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The following is written by Gina Jaeger PhD for Nordic Naturals. We proudly sell Nordic Naturals products!.

Highlights
• The immune system encompasses a diverse group of cells that perform
important immunity enhancing functions throughout the body
• Research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, vitamin D,
probiotics, melatonin, and curcumin can help regulate immune functioning and
enhance overall health
• Increasing your intake of immune-boosting nutrients and dietary factors is a
prudent strategy for optimizing your immune health
Natural strategies for strengthening the immune system are in high demand these
days, and it’s not hard to see why. As the world prepares itself for the uncertainty
of what lies ahead, one thing is for certain: actively working to maintain a healthy
immune system is a trend we’d all be wise to follow. Not only for the health of
ourselves, but for the health of our communities.

Ok, so does that mean you should take every supplement that claims to enhance
immune health and drink your weight in orange juice every morning? Not exactly.
While getting a healthy daily dose of vitamin C is certainly a tried-and-true
method for boosting immune health, there are other nutritional strategies you can
adopt to give your immune system an added advantage. But before we jump into
the nutritional research, let’s quickly review what the immune system is, and how it
helps protect the body from invading pathogens.

Immune System 101: What is it and how does it work?
Put simply, the immune system is a defense system that helps protect the body
from invading pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria. It encompasses a diverse
group of immune-related cells that can be broadly categorized as either innate or
adaptive immune cells, based on their different properties and mechanisms.
1 Innate immune cells (such as macrophages, neutrophils, and NK cells) serve as the
body’s first line of defense against pathogens. Although they are quick to respond
to threats, innate immune cells carry out less specific responses to individual
pathogens.
2 Conversely, adaptive immune cells (namely T cells and B cells) are
slower to respond but produce and respond to antibodies, which enables the
immune system to remember past infections for future defense. For example, B
cells develop antibodies against the pathogens they encounter, which enable them
to respond more efficiently during a second encounter.2
Importantly, how well these different immune cells are able to coordinate their
activities determines how effectively the host can mount an immune response,
and ultimately, their ability to stay healthy. One of the ways immune cells
typically accomplish this task is by secreting cytokines —molecules that attract
other immune cells to the site of infection and regulate their activation or
suppression.3,4

So, what factors contribute to the quality of a body’s immune response? Although
a number of different variables (e.g., age, underlying health, stress levels, sleep
habits, etc.) contribute to an organism’s immune health, the importance of proper
nutrition cannot be overstated.5 Let’s discuss some of the nutrients and dietary
factors that have been found to have immune-regulatory effects, and benefits for
immune health.
1. Omega-3s
Put simply, the immune system is a defense system that helps protect the body
from invading pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria. It encompasses a diverse
group of immune-related cells that can be broadly categorized as either innate or
adaptive immune cells, based on their different properties and mechanisms.1
Innate immune cells (such as macrophages, neutrophils, and NK cells) serve as the
body’s first line of defense against pathogens. Although they are quick to respond
to threats, innate immune cells carry out less specific responses to individual
pathogens.2 Conversely, adaptive immune cells (namely T cells and B cells) are
slower to respond but produce and respond to antibodies, which enables the
immune system to remember past infections for future defense. For example, B
cells develop antibodies against the pathogens they encounter, which enable them
to respond more efficiently during a second encounter.2
Omega-3s Help the Body Respond to Cellular Stress
Short-term cell stress responses are a normal and necessary physiological
response that help the body initiate processes designed to restore damaged body
cells and tissues after an injury, infection, or illness. However, if these cell stress
responses (often referred to as the body’s inflammatory response) become longterm,
they can damage cells and tissues, and ultimately contribute to a variety of
chronic health problems. 7,8
That’s where omega-3s come in. Because of their ability to synthesize potent
signal molecules that help lower cell stress responses, fatty acids such as EPA and
DHA can help the body return to normal after a threat has passed.9 In contrast, the
potent signal molecules made from the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (AA)
serve to help raise cell stress responses.10
This means that if omega-6 fatty acids are more abundant in cell membranes, then
signal molecules that help promote a cell stress response will be more common.
Conversely, if omega-3 fatty acids are more abundant, then signal molecules that
help lower a cell stress response will be more common. Although cells need both
types of fatty acids to function, research suggests that having an abundance of
omega-3s is favorable for maintaining a healthy cell response and overall immune
health.7,9,10
Omega-3s Enhance Immune Cell Function
Another important way that omega-3s promote immune health is by enhancing
the function of both innate and adaptive immune cells.6 For example, DHA and
EPA can help regulate the activities of macrophage cells, which play a critical role
in the body’s innate immune defense by patrolling for invading pathogens and
working to eliminate them.11 Omega-3s also promote innate immune function by
increasing the number and phagocytic capacity of neutrophil cells—a process
wherein the cell essentially destroys a virus or infected cell by binding to it and
engulfing it.12,13
Studies also show that EPA and DHA can enhance adaptive immune function
by promoting the growth and specialization of certain types of T cells 14,15
and increasing the number and percentages of B cell populations in different
tissues.16,17
2. Probiotics
A growing body of research suggests that probiotics—live microorganisms that,
when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host—also
play an important role in immune health.18 Although it might be difficult to wrap
your mind around how ingesting microorganisms (usually bacteria) can help the
body fight off harmful invaders, research shows that these beneficial microbes
promote immune health through the activation of multiple immune mechanisms.19
For example, one of the ways probiotics promote immune health is by inhibiting
the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Probiotics do this in a number of ways,
including competing with pathogens for nutrients that promote growth and
proliferation, producing substances that kill bacteria or stop their growth, and
competing with pathogens for adherence to the intestinal epithelium a cellular
layer that forms a physiological barrier against pathogenic microbes and
detrimental substances in the intestines.20 Probiotics have also been shown to
support immune health by enhancing barrier function and promoting the survival
of intestinal epithelial cells.20
Perhaps the most significant mechanism through which probiotics support
immune health is by stimulating immune cell activity. More specifically,
supplementation with various probiotic species and strains have been shown to:
• stimulate protective responses from intestinal epithelial cells 20
• enhance innate immunity by stimulating the activity of NK cells in the spleen 21
• induce the production of immunity-enhancing proteins in connective tissues 22
• reinforce intestinal barrier integrity through increased gene expression 23
• shift the composition of the gut toward specific beneficial bacteria 24
3. Vitamin D
This one may not come as a surprise, given that Vitamin D has received an
increasing amount of attention in recent years for its role in supporting immune
health.25 And indeed, its reputation as an immune-boosting nutrient is welldeserved. Once championed mainly for its beneficial effects on calcium absorption
and bone health, an impressive amount of literature now finds that vitamin D can
modulate both innate and adaptive immune responses.25
One of the most significant ways that vitamin D supports innate immunity is by
stimulating the production of antimicrobial peptides (AMP), which are endogenous
antibiotics (i.e., antibiotics that originate within an organism). Secreted by various
types of immune cells, these important peptides display a wide range of antimicrobial and anti-viral activities.26–30 Evidence of such activities are likely
reflected in the results of a clinical trial, which found that supplementation with
1200 IU of vitamin D led to a 42% decrease in the incidence of influenza amongst
school-age children.31
Further support for the importance of vitamin D comes from numerous
studies associating deficiencies in Vitamin D with increased autoimmunity and
susceptibility to infection, colds, and flu.32,33 In other words, individuals with
lower vitamin D levels appear to be more vulnerable to autoimmune conditions
and respiratory infections than people with adequate vitamin D status.
Unfortunately, numerous factors (e.g., time of year, use of sunscreen, limited
sun exposure, and dark skin pigmentation, etc.) mean that an estimated 42% of
American adults are deficient in vitamin D.34 For this reason, consuming dietary
sources of vitamin D or taking a vitamin D supplement are highly recommended—
particularly during the winter months when seasonal flu is most common.35
4. Melatonin
In the event of a novel virus, the functioning of your innate immune system (i.e., the
quicker but less precise set of immune responses) is particularly important. This
is because viral strains continuously undergo genetic mutations, which essentially
enables them to evade pre-established adaptive immune responses. In other
words, when a virus is new, the likelihood that exposed individuals will have built
up the relevant antibodies to combat it is slim. Here’s where our fourth immuneboosting nutrient, melatonin, can help.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland, a small group of specialized
cells in the brain. Its primary function is to facilitate sleep onset by communicating
to the body when it’s dark. In addition to its regulatory effects on sleep, melatonin
is also a powerful antioxidant that helps regulate the main cellular components of
the innate immune response. This has been evidenced by studies showing that:
• melatonin injections led to significant increases in numbers of macrophage cells 36
• supplementation with melatonin led to increases in NK cells in the bone marrow 37
• treatment with melatonin stimulated innate immune cell activity 38
The fact that melatonin facilitates sleep onset further underscores its value as an
immune-boosting dietary factor. This is because getting sufficient sleep (~7 to 9
hours for an adult) is one of the best ways to naturally support immune health,
while insufficient sleep can leave you more vulnerable to getting sick after being
exposed to a virus. For example, research finds that:
• adults who received less than 6 hours of sleep a night were significantly more likely
to develop a common cold after exposure than adults receiving 7 or more hours 39
• women who slept 5 or fewer hours a night showed increased susceptibility to
pneumonia 40
• adults who slept less than 7 hours per night were 3x more likely to develop a cold
than those who slept 8 or more hours 41
During sleep, your immune system releases cytokines (molecules that recruit
other immune cells to the site of an infection and regulate their behavior) in order
to help combat an infection or inflammation. Conversely, sleep deprivation can
decrease the production of cytokines, as well as T cells and infection-fighting
antibodies.42–44
5. Curcumin
Traditionally known for its beneficial effects on the body’s inflammatory response,
curcumin (an orange-yellow spice extracted from the turmeric plant) is a powerful
antioxidant with a number of research-backed health benefits.45 More specifically,
research over the past few decades suggests that curcumin can support
cardiovascular health, brain function, mental health, and you guessed it, immune
system function.45–48
Although not commonly touted for its immune-boosting properties, a growing
number of studies find that curcumin can modulate the growth and cellular
response of various types of immune cells. For example, studies show that
supplementation with curcumin can:
• enhance the responses of antibodies 45
• promote the immune response of lymphocytes (white blood cells) 49
• increase B cell proliferation in the intestines 50
• reduce the expression of proinflammatory cytokines 51
Something to keep in mind when looking to increase your curcumin intake is that
curcumin’s poor solubility in water means taking it in its native form results in
very low levels of absorption, which can in turn limit its therapeutic benefits. For
this reason, looking for an optimized curcumin supplement that circumvents low
bioavailability issues is highly recommended.

In closing
While nutritional strategies for enhancing immune health are certainly not infallible,
the research reviewed here suggests that increasing your intake of immunity enhancing
dietary factors represents a prudent strategy for optimizing immune
functioning and overall health. In light of the global health crisis, we appreciate
you taking the time to read this article, and all efforts to maintain optimal immune
health.

 

Gina Jaeger, PhD is a Developmental Specialist and Lead
Research Writer for Nordic Naturals. She holds a doctorate
in Human Development, and has published several research
articles on children’s cognitive development. Gina enjoys
studying and educating others on strategies for optimizing
health and wellness throughout the lifespan.

 

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