At a time when we feel so vulnerable, many of us are searching for ways to optimize our wellness routine and learn how to boost the immune system. And while social-distancing and hand washing protocols are foundational components, we can also incorporate clinically-supported dietary interventions as well. We break down the research-backed recommendations below.
Vital note: This article has been made available for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice, or delay in seeking it, because of something you have read in this article. Your licensed healthcare professional can best provide you with the diagnosis and treatment of any medical condition and assist you as well in deciding whether a dietary supplement will be a helpful addition to your regimen.
How Does The Immune System Work?
The immune system identifies pathogens like viruses, bacteria, parasites or any other microorganism that can contribute to symptoms of illness, infection or disease. Once identified, the immune system then responds by releasing specific cells to ‘kill’ or ‘destroy’ the threat:
- T helper cells
- Killer T cells
- Natural Killer cells
- Mast cell
- Dendritic cells
Although the immune system works as one fully-integrated system, it can be divided into two distinct arms:
- The innate immune system is what you are born with and refers to your natural immunity.
- It acts as your body’s first line of defense, responds in a non-specific way and typically generates a rapid response.
- Primary cell types of the innate immune system include macrophages, neutrophils and natural killer cells to name a few.
- The adaptive immune system, on the other hand, is known as acquired immunity and can’t respond rapidly instantly to infections. It actually needs time to ‘adapt’ to recognize them.
- The adaptive system learns from these experiences and creates ‘memory cells’ to be able to generate a response that is rapid, accurate, and effective should the pathogen try to invade the body again.
The immune system works to protect your body from invading pathogens. The innate immune system is your natural immunity and rapidly responds in a non-specific way. The adaptive immune system is your acquired immunity and learns to identify pathogens over time.
Ways to Boost Your Immune System**
In a healthy individual, the immune system works without you even noticing it’s there. However, there may be times, such as periods of high stress or cold and flu season, when your immune system could benefit from a boost. (Read about immune support for kids.)
There are key lifestyle factors that can help support the immune system, like:
Nutrients that Can Help Boost the Immune System**
Immunonutrition, or “the potential to modulate the activity of the immune system by interventions with specific nutrients” is a concept that’s becoming more mainstream, especially now. Along with adopting the key lifestyle factors listed above, individuals also want their nutrition to boost their immune system as well.
Below, we’ve listed some conventional and novel ingredients that have been associated with immune health, and dug into the research to evaluate their effectiveness. While immunonutrients can behave differently in the body, they typically support the immune system by:
- Optimizing the inflammatory response by managing oxidative stress, and/or
- Optimizing the immune system response by reducing immunosuppression
Currently, there is not a significant amount of research investigating the direct relationship between collagen peptides and the immune system. However, given the growth of collagen supplementation in recent years, we expect more to come in the near future. Despite a limited amount of current literature, we were able to gather some promising findings.
First of all, many of the individual amino acids found in collagen have been shown to play a role in the immune system. Glycine, glutamic acid*, arginine and BCAAs have been shown to help regulate the inflammatory process and support the immune system.
*Glutamic acid is found in food sources, and in the presence of ammonia, converts to glutamine in the body.
Glycine has long been considered an amino acid that exhibits anti-inflammatory properties, and growing evidence has mounted in favor of its immunomodulatory and cytoprotective effects as well. It’s been suggested that glycine helps boost the functionality of macrophages, which in turn, suppress the formation of free radicals and inflammatory cytokines.
A study involving 74 subjects with Type II diabetes mellitus found that those who received glycine supplementation as an intervention experienced a decrease in proinflammatory cytokines and an increase in interferon-γ, a cytokine that is critical for innate and adaptive immunity against viral and some bacterial infections.
Secondly, some interesting research suggests that collagen protein itself may play a role in fighting infection. In a recent study, investigators sought to evaluate if collagen impacts the immune system by activating NK cells and macrophages in the lymphatic system. Their findings:
- Support the notion that the subcapsular sinus represents an important site for the initiation of immune response
- Provide evidence that macrophages in this region can promote NK cell activity, and
- Suggest collagen may help position activated NK cells close to relevant target cells, which can help productive delivery of cytokines and other effector responses
Although more research is needed to further clarify the role collagen supplementation plays in immune system support, studies investigating the effect of individual amino acids found in collagen, and collagen itself, are promising.
L-glutamine is the most abundant free amino acid of the human body, and has been shown to help regulate the immune system function. Immune cells largely depend on glutamine availability to survive, proliferate, and function, and ultimately defend our body against pathogens. L-glutamine:
- Supports the immune system by activating lymphocytes and macrophages, two types of immune cells that are critical in a healthy immune response.
- It also helps regulate the synthesis of glutathione, a protein that plays a critical role in protecting cells from oxidative stress.
By supporting the optimization of the immune system and inflammatory response, glutamine has been shown to help reduce the risk of respiratory tract infections in athletes. According to an article published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, oral l-glutamine supplementation (0.1 g/kg body wt) for athletes appeared to have a beneficial effect by minimizing the exercise-induced decrease in plasma glutamine levels, the decreased number of lymphocytes, and eventually the risk of URTIs.
Additional research has suggested glutamine may help support endurance athletes’ immune system as well. Athletes undergoing intense, prolonged training or participating in endurance races suffer an increased risk of infection due to apparent immunosuppression. A recent study investigated how glutamine supplementation impacted runners and rowers who participated in exhaustive exercise. Those given glutamine after exercise appeared to have a better ratio of T-helper/T-suppressor cells and a beneficial effect on the level of subsequent infections. Glutamine is an important fuel for some cells of the immune system and may have specific immunostimulatory effects.**
Despite some controversy in the sport nutrition arena, researchers are further evaluating glutamine’s ability to help combat oxidative stress and regulate the inflammatory response to better understand it’s role in the immune system. Without an adequate amount of glutamine in the body, whether caused by deficiency, malnutrition or injury, the function of the immune system can be compromised. The body may be forced to break down protein mass, such as muscle, to release more of it. Supplementing may help to improve immune function** and help preserve protein stores.**
Arginine is a conditionally-essential amino acid. As the main precursor to nitric oxide (NO), a compound that plays an important role in many functions in the body, it helps regulate blood flow through vasodilation, mitochondrial function, and immune system activation.
Arginine is required to support both the innate and adaptive immune systems due to its role in various pathways involving immune cells, especially in clinical situations where the immune system is compromised. In studies conducted with high-risk surgical patients, arginine has been shown to help enhance the functionality of T-cells,preserve immune function and potentially improve their ability to resist infection. Like glutamine, arginine supplementation may be necessary to maintain adequate levels in the body to support optimal immune function.**
Branch-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)**
BCAAs include three amino acids, valine, leucine and isoleucine, and are typically associated with muscle protein synthesis and repair. However, some evidence suggests these amino acids may play a role in the immune system as well by helping to increase the expression of genes involved in the antioxidant defense, especially in those experiencing malnutrition or infections.
As the only amino acid not found in collagen, tryptophan has been shown to play a role in immune support as well. While more research is needed to better understand the connection, scientists at Stanford University reported that tryptophan metabolites appeared to sooth the overactive immune system, especially in those with autoimmune disease.
Amino acids like L-glutamine, arginine, BCAAs and tryptophan have been shown to be involved in supporting an optimized immune response. Although further research should be done to better understand their specific role, each acts to help regulate oxidative stress and reduce immunosuppression.
As a potent antioxidant, vitamin C is an essential vitamin that plays an important role in immune health by supporting the innate and adaptive components of the immune system. Vitamin C helps stimulate the production of white blood cells, which help protect the body from infection. Not only does vitamin C help protect white blood cells from free radicals allowing them to function more effectively, but it also actively transports to the skin where it helps to strengthen the skin’s defense system. Those who are deficient in vitamin C are likely to experience impaired immunity and higher susceptibility to infections. However, studies show that supplementation with vitamin C appears to be able to both help prevent and treat respiratory and systemic infections.
Zinc is an essential mineral, and plays a variety of different roles in the body. It’s long been considered a standard in the fight against viruses, and for good reason. While exact optimal dosage is debated among scientists, researchers and medical professionals, zinc has been linked to a reduction in cold symptoms in a robust amount of literature.
Research also suggests there may be a reduction in the risk of developing upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) when it's taken prophylactically, however, the research isn't conclusive and additional is necessary to clarify the mechanism of action.
Vitamin C and zinc are antioxidants that play an important role in immune health. Vitamin C works to stimulate the production of white blood cells and protects them from oxidative damage from free radicals. Zinc has been shown to reduce cold symptoms and may help to reduce the risk of developing URTIs; however, more research is needed. Another antioxidant worth exploring is Astaxanthin, a fat-soluble antioxidant that is able to integrate itself into every cell, tissue and organ in the body.
Electrolytes, like potassium, sodium, and magnesium, are involved in many different processes in the body. Most notably linked to their role in hydration and fluid balance, electrolytes are essential for supporting the nervous system, muscle health and cellular function. Interestingly, magnesium specifically may be involved in the immune system as well. While the current available research is derived from animal studies, the link between magnesium and it’s support of the immune system is promising. Research hasn’t conclusively determined how, but it’s suggested that magnesium may support the immune system by regulating the inflammatory response and immune cell activity.
Vitamin B6 is involved in many different enzymatic reactions in the body, which help the body process macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, and protein). While vitamin B6 deficiency can be uncommon, it’s possible in those who are deficient in other B vitamins, like B12. Vitamin B6 is often associated with cellular energy metabolism, however, in recent years, it’s gaining a reputation for its potential role in immune support too. Researchers have started to identify vitamin B6’s antioxidant anti-inflammatory properties, which can play a role in helping to modulate a healthy immune response. More research is needed, but the connection is intriguing and will elicit additional exploration by the scientific community.
Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin involved in enzymatic reactions. It’s been shown to decline with age, and because it’s found solely in animal and animal food products, those following a vegetarian and vegan diet can be at risk of deficiency as well. Long been linked to anemia and energy, vitamin B12 is also being considered for its role in immune health as well. A small study found that those who were deficient in vitamin B12 also had a decreased number, and suppressed activity level, of immune cells. Although the exact connection is still unclear, researchers suspect that vitamin B12 may act as an immunomodulator for cellular immunity.
B Vitamins are typically associated with energy metabolism; however, vitamin B6 and B12 are gaining popularity and interest for their potential role in immune system support. While more research is necessary, they may play a role in managing oxidative stress and cellular immunity.
Immunobiotics, the next evolution of microbial science**
Not to be confused with probiotics or prebiotics, immunobiotics can be defined as “microbes that promote a healthy immune system through the activation of gut immunity.” They survive the acidic environment of the stomach, proliferate in the small intestines, and stimulate the production of cells that are directly involved in supporting the immune system.**
A study in the Journal of Nutritional Science utilized a heat-killed strain of lactic acid bacteria known as Lactobacillus plantarum L-137 (HK L-137), or Immuno-LP20®, to examine the effects on URTIs symptoms and immune function in a group of 78 healthy adults. URTIs are the illnesses caused by an acute infection of the nose, sinuses, or throat, otherwise generally referred to as the common cold. After 12 weeks of supplementing with Immuno-LP20®, URTI incidence, duration and severity was significantly lower than the control group. These findings suggest that daily intake of immunobiotics, specifically Immuno-LP20®, can decrease the incidence of URTIs in healthy individuals, possibly by boosting the immune system.
Immunobiotics are microbes that promote a healthy immune system through activation of gut immunity. Immuno-LP20® is a cutting-edge immunobiotic that supports the immune system.
Beta-glucans are types of fiber found in the cells of certain types of yeast, algae, bacteria, and fungi that have been linked to the immune system. Wellmune®, a yeast beta-glucan, is absorbed by specialized immune tissue in the intestines. These immune cells then break Wellmune® into smaller fragments that bind to neutrophils, the most abundant immune cells in the body. These neutrophils, now ‘primed’ by Wellmune® pieces, quickly move to recognize and kill foreign invaders responsible for pathogens. Research has shown that healthy women who experience stress reported fewer URTI compared to the control group.
Check out the video below to see Wellmune®* in action:
Beta-glucans are types of fiber found in the cells of certain types of yeast, algae, bacteria, and fungi that have been linked to the immune system. Wellmune®* is a yeast beta glucan that helps boost the immune system.**
*a registered trademark of Kerry Group__
This article will continue to be updated as more research on the immune system becomes available. While certain nutrients, like vitamin C and zinc have long been staples in immune system support, it’s interesting to see others become considered as well. As more want to better understand the connection between how their nutritional regimen directly or indirectly supports their immune system, immunonutrition recommendation will continue to become more mainstream.