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Immune-boosting vitamins

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 6 minutes read

A cough or cold can hit us at any time, but autumn and winter can be party season for viruses and bugs, and a really rough time for us and our kids. Along with the usual cold and flu bugs, COVID-19 has become a new fixture in the colder months.

So how can we keep ourselves healthy and make sure our immune system is ready to fight off any unwanted microbes? The doctors at Healthwords will always encourage a healthy balanced diet over and above taking supplements, and the more colorful and varied your meals, the more nutrients you are getting to nourish you.

But there are times that supplements may be helpful or even vital. There is less choice of fresh foods over winter, and less sunshine to naturally make vitamin D, plus fighting off colds and flu means our immunity needs to be in tip-top condition.

Vitamins and micronutrients usually work as a team to build up our defense against infection, so you need all of them in the right amount, rather than just one in particular. It's easy to reach for the vitamins once a cold or flu sets in, but they are more powerful when taken to build up your immunity before facing an infection. So, you need to find a way to work them into your daily winter routine.

Let's talk you through which vitamins are vital, and how to keep yourself healthy and happy in both mind and body.

Doctor’s advice

Vital vitamins and minerals

Vitamin C is the celebrity of the immune-boosting micronutrients, and for good reason: it’s essential for a healthy immune system. It works as an antioxidant to mop up free radicals, helping to build strong internal barriers to protect from infection. As an added bonus it stimulates collagen to help build firm, elastic skin, healthy hair and strong bones. It’s found in abundance in the summer, with fresh fruit and vegetables like berries, citrus fruits, bell peppers, potatoes and leafy green vegetables all readily available. But, we can’t store it in our bodies, so we need to keep up a regular intake or supplement in the winter to maintain levels.

Vitamin D is vital in our fight, particularly against respiratory infections, as it regulates proteins in the lung lining that fight infection. It has many other roles, and is particularly depleted in the winter months, when we get little sunshine (sunshine helps our body produce its own vitamin D). So, it’s recommended that everyone take a daily supplement through the winter, to benefit bones, teeth, muscles and mood. Those spending lots of time indoors or of darker skin color should take one all year round.

Zinc is needed to boost the cells that surround and kill invading bacteria and viruses, helping to build up good immunity. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, helping fight off colds and other infections. It’s found naturally in red meat, cheese, shellfish and bread. It’s known as a trace element as you only need a tiny amount.

Vitamin B family: Vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and folic acid are three key components in building up microbe-killing cells in the blood system. They also keep the gut lining barrier healthy and strong to resist any bugs that enter the digestive system from food. In addition, vitamin B6 boosts the feel-good hormone serotonin, which can become depleted in winter, causing depression. Vitamin B12 possibly helps to boost the brain’s cognitive function, which can help when we feel sluggish in winter. You can’t store the B vitamins, so you need to keep healthy with regular top-ups. Most people get this from a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, meat, offal, lentils, legumes, eggs, dairy and fortified bread and cereals. Those following a vegan or vegetarian diet may be at particular risk of vitamin B deficiencies, especially with less fresh fruit and vegetables available over winter, so a supplement may be worthwhile.

Vitamins A and E: Vitamin A acts to reduce inflammation that can be harmful and cause us to feel unwell. Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant, helping to mop up free radicals that threaten the skin barrier. Both also support certain white blood cells in recognizing microbe invaders and killing them.

Iron can help build up immune-busting cells, and usual dietary sources such as leafy green vegetables can be in short supply in the winter months – which cuts off a vital source for vegans and vegetarians. For meat-eaters, red meat is a good source of iron. In addition, vitamin C gives a helping hand to absorbing iron, and natural sources of this are in short supply in winter. So, it may be worth topping up iron levels with a supplement, especially if you know you are vulnerable, such as those who exclude certain food groups or women who are pregnant or have heavy menstruation.

Magnesium is another trace element that has a role in protecting our cells from free radical damage that threatens the DNA in our cells, and also helping cells to repair after an assault. It helps immune-boosting cells fight off invaders. In addition, there’s evidence that it may help improve your mood, which is important if you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in winter.

Keeping the mind healthy

Mental health: Our urge to hunker down and stay warm and dry inside coincides with great TV scheduling and new releases, and maybe carb-heavy comfort food to boot. But it’s important to find the motivation to put into nurturing your mental health, too. You may know what works for you, but many people find daily meditation, mindfulness, yoga or a walk in the park noticing the season’s changes, gives them a boost of energy and a feeling of balance and wellness in the gloom of winter.

A lightbox: If you’re missing the sunshine and think you might suffer from SAD, a light box can make all the difference. This aims to mimic the effect of sunlight, delivering an ambient, warm light. It’s recommended to spend 30 to 60 minutes of exposure a day; it’s all that’s needed to boost your serotonin levels and counter the effects of melatonin, helping to make you feel more balanced.

Sleep patterns: While winter brings many reasons to sleep in for longer, try to resist this temptation and maintain a constant sleep-wake routine. This makes it easier to transition between seasons and helps maintain good energy levels, balanced mood and consistent appetite.

Melatonin supplements: If insomnia creeps in, there are many ways to address this through good sleep hygiene and a regular daytime routine of exercise and mealtimes. Many wonder if melatonin supplements are the answer to help a restful sleep, but these don’t always work for everyone.

Outdoor exercise: Regular exercise is a good way to keep energy levels pumped through winter, with added benefits to mood, eating and sleeping routines. A healthy fit body also can help keep you and your airways in prime condition to fight off coughs and colds. If you can manage your workout outside, you’re also getting a nourishing dose of fresh air and sunshine that your body craves.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have a fever and are coughing up thick green sputum, especially if you are at risk of pneumonia from asthma, COPD, smoking or other long-term medical conditions, or you are over 65, this is reason to seek urgent help from your doctor, or the Emergency Department if after hours, as this could be bacterial pneumonia that requires antibiotics.

If you have young school or nursery-aged children, it can feel like they permanently have infections through the winter, and this can feel very draining on you and them. It's rare for anything to be seriously wrong with their immune system, and instead they are fighting off viruses back-to-back, and their immunity is building year after year.

If you have reason to believe you may be low in certain vitamins or minerals, look for these signs, such as:

  • you are finding exercise much harder than usual, like feeling out of breath climbing a flight of stairs
  • people say you look very pale
  • you feel excessively fatigued or are sleeping much more than usual
  • your appetite has changed

If the answer is yes to any of these, you should visit your doctor to discuss this. They will ask about symptoms and can send you for blood tests to check for anemia, a reduced white blood cell count (related to your immunity), raised inflammation levels, vitamin D deficiency or low levels of vitamin B, a reduced iron level or a problem with your thyroid function – not related to immunity but it may relate to fatigue, mood or appetite.

Wintertime can take its toll on your mental health, either from social isolation or from SAD. If you're feeling depressed and this is affecting your work life, studies or personal relationships, and it hasn’t shifted with simple lifestyle measures over several weeks, this may be cause to book an appointment with your doctor. They will listen to your symptoms and discuss options going forward.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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