By Jane Cronin Clinicians Naturopath
With the cold and flu season commencing many of us are wondering how best to keep our family well this winter. New Zealand has a propensity for breathing difficulties with whopping 1:7 children and 1:9 adults taking medication for asthma1. No one likes getting an upper respiratory infection and spending their time coughing and wheezing, but for asthma sufferers this has the added complication of triggering asthma attacks.
So are there any key nutrients that can help protect our respiratory system, helping those most susceptible, as well as everyone else in the family? Here’s some important ones to think about.
Vitamin C is the primary antioxidant in the lungs, helping prevent inflammation and damage. Studies have shown that those with regular breathing issues have lower vitamin c levels in the lungs, which unfortunately leaves them more open to infection. As well as directly protecting the lungs, Vitamin C helps with general immunity to ward off winter bugs. It is crucial for the building of white blood cells, armies of which defend our body at the first sign of invading viruses and bacteria. This means Vitamin C is rapidly depleted when we are exposed to infection and since it is a water soluble vitamin C it is not stored in the body, so needs to be ingested regularly. Make sure you get your daily vitamin C including seasonal fruit and vegetables that are vitamin C rich such as kiwi fruit, brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts) and citrus fruit.
Common ivy, or Hedera helix as it is botanically known, is a plant that most of us will be familiar with. It has been used medicinally by the ancient Greeks and has been a popular traditional medicine herb in Europe. With a particular affinity for the lungs modern research has shown that Ivy leaf has direct effect on the bronchial cells in the lungs through a botanical constituent called ?-hederin. When ingested this triggers a substance called surfactant to be produced in the lungs which causes mucous to become less viscous (more watery) and therefore easier to cough up from the lungs. This effect also means that if airways are dry, which can be the case in tickly coughs, it moistens the surfaces. The other effect caused by the a-hederin in ivy, is that it stimulates the bronchial muscles and causes dilation. This means if the airways are tight and congested they become more relaxed. The great news isthis lung herb has a great safety record for safe use in children and doesn’t interact with any medication people may be taking.
This is an important mineral for general immunity as well as for our airways. Like vitamin C it is used to build white blood cells for general defence of the body. However it has another important use as an antiviral agent in the fluids of the body. Zinc is present inthe fluids that internally coat the surfaces of our body and helps to kill invading bacteria and viruses before they can be absorbed. Some of the fluids that zinc is present in include saliva, mucous in our sinuses, airways and our digestive system. Good sources for zinc for building winter reserves include nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and grains, so start making those hearty winter soups. Look out for low levels in those who have white spots on their nails, mouth ulcers and a poor sense of taste and smell; often kids that are picky eaters.
It is hard to believe that the good bacteria in our digestive system could help with the health of our respiratory system. Yet the bacteria in our gut plays an important part in our immunity. They are broken down when the body detects invaders e.g. bacteria, viruses, and part of their cell wall is used to signal the immune system that the body is under attack. With regards to respiratory infection a Cochran review found probiotics were better than placebo in reducing the number of upper respiratory tract infections by about 47%2. They found probiotics may slightly reduce antibiotic use and cold?related school absence. You may recognise the picture where children get sick, take antibiotics and then get into the pattern of getting sick and needing them again and so on. This is why taking probiotics with antibiotics is important, as they deplete our beneficial bacteria leaving us open to infection.
With the focus on protecting the skin from harmful UV another issue has been created due to lack of sun exposure on the skin; low vitamin D levels. According to the Ministry of Health around 5% of adults in New Zealand are deficient in this vitamin and a further 27% are below the recommended blood level of vitamin D3. This is of greater importance in the winter months when there is less sun and good vitamin D levels are needed for our immunity. Vitamin D produces special antimicrobial substances in the body called cathelicidins and defensins, which help general immunity, protecting the body from viruses and infections.
How important is Vitamin D for winter defence? Well studies have shown that supplementation in the elderly has been shown to reduce antibiotic consumption by 50 – 60% compared to placebo. Also low vitamin D levels have been associated with increased respiratory infection in children. Researchers from Costa Rica found that 175 out of 616 asthmaticchildrenwere deficient invitamin D, and that these particular childrenneeded hospitalisation for theirasthmamore frequently4. So to help our levels in the colder months increase vitamin D rich foods such as oily fish and eggs.
- Asthma Respiratory Foundation. https://www.asthmafoundation.org.nz/your-health/living-with-asthma Accessed 25-5-2016
- PubMed Health. Probiotics (live micro?organisms) to prevent upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) (for example, the common cold). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0015894/. Accessed 25-5-2016
- Ministry of Health. http://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/healthy-living/food-and-physical-activity/healthy-eating/vitamin-d. Accesed 25-5-2016
- Brehm JM, et al.Serumvitamin DLevels and Markers of Severity of Childhoodasthmain Costa Rica.Am. J. Respir and Critical CaremedicineVol 179. pp. 765-771, (2009)