearing age and the elderly.
Vitamin B6 is essential for the production of white blood cells and antibodies. It’s also involved in the production of cytokines, which are signalling molecules that help to regulate the immune system.
Studies have found that B6 supplements can boost immune responses, particularly in critically ill patients. Likewise, studies have also found that a vitamin B6 deficiency is linked to poor immune response. And finally, studies have also linked large doses of vitamin B6 with dampening the “cytokine storm” associated with severe progression of COVID-19.
The best food sources of vitamin B6 include poultry, fish, beef, pork, potatoes, bananas and fortified cereals. You can also take a vitamin B6 supplement to ensure you get enough.
If this all sounds very complicated, it needn’t be. A rich and varied diet is the best way to ensure you get the proper nutrients to support your immune system this winter. You can also take a multivitamin supplement to ensure you get all the necessary vitamins and minerals.
But, if you want to focus on specific nutrients that have been shown to support immune health, then make sure you are eating a protein-rich diet and add copper, iron, vitamin B6 and melatonin supplements. You can find these nutrients in various foods or take them as standalone supplements if you are concerned.