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Even when you’re in good health and armed with a nutritionally-balanced daily diet, it kind of feels impossible to avoid getting sick during fall and winter. The common cold runs rampant, and flu season introduces a new kind of flu each year. So it’s no surprise that suddenly, immunity-boosting products start popping up everywhere, promising to keep you well and well-protected.
But can you actually strengthen your immune system and its defenses? Can store-bought products and supplements stave off colds, flus, and other illnesses? I asked Dr. Jeff Gladd, MD, integrative medicine physician and chief medical officer at Fullscript, an industry-leading supplement planning tool for patient-centered care and optimal health, for his top tips for staying well and boosting immunity naturally during cold and flu season.
1. Focus on Getting Plenty of Immunity-Boosting Nutrients
It’s no secret that the foods you eat deliver much-needed nutrients for your body’s daily functions – and that includes nutrients that the immune system needs to keep you well. Which nutrients offer the best support or strengthen your immune system?
“Zinc, vitamin C, and probiotics each have a strong evidence base for improving immune function,” Dr. Gladd says.
However, in order to reap the immunity-boosting benefits of these nutrients, Dr. Gladd suggests making them part of your everyday routine. “It is best to consider a proactive approach to cold and flu season by beginning daily supplementation in early fall.”
How much of these nutrients should you aim to get? It depends on the particular nutrient in question.
Take zinc, for example. “Zinc intake is typically recommended to be between 75 to 100 mg daily. This is the dose most often shown to be beneficial in the research, but know that daily dosing of zinc at a dose greater than 50 mg per day long-term can lead to a copper deficiency,” says Dr. Gladd. “While seasonal immune support dosing may not qualify as “long-term,” I typically recommend patients find a zinc supplement that provides copper at a dosage around 10% of the zinc dosage they are taking (meaning 7.5 mg of copper for 75 mg of zinc).”
When it comes to vitamin C, you’ll want to vary your intake depending on how you’re feeling. “Daily vitamin C dosing is generally recommended at 1,000 mg per day or less for immune support and maintenance and increasing to 3,000 to 4,000 mg per day during an illness,” Dr. Gladd explains.
Lastly, if you’re taking probiotics through food or supplements for an immunity boost, there are less clear guidelines. “Probiotic doses tend to be variable in the research. I typically recommend my patients aim for 20 billion colonies daily of a variety of species,” Dr. Gladd says. “It is always best to develop one’s supplement regimen with high quality products and with the guidance of an integrative medicine practitioner that can tailor the forms and doses to your unique needs.”
2. Combine Supplements with Nutrient-Dense Foods
It’s common to choose supplements – like gummies, powders, and tablets or pills – to up your nutrient intake during cold and flu season. And there’s good reason for this. While the foods you eat can deliver critical nutrients, you likely aren’t eating enough to reach the recommended totals.
“It is generally difficult to get the therapeutic doses mentioned above in food sources,” Dr. Gladd explains. “While it is a good idea to eat a nutrient-rich diet made up of a variety of whole foods, supplementation is required to reach, for example, 4,000 mg of vitamin C in a day. Otherwise, this would require consumption of over 40 oranges!”
While it’s often best to start with food as your primary source of nutrients, supplements can be a boon when you need an extra-strong immune system. “While vitamin C is present in many foods, many people are not getting the therapeutic daily dose of 1,000 mg,” says Dr. Gladd. “Zinc and probiotics are less commonly consumed, and are therefore even more frequently inadequate in the average person’s diet.”
3. Don’t Rely on Natural Treatments (Unless You’re Actually Sick)
Plenty of wellness products promise to keep your immune system strong and colds and flus at bay. But here’s the catch: Not all of these products are backed by legitimate evidence. And some may actually be better at treating illnesses and ailments rather than preventing them.
“Certain immune products, especially if they have therapeutic doses of the above ingredients, or other evidence-based herbal ingredients such as echinacea or American ginseng, have been proven to have some immune benefits,” explains Dr. Gladd. “However, electrolyte products or salt-based bath soaks are unlikely to specifically and directly benefit the immune system.”
That’s why it’s important to distinguish between natural remedies and nutrients. While nutrients may offer some increased benefits or protections for immune health, remedies are really designed to treat a cold or flu once it’s already taken hold. As Dr. Gladd points out, “Electrolyte products or other fluids may be important if an individual has a fever and therefore needs a high fluid intake, and salt-based bath soaks may aid in relaxation which indirectly is good for immune health.”
4. Keep Whole-Body Health in Mind to Stay Well
While immunity-boosting supplements and nutrients can be beneficial, it’s also important to keep whole-body health and wellness in mind throughout cold and flu season. Adding extra nutrients into your diet may offer some extra protection, but it’s not a cure-all or magic solution.
“It is critical for patients to realize that immune health will be far better supported by addressing the foundations of health than any supplement could provide,” says Dr. Gladd.
So, instead of focusing on just one potential “booster”, take a look at your overall lifestyle and daily habits. “A focus on whole foods nutrition, regular exercise, a daily mindfulness practice, and quality sleep is unmatched for immune health,” Dr. Gladd notes.
And when you do need some extra nutritional protection, Dr. Gladd does have one key recommendation: “A supplemental essential I would add, particularly [during the] fall season, is to have vitamin D blood levels measured and dose vitamin D supplementation appropriately.” With so many Americans coming up short on vitamin D, it’s important to know if you’re getting enough as we head into darker days.
For more natural ways to boost immunity through food and nutrients, keep reading: