Flu season in a pandemic calls for a boost in our defence systems

With the likelihood of more people getting sick as the cold season sets in, nutritionist Mariella Porter says that simply popping supplements to boost the immune system will not be enough to ward off illness this year

“It would be lovely if it were as easy as popping a pill. But in reality, protecting our immune system is multi-factorial: while nutrition plays an essential role in a healthy immune system, there are other factors such as mental health”
“It would be lovely if it were as easy as popping a pill. But in reality, protecting our immune system is multi-factorial: while nutrition plays an essential role in a healthy immune system, there are other factors such as mental health”

The colder season is setting in and a healthy immune system has never been more critical as it is now, as Malta braves the global COVID-19 pandemic.

As Malta heads into winter, people will now not only be dealing with the yearly contenders – flu, cold and other viruses which circulate at this time of the year – but coronavirus, which is still rampant across the island.

It is a moment to take stock of what people need to take extra care of during such a season in which cold spells and sickness seem to be of minor concern to normally healthy people.

“As temperatures drop, people are more prone to getting sick because our immune system is lowered,” registered nutritionist Mariella Porter tells MaltaToday. “People gather in closed spaces because of the cold, so there is more of a likelihood that people are going to get sick.”

Porter says that taking supplements to bolster one’s defence systems may not necessarily cut the mustard.

“It would be lovely if it were as easy as popping a pill. But in reality, protecting our immune system is multi-factorial: while nutrition plays an essential role in a healthy immune system, there are other factors such as mental health,” she says.

“It will depend on how stressed you are – so the current COVID-19 situation could be causing people to stress and in turn lower their immunity.”

Then there is the factor of genetic conditions, which could impact a person’s immunity. “It’s possible that someone’s low immunity could be due to a genetic disposition. It also has to do with whether we’ve built enough immunity. Have we been exposed to viruses in the past years? Have we taken vaccines? All these factors will have an impact on our immunity.”

Porter says that while genetic predisposition can be out of people’s control, key factors such as nutrition are within our control.

“From a nutritionists’s standpoint, before we consider supplements, we need to make sure that the individual is eating a well-balanced diet. That includes regular meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner and if need be, a snack in between which are balanced. This means that they contain a good source of vegetables, protein and carbohydrates always in the right proportion.”

Mariella Porter
Mariella Porter

Porter says this balance will provide the vitamins and nutrients the body will need to protect the body from infection. “However, there are groups of people who might need to consider further supplementation – for example, people who are excluding specific food from their diet.”

Porter said this includes those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, or people who are for other reasons excluding meat. “In that case, they would be deficient unless they were taking zinc and iron supplements. Both zinc and iron are vital when it comes to our immunity,” she said.

“Supplementation may also be required for picky eaters such as children, where there are food restrictions in case of illnesses, pregnancy and people who are doing extreme sports and therefore would need supplementation.”

Porter notes that during COVID-19 in Malta, it is important for persons to make sure they are getting enough vitamin D. “Research shows us how important vitamin D is for immunity. One of the main sources of vitamin D is dairy – so again, people who are excluding these products should consider supplementation,” she said.

Vitamin D can also be acquired through sunlight. “We might assume that because we live in sunny Malta that our vitamin D is high. But that’s a wrong assumption. Actually, a high percentage of the Maltese population has low vitamin D.

“So we should be questioning whether we are being exposed enough to the outside. The current situation makes it even harder. But it should be advocated that as much as possible, even if it is in secluded areas such as our roofs, we are exposing certain body parts so that we can raise our Vitamin D levels.”

She adds that if other members of the family suffered from low Vitamin D, it is something worth checking out, and perhaps supplementing.

Other vitamins that people should make sure they are consuming is Vitamin C, which can be found in citrus fruit, as well as other fruit and vegetables. “Then there is the B complex, which is B6, 9 and 12, that are important for mental health, especially during this period, it is something people should consider.”

Porter adds fatty acids are also essential – such as Omega-3, 6 and 9, which can be found in fish, as well as seasoned nuts. “Then, besides vitamins and minerals, there are other products that speed up the immunity, such and pre- and probiotics, which provide protection around our gut, and prevent germs from entering our system,” she said.

Porter says there are also herbal supplements – “you will find opinions in favour and against, but they’re not going to cause any harm. In fact, some studies have shown that they do have an impact,” she says.

Propolis, which is produced by bees, is also proclaimed to have positive effects by those who consume honey daily. However, Porter says one also needed to be careful not to consume too much honey because the amount of propolis in a portion will be small, and the sugar intake is high. “Instead, I would recommend taking propolis supplements because it would be a concentrated dose.”

Porter also points out that studies have shown, even in the case of COVID-19, that those who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk for infections and complications. “I don’t think it’s a simple case of whether we should supplement or not – I think first we should be making sure that our diet is providing us with the nutrients we need, and then we should ask ourselves whether we need to supplement. Are there reasons? Am I excluding certain foods? Do I need to make up for it? Because while under-supplementation can be dangerous, people may also run the risk of over-supplementation, which has its dangers.”

It is important that even during this challenging time when elderly persons may not be seeing their family, they maintain a well-balanced diet
It is important that even during this challenging time when elderly persons may not be seeing their family, they maintain a well-balanced diet

Worry over elderly persons

Porter said it was important even during this challenging time when elderly persons may not be seeing their family, that they maintain a well-balanced diet. “What’s happening right now, due to the current climate, is that some are not even meeting their relatives. This could be where they were getting their meals from, and in their cases, meals may have been brought to them. Now they may opt to eat just bread – and it’s one thing to eat bread once a day, it’s another when it’s your breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she said.

Porter said because of this there is a chance that some elderly people could be malnourished. “This could be the case, especially for nutrients, because they are not consuming a balanced meal. We also have a situation where because they may not be seeing family, children, grandchildren, they may be feeling down, and that can suppress appetite. In that case, supplementation may be required. However, in this age group, one should not just pop a pill without consultation because they may have other medical conditions.”

More in Health