In the current situation, it is essential that we all follow the HSE guidelines regarding hand washing, social distancing and other guidelines as announced.  While taking a few supplements or eating more super foods is not going to stop the spread of Covid-19, there are some steps that we can all take to support our own health and keep our immune systems working as well as possible. 

Eat a well balanced plate

As usual, we recommend that you eat a diet full of natural wholefoods – vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fish, pulses.  These foods are full of the nutrients we need to keep ourselves healthy. Replacing processed foods with these more nutritious versions is a good step towards getting more of the nutrients we need to keep our immune systems in working order.

There are a few vitamins and minerals that are particularly important for immune health.  A word of warning though, we urge caution to be wary of claims of mega dosing of supplements.  This can be harmful!

Zinc

We need zinc to produce white blood cells, our immune army.  It is one of the critical nutrients for winter health and defence against flus and viruses.  A Safefood study showed that many Irish people are not getting enough zinc in their diet and it’s one of the more common deficiencies we see when we test.  Red meat is a good source.  However, we know that we should be avoiding processed meat like bacon and sausages and limiting our intake of red meat to three times per week. Choose Irish grass-fed beef and lamb where you can.  Other good sources of zinc include nuts, seeds, pulses like chickpeas and lentils and wholegrain. Easy ways to increase your zinc intake:

  • Add pumpkin, sesame or hemp seeds to your breakfast cereal
  • Eat whole grain bread, rice and pasta
  • Have hummus as a snack – contains both chickpeas and tahini, made from sesame seeds
  • Add tahini to a salad dressing or eat on toast 

Many health food stores and pharmacies are already out of stock of zinc supplements.  If you do need to supplement, look for an easily absorbable form of zinc like zinc citrate or choose a liquid version that you can drop under your tongue.  There is no need for excessive supplementation.

Vitamin C

This is the go-to for winter support. Studies have shown that vitamin C may lessen the severity and duration of winter colds.  Our best sources of vitamin C are fruit and vegetables and eating enough of these during the winter can be more difficult.  We snack less on fruit, fresh berries are less available and we eat less salads, so our intake of vitamin C can be significantly lower at this time of year.  

To up your intake of vitamin C, simply eat more vegetables and fruit. Aim for at least 5 portions of vegetables and 2 – 3 portions of fruit every day.  Think beyond oranges too. While all citrus fruit do contain vitamin C, many other fruit and veg contain more, including peppers (a cup of chopped pepper has three times more vitamin C than an orange), kale (other green veg are also great sources), broccoli, cauliflower, berries and kiwi fruit.  Frozen fruit and veg usually contain at least as much vitamin C as their fresh counterparts, which may have been kept under storage for several months. Easy ways to boost your vitamin C:

  • Swap orange juice (high in sugar) for a berry smoothie with frozen berries, banana, natural yogurt and cucumber or spinach
  • Have some tomato, pepper, spinach or other veg with your eggs in the morning
  • Snack on a piece of fruit with some nuts (for extra zinc, cashews, almonds and Brazil nuts are great sources)
  • Have a veg soup or a salad with your lunch
  • Add additional veg to your casseroles, Bolognese, sauces.
  • add a couple of handfuls of baby spinach to your cooked pasta. The residual heat will wilt the spinach

Taking a vitamin C supplement may be helpful, but taking huge doses is not recommended.  The most common dose is 500mg to 1000mg.  Try to split the doses e.g. 500mg twice per day is better than 1000mg once per day, as we can only absorb so much at a time.  Otherwise you may end up just peeing the excess amount away, your money literally going down the toilet!

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential for our immune function.  In Ireland we know vitamin D levels are typically low, especially during the winter.  We make vitamin D from the sun, and sometimes we don’t even get much of that during the summer!  Some foods have small amounts of vitamin D, including oily fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines), egg yolks, cheese and other foods are also fortified with vitamin D, like plant-based milks and cereals. However, this is one nutrient that is useful to supplement at this time of year.  Our government recommendations are currently being updated, but most adults in Ireland will benefit from 1000IU of vitamin D3 per day during months between October and March.  Some people may need more, but we don’t recommend over-supplementing without having your levels checked. For younger kids, we recommend following the UK guidelines of 400iu (10 mcg) daily and there are many supplements available.

Over supplementing with vitamin D is not beneficial.  It is fat soluble and will build up in our system and can increase to toxic levels.  

Probiotics – the friends in our gut

It is estimated that 70 – 80% of our immune function is based in our gut, especially the millions of bacteria that live there. Stress, certain medication like antibiotics and antacids and a diet high in processed food can all reduce our levels of beneficial bacteria.  To boost your levels, include some probiotic or fermented foods in your diet, like natural yogurt (check it says live or bio-live on the label or lists bacteria in the ingredients), sauerkraut, miso paste, kimchi and kombucha. If you are not used to these, start with small amounts or you may have excess wind.  To boost your bacteria

  • Top your cereal or porridge with natural yogurt and fruit
  • Include a little sauerkraut in your salad or sandwich
  • Use miso paste in a salad dressing or add to a stir-fry. Avoid overheating or you will kill the beneficial bacteria
  • Eat more fibre, like veg, pulses and wholegrains, to provide prebiotic food for your beneficial bacteria

If you have been on antibiotics or feel run down, including a probiotic supplement for a month or two can be helpful.  There are lots available. Look for one with a variety of different bacteria.

Beyond food

For immune health it’s also important to get enough sleep (7 – 8 hours, more for children and teens), limit stress (easier said than done if we are all going to be working from home!) and keep up some form of exercise.  While going to the gym is not a good idea at the moment, getting out for a short walk can help support our immune systems and our stress levels.

Your immune boosting menu

Breakfast Porridge, natural yogurt, mixed seeds and berries
Lunch Kale salad with pomegranate and pumpkin seeds
Dinner Salmon and veg stir fry with wholegrain rice
Snack Kiwi fruit and palmful almonds / hummus and veg sticks
Drink Lots of water and herbal teas. Try a small glass of kombucha or a green smoothie
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