A runny nose, a slight tickle in your throat- those early signs of getting sick might have you doubling down on your vitamin C, a ‘cold remedy’ that’s been around since scurvy-ridden pirates figured out that eating citrus fruits helped them recover quicker. Fast forward to 2022, pirates have since ditched their scurvy (and their peg legs), and another vitamin has stepped into the limelight: zinc.
Vitamin C and Zinc are two essential nutrients that are often saluted as the holy grail of immune health, but when you’re all sniffles and chills, do you ever wonder if increasing your intake is actually helping you recover? Are you better off taking just one or maybe, both?
Here, we get into the benefits of both, and how they each support your immune system.
First, what is vitamin C?
It’s an essential vitamin that your body can’t make on its own so it must be obtained from the food you eat. And because vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin and not stored in your body – it needs to be replenished regularly. Luckily, it’s easily absorbed by your tissues, so eating just one kiwi or one handful of strawberries for example, will give your body its daily needs.
Mega-doses: Is more better?
The short answer: No. More is not necessarily better. To net all the benefits of vitamin C, consistency is more effective than mega doses. So, it’s best to regularly include citrus fruits, OJ or supplements in your daily routine.
Vitamin C and immunity
When it comes to your immune response, vitamin C is undoubtedly a key player and offers multiple layers of support.
First, It’s a vitamin that’s also an antioxidant that fiercely fights free radicals, which are harmful molecules that can damage cells when they start to build up.
Vitamin C also helps strengthen your body’s first line of defense – the physical barrier, which includes your skin, hair and mucus. A healthy physical barrier helps protect your body from toxic compounds or harmful pathogens from entering your body. (Washing your hands helps too!)
But what happens if germs break through this physical barrier? Don’t worry. Vitamin C has your back then too. It supports both your innate and adaptive immunity. If you’re not familiar with these, here’s the gist: Innate is the natural defense system you’re born with – your body will use any method to destroy what doesn’t belong in your body to protect you. Adaptive immunity is learned immunity. Any time your body fights a harmful invader, your immune system keeps records about the best way to defeat it, in case it encounters it again. A reason you don’t get some illnesses twice in your life.
So how does it help innate and adaptive immunity? Vitamin C plays a role in creating, managing and functioning of different types of your white blood cells (WBC), specifically lymphocytes and phagocytes that help patrol and protect your body against infection and illness.1
Foods rich in vitamin C
- red bell peppers
- brussels sprouts
Next, what is zinc?
Zinc is an essential mineral that’s found pretty much everywhere throughout your body. It does things like help you smell and taste, aids in wound healing and helps your immune system to run properly. And like vitamin C, it’s an essential nutrient, meaning it’s not naturally formed in your body so needs to be attained through diet or supplementation. Luckily, it’s easily found in food and you only need a small amount to reap all its benefits, but it’s always recommended to check with your healthcare provider to ensure you’re getting enough – especially since it’s so crucial to your immune health.
Zinc and immunity
Similar to vitamin C, zinc is also a rich source of antioxidants that helps stabilize free radicals and defend cells from weakening and becoming vulnerable to harmful pathogens.
And it also plays a critical role in your three layers of immunity by aiding the health of the lining and cells in your skin, making your physical barrier more resistant to invasion. It also aids with innate and adaptive immunity, by helping with proper functioning of your immune system by activating T-cells, which are WBC that help regulate your immune response by attacking foreign invaders.2
Pro Tip: If you walk down the remedy-aisle in search for zinc supplementation, you’ll probably find different forms, like zinc gluconate, zinc picolinate, zinc carnosine among others. Your best bet: zinc gluconate, which when taken in a lozenge form, is believed to shorten the duration of some illnesses like common cold according to research.3
Foods rich in zinc
- red meat
- pumpkin seeds
- whole grains
Both vitamin C and zinc are incredibly important for your immune health, and even though both nutrients support all three layers of your immunity, they each play their own critical part. And while drinking a gallon of OJ or eating a dozen oysters won’t necessarily prevent or fix the common cold – making sure you’re regularly meeting the recommended doses for both nutrients can support a strong and effective immune response.
Gabby is a nutritionist with a master’s degree in strategic communications. She loves using her nutrition-fluency with storytelling to encourage positive change. Before Persona, she worked at a mental health clinic helping clients manage stress, anxiety and other mental health issues through diet.