Have a think how many people do you know who never seem to go longer than a short period of time a couple of weeks maybe without seemingly picking up a sniffle, high fever or a full blown cold? This person might even be yourself, if it is are you often referred to as being just ‘unlucky’? If this criteria sounds familiar in either context, then in truth it is not just bad luck which is leading to these ailments consistently rearing their head. Despite medical research showing that colds are not directly linked to a weak immune system, in fact they are infections contracted through the air, eyes, nose and mouth; the power of the immune system is vitally important in the subsequent recovery phase.
Question: How then does our immune system become weak in the first place, is it as simple as a lack of sleep, not enough rest and a lack of green vegetables?
Before getting into this answer, I appreciate that a discussion about colds, immune systems and green vegetables is not the most stimulating read for some of you. Conscience of this, I want to set the background as to why I passionately believe in the importance of discussing nutrition and health. Autoimmune disease is a condition which breaks down the protective cells in the body that fight off small levels of germs and other foreign intruders which produce antibodies to attack our own tissues.1 in 12 of us is affected by this condition at any one time.
Ok so not the most headline grabbing statistic I know, but now consider this a different way over 4.2 million people in the UK right now as you read this are suffering with a ‘major’ autoimmune disease condition.
The list includes the following…
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (Lupus)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Type 1 diabetes
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Celiac disease
- Addison or Graves disease
- And many more……..
Why is the discussion about autoimmune disease important then? Well the answer takes me back to the above original question about immune system weakness. Despite not being conclusively proven there is enough evidence as any immunologist will tell you that immune system dysfunction is heavily linked to poor diet choices, a lack of exercise, low amounts of sleep and bad lifestyle choices i.e. drugs and excessive alcohol. This is important to understand, as many health issues and immune system worries can be solved through nutrition and the adequate daily intake of vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) especially.
As you might be able to guess then a deficiency in micronutrients is fast becoming a widespread problem. As Scarborough et al., (2011) found in a recent comparative journal analysing the British NHS system across 2 decades, the consequences which result from unhealthy food choices is becoming a global epidemic and an economic burden to most health services across the entire developing world.
In example, just some of the health conditions linked purely to micronutrient deficiency include…
- Reduced growth and development
- Lowered physical and mental capacity
- Immune system weakness (as mentioned)
- Altered reproduction performance
Hopefully at this point into the article the strong correlation between autoimmune disease and poor nutrition is becoming clearer. The great difficulty however is knowing how much or how little of each vitamin or mineral you need to actually consume to maintain optimal health. So to answer this query the remainder of the article will outline the role of micronutrients and the recommended guidelines for their intake.
Vitamins are organic compounds containing carbon which are synthesised by plants. They can be obtained in the diet from eating selected plants or by eating animal products which derive their vitamin content from plants, a little confusing I know. Vitamins are mainly divided into two groups as shown below.
Fat Soluble Vitamins
The four vitamins A, D, E and K are described as being ‘fat soluble’, this is because they can only be absorbed, transported and utilised in the presence of fat. In protecting the cell membranes inside the liver and fat tissues, they enable our cells to breathe and receive the nutrients necessary to maintain health and normal function.
|VITAMIN||ROLE||SOURCE||DIETARY REFERENCE INTAKE (DRI) for Adults|
|A||Bone, tooth, skin & vision health||Fish, liver, Carrots, Pumpkins, Dark green leafy veg, apricots, whole milk||900 mcg RAE – Male
700 mcg RAE – Female
|D||Prevent osteoporosis & rickets||Sunlight, Fatty fish (Salmon, tuna, mackerel), eggs, fortified milk||50 mcg – Male/ Females|
|E||Red blood cell protection, lowers heart disease/cancer||Grains, nuts, seeds, mango, spinach / tomato (raw), broccoli||22.5 IU – Male/Female|
|K||Bone health, prevent blood clotting||Turnips, spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, vegetable oils||No set daily referenced intake|
Water Soluble Vitamins
The two water soluble vitamins B and C cannot be stored within the body in any great quantity, as any excess will be excreted through the urine. Therefore, to avoid ill health vitamins B and C always need to be included in our daily diets to provide a continuous vitamin supply to the immune system, working muscles and bones.
|VITAMIN||ROLE||SOURCE||DIETARY REFERENCE INTAKE (DRI) for Adults|
|B||Energy, good vision, red blood cell production||Turkey, Tuna, Liver, whole grains, potatoes, bananas, lentils, beans||*See below|
|C||Bone & tooth development, wound healing||Red/Green hot chilli peppers, fresh herbs, cauliflower, oranges||90 mg – Males
75 mg - Females
Minerals are extracted from plants in the soil and form approximately 4% of our body mass. They have an essential role in the structure and normal regulation of hormonal, metabolic and nervous interactions within the body.
|MINERAL||ROLE||SOURCE||DIETARY REFERENCE INTAKE (DRI) for Adults|
|Calcium||Bone growth, muscular contraction||Peanuts/ walnuts, sunflower seeds, salmon, green leafy veg||1,000 mg – Male / Female|
|Magnesium||Heart rhythm, prevent autoimmune disease||Beetroot, whole grains, egg yolk, peas, nuts, green leafy veg||400-420 mg – Males
310-320 mg - Females
|Sodium||Fluid balance, nerve function||Shellfish, kidney, bacon, carrots,||1,500 mg - Male / Female|
|Potassium||Fluid balance, nerve function||Citrus fruits, watercress, bananas, potatoes, green leafy veg||4,800 mg - Male / Female|
To maintain optimal healthy function the body additionally needs to consume trace minerals (listed below) in much smaller amounts.
Did you know? The recommended intake of 5 fruit and vegetables per day in the UK is actually much too low, the global recommendation actually stands between 7-11 pieces a day depending on what your countries government advises.
From reading this article I very much hope that you now have a better understanding about eating both vitamins and minerals and the important relationship they have with our immune systems. It is worth remembering though that just eating more green leaves and fish will not entirely guarantee that the colds and flu’s stay away, here is some final tips to further boost your health.
- To avoid malnutrition eat regularly throughout the day (every 2-3 hours) with your food plate or eating window consisting off 50% carbohydrates, 25% protein, 19% vitamins/minerals and 6% of essential fats (omega 3 and 6).
- Aim for 7-11 pieces of varied fruit and vegetables each day (different colours) and always aim to buy organic produce where possible.
- Try to complete a minimum of 2.5 hours of pulse raising exercise each week; this could be broken down into 30 minutes 5 times a week.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep, as it has been proven getting 7-8 hours a night will make a big difference to your overall health and well-being.