Can supplements really help to boost your immune system?

Posted by for Strong Women

We all want to do everything we can to ward off the dreaded coronavirus but popping vitamin C and zinc tablets may not be the way forwards…

If you were banking on eating your way to a coronavirus-proof body, you may be slightly dismayed to hear that food doesn’t really work like that. Sure, there are vitamin-rich fruits and veg that may help to support your body but by and large, this idea of “boosting immune systems” with food is a bit of a marketing ploy.

But what about supplements? Supplements take away all the extra stuff so we’re just left with the raw, concentrated vitamins and minerals. Perhaps they can give our tired immune systems a little extra support by virtue of the sheer concentration of goodness?

According to Ruth Tongue, nutritionist, sports scientist and director of Elevate your Health, supplements don’t really help at all unless you’ve got an actual deficiency.

“There’s little evidence to show that supplements work for everyone to support immune systems - though if you’re someone who is definitely not having a balanced diet they may help.”

She also says that too much of one vitamin could have a harmful effect.

“We do know that high strength vitamin C, when taken at the start of a cold, can reduce the length of the cold, but apart from that there’s little positive evidence to suggest supplementing.”

Perhaps you’ve already seen people advocating taking things like vitamin C and zinc to fight infection, but registered nutritionist Saadia Noorani told us that “there is no strong body of evidence to say supplementation offers protection. Plus, we still don’t know enough about Covid-19 to say what works and what doesn’t.”

woman pajamas sick ill cold flu tea
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“If you are eating a healthy balanced diet then you don’t need a supplement and extra supplementation won’t offer you protection. It is always better to eat foods rather than take supplements. Most of the population can meet their nutrient requirements by eating a healthy balanced diet. (The exception, is of course, if you are deficient in a particular nutrient or are a risk group e.g pregnancy and have been prescribed to take a supplement by your GP or dietitian).

The only supplement both nutritionists recommend taking is vitamin D over the winter months (which is also the only supplement that the NHS recommends for everyone). Vegans may want to top up their vitamin B12 reserves as it’s hard to get enough in their diet alone and if you’re taking antibiotics, taking a daily probiotic may help to maintain the balance of bacteria in your gut – preventing stomach issues.

If you know you’re not getting a varied, balanced diet right now and you’re not in a position to do much about it then you may want to think about taking a multivitamin. But for everything else, unless you’ve been tested and found to be lacking in something, there’s not much need to supplement.

While all of the professionals we spoke to agree that we should all be taking a food-first approach to nutrition and that the only supplement we all need is vitamin D, some are slightly more open to the idea that supplements can support our systems.

“Your immune system is a complex network of cells that are constantly working to protect you from harmful microbes and toxins. It needs a whole host of nutrients in order to do that effectively,” claims Nicki Williams, nutritionist and founder of Happy Hormones for Life.

“We can get a lot from food, but we often need to supplement for lots of reasons, including poor diets, poor gut health, stress, medications, climate, etc.”

While Nicki promotes eating real food to reduce inflammation, she acknowledges that it’s not always possible for people to get all the vitamins they need from diet alone.

supermarket vegetables
Volunteer work UK: The Felix Project collects fresh food from supermarkets, wholesalers, farms, restaurants and delis and gives it to schools and charities.

She recommends taking vitamins D, C, A, zinc, selenium, omega 3 fish oil and magnesium - some of which you can get as part of a multivitamin. Studies suggest that only around 50% of people manage to eat their recommended daily allowance of magnesium, for example, and that’s a problem; the mineral helps to reduce inflammation, fights depression, and can lower blood pressure. The most relaxing way to get your magnesium top-up? Having a warm bath with magnesium flakes.

An in-vitro clinical trial by the University of Cardiff proved that magnesium could be carried to the cells of the body through transdermal delivery (through the skin), and that the skin starts to absorb the mineral immediately.

If you do want to take supplements, be aware that not all tablets and powders are made equal.

“Supplement brands vary significantly,” Nicki warns.

“Some of the mainstream cheaper brands don’t always use the most active forms of ingredients, and often contain fillers. Look for reputable brands in a good health food shop (rather than a supermarket) and I would always get advice on which ones you need from a qualified nutritionist or your doctor if you’re on medication or have a health condition.”

And that’s really the point. If you’re managing to eat a balanced diet, you probably don’t need any supplements beyond vitamin D. A handful of almonds = 20% of your magnesium RDA, for example.

How to actually boost your immune system

Forget the supplements and stop freaking out about what to buy at the shops during this strange period. Now’s not the time to worry about what you’re eating.

  • get good quality sleep
  • exercise regularly
  • eat a varied, balanced diet
  • drink water
  • only drink alcohol in moderation
  • avoid smoking
  • don’t crash diet or cut out any major food groups.
A woman in a bath
How to sleep better: the drop in your core body temperature caused when you get out of a hot bath helps to promote the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.

But given that supermarket reserves are low and many of us are already eating largely out of our freezers or tins, shouldn’t we be topping up our vitamin reserves?

Ruth maintains that even now, supplements shouldn’t be the first port of call.

“Just because we may have reduced access to fresh foods, that doesn’t mean we can’t get enough vitamins and minerals from frozen, tinned or even freeze dried foods! I’ve just bought a tin of peaches, for example! And we know that tinned fruits can actually be a great source of vitamins - same goes for frozen fruits and vegetables (sometimes they even have more vitamins than fresh!).”

“Frozen garlic, ginger, onions and even mushrooms are great options if you’re struggling to find these staples.”

Nutritionist Emma Scott agrees, saying that three main vitamins and minerals we should concentrate on eating at the moment - no supplements required:

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a vital antioxidant that helps to strengthen your immune system. It stimulates both the production and function of your virus-fighting white blood cells to help your body combat infection. This vitamin will help you to produce important antibodies needed to destroy invading microbes and help to protect certain white blood cells from the toxic compounds they produce in their fight against pathogens.

Good sources: frozen spinach and broccoli, pineapple, strawberries, blueberries, mango, canned tomatoes.

Selenium

Selenium is a trace mineral that plays a vital role in supporting individual health, including the potential to slow the body’s over-active immune responses to aggressive foreign invaders by enhancing the immune system. Selenium plays a vital role in DNA formation and repair, oxidative damage and has been found to play a vital role in immune treatment for fighting off viral and bacterial body infections. It acts by assisting the T-lymphocytes, white blood fighter-cells, to multiply more rapidly to target an attack on the infection.

Good sources: tinned or frozen sardines, tuna, seafood, Brazil nuts., barley, eggs and canned mushrooms.

Zinc

This vital trace mineral is essential to almost all cells within the body. It helps to control the level of inflammation in your body as it steadies your immune response. It plays a vital role in the regulation of cell metabolism and is required by hundreds of enzymes within the body, and is needed for antioxidant activity, DNA repair and healing. It is essential to support the immune system to function effectively to control its effects when the immune system is on overload fighting an infection, to prevent the body from attacking its own body cells.

Good sources: canned crab, baked beans, frozen yoghurt and chickpeas. 

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