Nutrients can’t cure viruses, but they are the oil to the engine that protects you.
We all know the story: while flicking through social media, you come across stories on new studies about vitamins and minerals, claiming that they can be the cure to cancer. In recent months, the tune has changed slightly, with wellness influencers telling their followers that vitamins will protect them from COVID-19.
But these nutrients — or the supplements that contain them — are not cures. Instead, nutrients are needed even in virus-free environments just so that our bodies can function normally. Every day, our immune system is fighting against harmful bacteria and germs in our environment: in the air we breathe, in the food we eat, and on the surfaces we touch. By making sure that we have a sufficient amount of nutrients inside us, we can ensure that our immune system would be strong enough to protect us from other viruses and illnesses, and to keep our bodies strong.
Most nutrients can be found naturally in a balanced diet with fish, meat, vegetables and fruits, but some people may find it difficult to absorb these nutrients from their food, or may need some extra help when these food sources grow scarce. Besides factors like age, something simple like lifestyle choices, habits, or even the weather, can affect the amount of nutrients we absorb or miss out on.
When it comes to our immune system, our age would affect how well it’s doing. Children, who are still very much growing, may be very vulnerable to viruses and bacteria due to their playfulness and weaker immune systems. Children who are picky about their food may also gain deficiencies for certain nutrients, which may risk their bodily functions. On the other hand, aging would gradually slow the immune system down. There will be a decrease in white blood cells (necessary to fight against viruses and bacteria), and some may even produce white blood cells with impaired functions, leaving them vulnerable to illnesses and viruses.
But before we begin to worry about how to improve our immune system, we should first explore the few nutrients that are needed for the immune system to function normally. Each of these nutrients have their role to play, and it is when we have sufficient amounts of each of them that our immune system will function well.
Arguably one of the most popular of the vitamins, Vitamin C is often promoted as the cure to flu and the common cold, thanks to what two-time Nobel Prize Winner, Linus Pauling claimed in a book he published in 1970 (appropriately titled “Vitamin C and the Common Cold”).  Unfortunately for Pauling, this claim has been disproven.
However, Vitamin C can indeed reduce the severity of a cold and reduce the time needed to recover from it, where 1-2 grams for children was enough to reduce the duration by 18%, while 6-8 grams was effective in adults.
As an antioxidant (meaning it can prevent or slow down the damage to cells caused by free radicals), Vitamin C is highly concentrated in immune cells, but depletes quickly during infections and thus weakens the immune system. As our body cannot create Vitamin C for itself, replenishing it during a cold or a flu would be a good idea, even if it’s not a cure.
In Singapore, it was found that 80% of Singaporeans suffer from inadequate Vitamin D. Despite living in a country with an abundant level of sunlight, Singaporeans spend most of their time indoors, either working or studying, and in the few instances where they do leave the house, they would often cover themselves with sunscreen to protect against the strong sun. While the vitamin can also be absorbed from foods, Vitamin D is one of the most difficult nutrients to be absorbed through eating.
While Vitamin D is often attributed to healthy bones and having a good effect on calcium, it also has important roles in the immune system. Vitamin D can modulate the innate and adaptive immune response, and a lack of it would result in an increased susceptibility to infection.
While not a well-known vitamin, it is one of the most important when it comes to our immune system, as Vitamin B6 affects the production of white blood cells. As it is water soluble and highly reactive, it is a suitable co-factor for many biochemical processes. In fact, it is part of nearly 200 biochemical reactions in our body and is thus critical in how our immune system functions.
Vitamin B6 deficiency is common in people with liver, kidney, digestive or autoimmune diseases, as well as smokers, obese people, alcoholics and pregnant women.
Famous for aiding vision, Vitamin A is also critical in enhancing immune function, helping out with the development of the immune system, regulating cellular immune responses and humoral immune process, and providing a therapeutic effect in the treatment of infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis.
A lack of Vitamin A diminishes antibody-mediated responses and impairs our innate immunity by making it harder for mucosal barriers to regeneration after being damaged by infections. It can also diminish the function of various white blood cells in our body.
A powerful antioxidant like Vitamin C, Vitamin E is an important nutrient for maintaining the immune system, especially in the aged. Elderly with decreased cellular immunity, or people with AIDS, often see their conditions improving when they were supplemented with Vitamin E.
On the other hand, a lack of Vitamin E would result in the weakening of the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections and diseases, and with an increased incidence of tumours.
Besides just vitamins, there are also other kinds of nutrients that are needed to support the immune system.
Zinc, for example, is present in every cell and helps to control infections by slowing down overactive immune responses that may be deadly. Unlike the vitamins listed above, Zinc ensures a balanced immune response, slowing or shutting down immune process before they go too far and cause excessive inflammation, hurting our body. Zinc deficiency is common in the world, especially in elderly.
Probiotics, meanwhile, are good bacteria that helps your body. Like Zinc, they reintroduce balance to the body, where Probiotics would help to combat against harmful bacteria in the body. They can help to shorten the duration taken to recover from an illness such as a cold or flu.
Most of these nutrients are available in the food that you eat, if you maintain a healthy diet of meat, vegetables, grains, fish and fruits. People find themselves in deficiency of certain nutrients because of their lifestyle habits or choices, such as vegetarians needing to look for alternative sources of Zinc, or people who are often indoors needing to replenish their body’s Vitamin D.
Climate change, or sometimes even the seasons, can affect the availability of certain foods and their nutrients. Some fruits may become more difficult to get or become more expensive, and other sources of meat may also fluctuate in prices and supply throughout the year.
In order to make sure that our body has enough nutrients, we can opt to take health supplements to protect against any risk to our immune system.
The sale and production of health supplements are often not regulated in many parts of the world. In Singapore, health supplements do not get evaluated by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) before they are sold, which means the responsibility lies in the hands of the dealers who sell these supplements.
There have been cases where dealers would choose not to declare certain ingredients in order to be able to sell them, such as what happened with Herbal Health Jointcare in 2014. Some products may also come with exaggerated or misleading claims without any scientific evidence to support them, or they do not come with any caution warnings about side effects.
As such, it is important to be cautious about these claims, and research the product and their effects before purchasing or consuming them.
If you have difficulties looking for reliable health supplements, you can purchase them from NOW Foods. With NOW Foods, you can be assured that the supplements are tested to be safe and shows an accurate list of ingredients. NOW has even employed a third-party certifier to audit their manufacturing practices, and is recognised as a responsible manufacturer and marketer of natural products.
If you would like to look at a few supplements for the nutrients mentioned in this post, you may find them here: Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, Vitamin E, Zinc, Sambucus Zinc with Vitamin C, Probiotic.
However, while health supplements are indeed helpful in supporting our health, they should never be an alternative to proper diet and healthy eating habits. Health supplements should also not be consumed more than the recommended amount, as certain nutrients may become toxic when too much is absorbed into the body.
If you would like to find out more about other kinds of nutrients and ways to keep your body healthy and safe from viruses, we have many more similar topics on the rest of this website.