Editor's Note: This article is reprinted with permission from Beyond Type 2, as part of their ongoing COVID-19 coverage.
Written by Mariana Gomez, Diabetes Educator, B.A. Psychologist and T'ara Smith, MS, Nutrition Education
Perhaps you’ve read about boosting your immune system to protect you from infections and other illnesses, including the Coronavirus.
But there aren’t any magic foods, supplements, or one-size-fits-all solutions to boosting your immune system because it’s a complex network of cells, organs, tissues, and proteins.
Still, healthy living provides its benefits, including keeping our immune systems strong, and research is being conducted to study the effects of nutrition, exercise, mental health, and others on our immune response.
How Diabetes Impacts Your Immune System
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. There is not enough evidence to identify the cause but we know that our immune system insulin-producing cells are destroyed.
We now know that people with type 1 diabetes are more likely to have a co-occurring autoimmune disorder. The reason that co-occurring autoimmune disorders are so common isn’t yet known.
We also know that hyperglycemia can affect our immune system’s response so it would represent a barrier for recovery and fighting viruses and bacteria. This does not happen only in type 1 diabetes, but other types of diabetes as well.
People with type 2 diabetes should be aware of the impact the disease has on their immune system as well. Hyperglycemia in diabetes is a probable cause of the disruption of how the immune system functions.
Humans also produce “natural killer” cells that are critical to human immunity. A study showed people with type 2 diabetes have lower counts of these cells compared to those without diabetes and with prediabetes. This makes it harder to defend the body against viruses, diseases, and diabetes-related complications.
Overall, people with diabetes are more susceptible to common infections such as the flu and pneumonia. To protect your immune system, stay up-to-date on your doctor’s visits, get vaccinated against the flu, and get screened for complications.
Essential Nutrients for a Strong Immune System
Another way you can protect your immune system is through nutrition. With a healthy diet, food can help protect you against illnesses and help improve recovery. Different foods contain different quantities and types of nutrients and micronutrients.
Therefore it is important to include a variety of food groups in your diet. Vitamins A, B6, C, E, magnesium, and zinc play important roles in our immune function.
How Vitamins and Minerals Help Your Immune System
Vitamins and minerals are known as essential micronutrients. Even though they are needed for our health, our bodies can’t make them on our own or enough of essential micronutrients, therefore, they must be obtained through food.
There are nearly 30 vitamins and minerals the human body can’t make on its own. A healthy diet will include different groups of foods that contain some of these nutrients.
Micronutrient malnutrition results in a lack of vitamins and trace minerals that can affect the response of our immune system to fight different health conditions. The NIH lists the recommended dietary allowances (RDA) for vitamins and minerals.
While this provides general guidelines for different age groups, please talk to a nutritionist or your doctor about recommended intakes for you.
Vitamin A is an anti-inflammation vitamin that helps develop and regulate the immune system and protect against infections. This Vitamin can be found in sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, spinach, red bell peppers, apricots, eggs, and milk.
While vitamin A is important, it is possible to consume too much of it. High intake of vitamin A from supplements and some medications can cause headaches, dizziness, coma, and death.
According to the NIH, pregnant women shouldn’t consume high doses of vitamin A supplements.
Vitamin B6 helps improve immune response to the increase in the production of antibodies, a protective protein produced by the immune system to fight antigens in the body.
Vitamin B6 is found in a variety of foods. Food sources of vitamin B6 include pork, fish, poultry, bread, eggs, cottage cheese, tofu, and wholegrain foods such as oatmeal and brown rice.
Getting too much vitamin B6 from food is rare. However, from supplements, long-term use for a year or more can lead to nerve damage.
Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) helps your immune system by fighting free radicals that cause cancer and other diseases. It’s a popular nutrient to fight or treat the common cold.
While focusing on vitamin C consumption may not prevent you from getting sick, it could decrease the length and severity of cold symptoms. It also helps by stimulating the formation of antibodies. This vitamin can be found in oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, red bell pepper, papaya, strawberries, tomato juice, among others.
Too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea, nausea, and stomach cramps.
Vitamin E works as an antioxidant, which protects the cells from damage by free radicals and helps the body fight infections.
This vitamin can be found in sunflower seeds, almonds, vegetable oils, hazelnuts, and spinach and other green leafy vegetables. There isn’t a risk of consuming too much vitamin E from foods.
Precautions should be taken when taking supplements, which could interfere with other treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Magnesium is a nutrient that our body needs to regulate the function and work of our muscles and the nervous system.
It is involved in the process of forming protein, bone mass, and genetic material. It is found in legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, milk, yogurt among others.
Zinc is found in cells throughout the body. It helps the immune system fight bacteria and viruses and is needed to produce proteins and DNA.
During pregnancy, infancy, and childhood, the body requires zinc to grow. Zinc can be found in oysters, red meat, poultry, crab, lobster, cereals, beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy products.
Drinks That Help Your Immune System
You can find or create your own drinks to help your immune system. Some beverages you may want to try at home that are high in important immune-friendly vitamins are:
- Green smoothies (low in or without fruits and fruit juices)
- Teas, especially chamomile tea and green tea
Alcoholic beverages are generally fine to consume in moderation. Drinking too much alcohol can lead to a weaker immune system. Heavy drinkers are more likely to get pneumonia and drinking too much alcohol at once can slow your body’s ability to ward off infections.
Should You Use Supplements to Help Your Immune System?
Supplements are used in cases where diet is not able to sufficiently provide micronutrients. While supplements aren’t meant to replace a balanced diet, they’re used to help people with other health conditions who may be prone to nutrient deficiencies.
Many vitamin and mineral supplements can be purchased over the counter. But, check with your physician or a registered dietitian nutritionist to see if you actually need them.
If you’re taking other medications, talk to your doctor on how vitamin and mineral supplements can interfere with those drugs.
Other Things You Can Do to Stay Healthy
A healthy diet is definitely a big part of remaining healthy.
Other things you can do on a regular basis to maintain your health is to practice good hygiene (i.e. washing your hands), see your healthcare provider routinely, and keep an emergency medical plan and emergency contacts updated.
Also, prioritize physical activity and refrain from smoking. From a mental and emotional health perspective, practice stress-relieving techniques.