Vitamins, minerals and our immune system: everything you need to know
Keeping an adequately balanced diet is essential for the correct functioning of our immune system: in fact it is well known that any alterations to the balance of nutrients in our body, or a lack of minerals and vitamins is often associated with repercussions on our health.
What vitamins and minerals act on our immune system?
There are various micronutrients that, while working with different mechanisms, contribute to keeping the right immune response: among these are undoubtedly vitamins, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, some vitamins in group B and minerals such as iron, selenium, zinc and copper.
Let’s see how vitamins and minerals act on our immune system.
Vitamin D, though mainly known for its benefits to the bones, also plays a key role in regulating our immune system: most cells involved in the complex immune system of our body in fact possess a specific receptor for vitamin D, which when binding, regulates its activation.
On the other hand, the role of vitamin C in our immune system mainly concerns its renowned antioxidant properties, thanks to which it neutralises the formation of free radicals.
Among the vitamins of group B, those most involved are B6, B9 (folates) and B12; while vitamin A is able to both strengthen our immune system and modulate its expression.
Minerals too play a fundamental role in guaranteeing our immune defence:
- for example, iron is involved in the processes of proliferating and maturing the T lymphocytes;
- selenium stimulates the production of antibodies, the activity of lymphocytes and is an essential co-factor of enzymes such as glutathione peroxidase and thioredoxin reductase, which both have antioxidant action;
- meanwhile, zinc, thanks to its immune boosting properties, reinforces the immune system to prevent infections;
- lastly, copper counters infections and possesses bactericide and antioxidant actions.
All the above-mentioned nutrients have been approved by the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) with regard to their effectiveness and safety in guaranteeing normal functioning of our immune system.
How does the immune system work?
For some years now, we have been constantly bombarded with messages and advice on the importance of strengthening our immune system, especially in winter.
But what actually is the immune system? What is it made up of and how does it work?
When we talk of our immune system, we are speaking about a complex system of cells and molecules of various types that cooperate to restrict the entry into our body of external pathogenic agents, such as bacteria and viruses, but also to halt the spread of either of these once they have invaded the “host”. Our immune system not only defends us from infections, but it also tries to minimise the threat of any arrivals inside our body, such as the replication of tumour cells.
Our immune system is made up of two defence levels, innate immunity and acquired immunity:
- Innate immunity, also known as non-specific immunity or natural immunity, is present right from birth and is made up of our skin and mucosa, which represent the first physical barrier preventing the entry of pathogenic agents, as well as a series of cells and circulating proteins, ready to detect and intervene against anything that threatens our health.
- On the other hand, acquired immunity, also known as specific or adaptive immunity, develops over time, in response to foreign agents with which the body comes into contact once, and which is remembered by the system, in order to generate a much more rapid response in the event of repeated contact.
Do vitamins and minerals really help reduce the frequency of illness, or do they simply help when recovering?
Let’s clear this doubt up right here: the vitamins and minerals discussed above offer effective protection against infections, strengthening our immune system and enabling it to respond more rapidly against the risk of infections. Having sufficient amounts of these micronutrients, achieved through a healthy balanced diet, is thus essential above all during the winter months, in which the risk of falling ill is greater.
It is also true that some vitamins have more targeted actions in the post-flu phase, helping us to recover our strength and energy: for example, this is just the case of vitamins A, C and E, which speed up the processes of regeneration and have anti-inflammatory properties, or the vitamins in group B, above all vitamin B12, also known as the “energy vitamin” given its energising properties.
When diet isn’t enough, and supplements are recommended? Is this just a seasonal issue?
We now know that a varied and balanced diet, together with a healthy lifestyle, are the essential elements needed to guarantee the right intake of vitamins and minerals, and therefore the best functionality of our immune system, but it isn’t always possible to maintain this optimal condition. In fact, we all experience occasional periods of intense stress in our lifetime, which seriously test the balance of the delicate mechanisms that regulate our body.
As well as stress, the seasons also have a significant impact on our immune system. The reason why we get ill more often during winter is not so much linked to the low temperatures, but rather the fact that we tend to stay more often in closed environments, where air circulation is poor, and this aids the spread of flu. If we add to this the fact that in winter our skin is also less exposed to sun rays, and therefore produce less vitamin D, it is clear how our immune system can be weakened further at this time of year. With regard to vitamin D, the Italian Ministry of Health recommends a maximum intake of 2,000 International Units daily (or 50 µg): it isn’t always easy to reach this amount exclusively through diet, and therefore it is often recommended to take this vitamin with specific supplements.
However, it isn’t always down to the seasons: the ageing process also represents a major challenge to the effectiveness of our immune system. Indeed, the elderly are often affected by chronic inflammatory conditions that alone will compromise the effectiveness of our immune system. When added to the fact that the typical diet of the elderly often features small quantities and unvaried types of food, this leads to an insufficient intake of vitamins and minerals.
In all the above cases, it can therefore be helpful to resort to the use of nutritional supplements, such as ApportAL®, to help maintain the correct intake of these micronutrients that contribute to a healthy immune system.