14 Immune Support Supplements You Need This Winter
The immune system is a sophisticated network in the body made up of specialized chemicals, cells, tissues, and organs that all work together to help protect you from toxins, pathogens, infections, and other diseases. And when it’s in balance, you have a better chance of staying healthy. The big question then is: Is there anything we can do to support a healthier immune system? Can immune support supplements help?
The Immune System: How Does It Work?
Whenever your immune system comes across something it finds harmful (e.g., antigens like bacterial or viral germs, chemicals or toxins, and even damage from sunburn), it’s activated. Some of the key parts of the system include the skin, mucous membranes, white blood cells, and the organs and tissues of the lymph system (e.g., the spleen, thymus, tonsils, lymph system, and bone marrow). 1
Once the antigen is recognized, the immune system activates and attacks. Part of this immune system is to create antibodies, which are proteins designed to weaken and destroy the invader. The immune system then codes for the antigen, so if it invades the body again, the system can quickly activate antibodies to prevent future illnesses and provide immunity.
Although the body’s defense mechanisms are very complex, they are typically organized in three main clusters:
- Physical barriers, such as the skin, mucus membranes, and endothelia, which work to keep foreign invaders out.
- Innate immunity, which includes many types of white blood cells (i.e., leukocytes), such as phagocytes, macrophages, mast cells, neutrophils, eosinophils, basophils, Natural Killer (NK) cells, and dendritic cells, which all work to defend and protect the body from foreign invaders.
- Adaptive immunity, also known as acquired immunity, refers to the body’s ability to create and use specific antigens to strategically mount an immune response. Unlike the innate immune system, which attacks based on the identification of general threats, the adaptive immune system is activated by exposure to pathogens and uses an immunological memory to learn about the threat and to enhance the immune response accordingly. The adaptive immune response is much slower to respond to threats and infections than the innate immune response, which is primed and ready to fight at all times.
There are two types of adaptive immunity:
- Active, which refers to antibodies that develop in a person’s own immune system when you’re exposed to an antigen through an infection or vaccination. It can take a few days to weeks to activate yet is typically long-lasting and can even last for life. (For example, if you’ve ever had the measles or chicken pox, you have life-long protection thanks to your adaptive immunity.)
- Passive, which offers temporary protection when you receive antibodies from an outside source (e.g., newborns who receive breast milk from their mothers) rather than the body making them.
Sometimes, an individual’s immune system can be activated even though there is no threat. This can lead to allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disease, where an overactive immune system mistakes healthy cells for antigens and attacks.
Other times, an immune system can be underactive, and it doesn’t attack invaders as often or as well as it should. This impaired immunity leads to an increased risk of getting sick more often, and the infections can last longer, be harder to treat, and more serious. This can often be the result of a genetic disorder but can also be caused by cancer, diabetes, undernutrition, immunosuppressant drugs (such as corticosteroids, chemotherapy, or radiation), or an HIV infection.
What all of this boils down to is the fact that the immune system is sophisticated and requires a fine balance between fighting off bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can lead to infection and an overactive system that can begin to attack itself, leading to allergies, unhealthy levels of inflammation, food sensitivities, skin issues, joint problems, and much more.
While we (and many others) talk about “boosting” the immune system, the real goal is to promote balance in the immune system.
Perhaps the best way to help this system stay balanced is to ensure your nutrition is on point. Hygiene is also key. (Yep, that includes scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and hot water throughout the day.) And you also want to make sure you exercise consistently without overdoing it. Finally, it’s important to manage stress levels.
Immune Support Supplements
What about supplements? Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve definitely seen more immune support supplements and products popping up, including vitamin formulations, probiotics, and herbal blends. Do any have science to show they can help support your immune system?
It’s important to note that no supplement will cure or prevent disease nor will it provide bulletproof immunity against all immune challenges. Supplementation can be a small part of the equation, yet as discussed above, healthy nutrition, hygiene, exercise, hydration, adequate sleep, and stress management are all higher on the list of tools to support a balanced immune system.
The problem, however, is that many people are facing unprecedented levels of stress, they’re not sleeping as well or as much as they should, they’re not consistently moving their bodies in healthy ways, they’re not spending enough time outdoors, and as a whole, many of us are lacking when it comes to strong connections and nourishing relationships.
On top of all that, the vast majority of Americans simply don’t eat a high-quality, nutrient-dense diet. Sure, most of us get plenty of calories (and then some), but sadly, many diets are nutrient poor. Energy-rich, yet nutrient-poor foods make up around 27% of the normal American diet. 2 And nutrient-deficiencies are prevalent in the U.S. 3 For example,
- ~ 31% of the population is at risk for at least one vitamin deficiency or anemia
- 32% do not consume enough vitamin B5
- 95% of adults and 98% of teens don’t get enough vitamin D
- 61% of adults and 90% of teens are deficient in magnesium
So, when it comes to a balanced immune system, immune support supplements could help. Key vitamins and minerals to ensure you’re getting enough of, for example, include:
- Vitamin C 4,5
- Zinc 6,7
- Vitamin D 8,9
- Vitamin A 8
- Vitamin E 10
- Vitamin B6 11
- Selenium 12
- Magnesium 13
The best way to get many of these nutrients is by eating a rainbow of nutrient-dense foods. Yet, when the immune system is under greater stress, or if your nutrition isn’t exactly on point, it may also help to fill gaps with key vitamins and minerals and other targeted immune support supplements.
Additional supplements that have been shown by research to provide support for a healthy and balanced immune response include:
- Probiotics, which help support gut health, a vital component of a healthy immune system. 14
- N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine, a powerful antioxidant that supports detoxification as well as respiratory health and may help modulate cellular defense and repair. 15
- Echinacea purpurea, which supports normal, healthy components of the innate immune system to help reduce severity or duration of upper respiratory tract infections. 16
- Beta-glucans, which have been shown to help modulate immune activity. 16
- Andrographis paniculata, which has been a part of traditional Eastern medicine for centuries. In research, it’s been shown to help prime innate immune function and inactivate infections. 16
- Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), which is found in numerous immune support blends, has a long history of supporting cellular defense and repair. 16
The Right Dose, The Right Time
Immune support supplements may be helpful; however, you can also get too much of a good thing. The fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K can cause problems if you take too much. For example, vitamin A over-usage can lead to vision changes, bone pain, and even liver damage. And according to the NIH, supplements and therapeutic retinoids are the top cause of vitamin A toxicity. 17
Even the water-soluble nutrients like vitamins B and C and zinc will just flow through you and give you expensive pee if you aren’t careful. So, read labels and do the math if you are taking more than one supplement to avoid overdoing it with specific nutrients.
If you are taking a supplement for a short time period, your risks are lower, as most of these supplements are intended for just short-term use. If you are using a supplement as a preventive measure over the entire season, you’ll want to ensure you are staying within safe levels.
Finally, remember that immune support supplements are just that—supplements. They can be used to fill the gaps, so to speak, but it’s even more important to eat healthfully, wash those hands, wear a mask, exercise regularly, sleep well, stay hydrated, and manage stress for your best chance of staying healthy!