With flu season well and truly upon us and a new Covid variant doing the rounds, it's more important than ever to support our immune system this winter.
There is a raft of new immune-supporting tablets and tinctures available to meet demand. "The first time around with Covid, there was not much [in the way of supplements] available that was immunity-based, but people have cottoned onto it now," says Dr Sophie Shotter, founder of Illuminate Skin Clinic who went back into the NHS to work on Covid wards, during which time she says she took many immune-supporting supplements.
"Supplementation is a useful habit to form," she adds, "and you may vary them depending on what your body needs but now it's winter where naturally our immune system is a bit weaker anyway and with Covid resurging, anything we can do to support our immune system will help, be it exercising, keeping an eye on our diet or supplementing."
Be aware that supplements take time to work, she cautions, so now is the time to start. "They are not going to work overnight, if you suddenly panic in a month's time, if things are looking even worse on the news and want to start taking supplements, supplements will still have a benefit but it will almost be a little bit late. If you start now your body will be a little bit prepared."
GP and founder of supplements brand Zenii , Dr Johanna Ward adds: “Your immune system relies on a good intake of micronutrients to remain resilient and robust. A well-formulated immune supplement will help support the immense work that the immune system does each and every day in the name of health.”
What to look for in immune-boosting supplements
There is a whole host of ingredients to look for in supplements to help with your immune system. Dr Johanna points out: “A good immune supplement should offer the key immune supporting vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc and magnesium as well as some gut supporting probiotics. I also seek out beneficial herbal ingredients such as turmeric, cayenne, garlic and mushroom that show a lot of emerging evidence for supporting immune function and white cell defence.”
Dr Sophie also recommends looking for a complex with vitamin D, zinc and vitamin C, as well as probiotics to support the gut "because the gut plays such a huge role in immunity." Look for adaptogens , the plant compounds such as ashwagandha and schizandra and medicinal mushrooms, too as they help regulate the stress response. Stress too can impair our immune function. She particularly recommends the ayurvedic herb andrographis paniculata. "It’s a great ingredient that has studies behind it to show its effect on the immune system. In Scandinavia they recommend it ahead of echinacea," she says. "It's credited with halting the Spanish flu pandemic in India in the 1920s." She has yet to find it in an immune blend so takes it as a separate capsule. Try Pukka Herbs Organic Andrographis Supplement £6.35.
She also looks for beta-glucans (found in the supplement Lyma, below) for immune support as they activate the immune cells known as macrophages.
Healthspan ’s Medical Director Dr Sarah Brewer adds that vitamin B12 is also an important player in immune function, meanwhile while pharmacist Shabir Daya of Victoria Health recommends looking for the following ingredients in a good immune supplement.
"I am a great advocate of this herb for its safety and efficacy in helping to keep the immune system at its peak," says Shabir of the adaptogen. "Astragalus works to increase white blood cell counts, which is vital to detect infection-causing bacteria and viruses. The role of white blood cells is to destroy these and defend the body against infection."
"Rich in several beneficial nutrients such as vitamins C and B, as well as flavonoids , numerous studies indicate that elderberry extracts help reduce the duration of infections. This may be due to their ability to inhibit viral replication," says Shabir.
One study on elderberry showed significant improvement in flu symptoms in 93 per cent of patients treated with an elderberry extract within two days rather than six days for people who didn't take elderberry – rather impressive!
Not just good sprinkled on top of pizza, Shabir rates oregano as one of the most potent antibacterial and antiviral compounds. "It also has other beneficial properties including helping to alleviate catarrh and help suppress coughs," he says.
The active compound in olive leaf oleuropein has powerful antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties helping to inhibit a variety of organisms, according to Shabir. Additionally, olive leaf may help reduce a fever.
"Garlic offers numerous benefits to the body including enhanced circulation, protection against insect bites and helping to lower cholesterol," Shabir explains. "Garlic also possesses powerful antimicrobial and antiviral properties."
"Propolis is a bee resin and has a broad spectrum of activity against bacteria," Shabir says. "It is also the richest source of caffeic acid and apigenin, two very important compounds that have been known to aid the immune response. Propolis helps to ensure the immune system responds quickly and efficiently."
Maitake and shitake mushrooms
"Mushrooms contain powerful compounds called beta-glucans," explains Shabir. "These compounds have been scientifically studied and found to activate the immune system through a variety of mechanisms, one of which is to bind to white blood cells activating their ability to scavenge for invading organisms."
Probiotics - lactobacillus and bifidobacterium
These friendly bacteria have a powerful beneficial effect on restoring optimal gut health and aid the production of antibodies, according to Shabir. More than 80 per cent of our immunity is derived from these friendly bacteria. Dr Sophie agrees that in the current climate eveyone should be taking a probiotic.
Research has confirmed that catching a cold or an infection may actually be a symptom of vitamin D deficiency and as Dr Sophie points out, a deficiency doubles your risk of ending up in intensive care or dying of Covid. “Most of us should supplement all year round especially if we have an indoor job and BAME people in particular. Look for between 3- 6,000iu per day more than people think, more than the recommended daily intake of 400iu or 10mcg," she says.
Although a deficiency in any essential nutrient can compromise immunity, zinc is considered to be the most important of all nutrients according to Shabir. "It is vital for the thymus gland, the primary gland of immunity, and is required for white blood cell production.
"Vitamin C supplementation is equally important as it has been shown to boost white blood cell counts, antibody production and help the immune response and also antagonises viruses by inhibiting an enzyme that helps them to spread through body tissues."