Of course, there is no magic pill that will keep you from getting a cold or flu ever again. However, if we can keep our bodies in a state of balance, we will be giving ourselves a fighting chance. That is why it's so important to sleep well, exercise and reduce stress to minimise the risk of catching bugs. We can help our bodies to stay well and protected by eating a diet that avoids highly processed and refined foods and by supplementing in areas where our diet may fall down.
Vitamin C is an essential micronutrient for humans. It has a whole load of important functions in the body and a lot of them relate to how our immune system functions. Scientific studies have proven that vitamin C impacts the immune system. A 2013 study shows that regular supplementation with vitamin C (1 to 2 g/day) minimises the length and severity of a cold. In adults the duration of colds was reduced by 8% (3% to 12%) and in children by 14%.
Vitamin C is in charge of the growth and repair of body cells and promotes the production of collagen in our body. This means it does an excellent job of maintaining our innate immune system's first line of defence to potential nasty invaders – our skin.
On a cellular level vitamin C helps the immune system because it promotes the production of pathogen-fighting white blood cells, which can then attack unwanted invaders. It also helps the body create antibodies. These are an important part of our adaptive immune system, as they improve our defence mechanisms against intruders.
As it's an antioxidant, vitamin C protects cells in the body from damage caused by free radicals. Glutathione is another powerful antioxidant that helps the immune system when it's under attack. In doing so, it gets used up pretty rapidly so it's important we have lots of it available. While vitamin C doesn't contain glutathione, it can help keep our stores of it topped up by fighting free radical damage (for example, damage done to our bodies by environmental pollution or UV rays). In this way, the body has lots of energy available for the immune system to do its job effectively.
I'm sure you are getting the idea by now, just how helpful vitamin C is but I will leave you with one additional note which is important for women especially. Vitamin C is needed for our body to absorb iron. This is a really vital nutrient for women, who need to replenish iron stores each month after they bleed. It's also a key concern for vegans and vegetarians, who get their iron from plant sources.
If you are deficient, or even just a little low in iron, it will leave you more vulnerable to picking up infections and bugs. If you are at risk of low iron levels, include both of these nutrients in your immune support tool kit.
Don’t I get enough vitamin C from my food?
The body can't make its own vitamin C, so it needs to come from your diet. You might think you are getting plenty of vitamin C from your food, but there are lots of ways you can be missing out on this important vitamin without realising it.
You may have heard that fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C, so you make sure you get plenty of those each day? Unfortunately, that doesn't always do the trick. Cooking fruit and veggies in water leaches vitamin C out of the food and into the cooking water. That's why it's important to use a variety of cooking methods each week, and make sure to include a selection of cooked and raw fruit and veg too. If you do cook veg in water or by steaming, don't discard the water left behind; instead, use it to make a delicious vitamin C-filled sauce.
As with any vitamin or mineral, just because you are ingesting it, doesn't mean it is getting used the correct way in your body. With vitamin C, we can be eating lots of vitamin C-rich foods but not absorbing the vitamin, which means it won't be doing us any good. This can happen if you eat pastries, cakes, desserts and soft drinks, or if you add sugar to your breakfast cereal and unknowingly ingest hidden sugars in ready-made sauces and meals. Sugar competes with vitamin C for absorption, so if you are eating refined sugar regularly, it is unlikely you are getting full use of the vitamin C you are feeding yourself.
Tips to maximise your vitamin C intake?
- Swap sugary treats for fresh fruit, and soft drinks for a cold infusion of hibiscus tea. Hibiscus is delicious and rich in vitamin C and turns a beautiful pink colour in water. If you need more soft drink substitutions, take a look at our drinks recipe section for inspiration. Homemade smoothies and juices are another great source of vitamin C. However, skip the prepacked ones you find in shops, they will contain more sugar than nutrients.
- Cook wholefoods from scratch and leave ready meals, take-away meals and pre-made sauces for one-off treats that you eat very occasionally. Have a read of our blog on turning comfort food into healthy food, for advice on making health-filled Friday evening treats.
- Get creative with your meals by focusing on a variety of veg cooked in a variety of ways. You want to eat a rainbow-coloured selection of fresh whole foods at each meal. If your plate looks beige, there's something wrong. We have lots of colourful recipe ideas for you, here.
- Treat yourself to a salad starter before your main meal to make sure you fill up on raw, vitamin rich food. Choose salad leaves and colourful veg like peppers and tomatoes.
- Master how to make a delicious gravy or sauce from leftover cooked veggie water.
- Keep a bowl of vitamin C-rich fruits by your desk or kitchen table. Whenever you are tempted to reach for a sugary afternoon pick me up, steer yourself towards the fruit bowl instead.
- Supplement with a good quality vitamin C that will be easily absorbed by your body. The majority of vitamin C supplements available are synthetically produced, which means your body doesn't recognise how to utilise the nutrient and won't absorb it well. This is why Alfred Vogel created Nature C. It is full of organic, freeze-dried fruit, which means it has a very high absorption rate. For adults, take 1 tablet twice daily; and for children over 6, take 1 tablet daily.
- Don't forget, if you are at risk of low iron levels, supplement with iron as well as vitamin C. Floradix is a good quality iron supplement that is easy on the tummy.