The importance of vitamin D in supporting the immune system

Researchers from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) have released a crucial report which shines a light on the role of vitamin D and unveils shocking levels of deficiency in older people in Ireland. The team, based at Trinity College in Dublin, concluded that Vitamin D supplementation was necessary for those over the age of 50 and those currently shielding. They also highlighted a range of studies showing vitamin D plays a role in the prevention of respiratory infections, boosting the immune system response to infections and reducing the need for antibiotic use. 

The study, titled Vitamin D deficiency in Ireland – implications for COVID-19, used data from wave 1 of The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), which started back in 2009. This was a prospective study of 8,172 adults aged 50 years and older in Ireland living in the community – not in care homes or hospitals. The participants were personally interviewed and their answers on their socio-demographic status, physical, mental and behavioural health recorded. 72% of the participants consented to a health assessment and of those, 91% submitted a blood sample for vitamin D level assessment (5,382 people). 

The data revealed that of those aged 55+ years in the Republic of Ireland, 1 in 5 are vitamin D deficient during the winter and 1 in 12 during the summer. This rises to nearly 30% of those aged 70+ and 47% of those aged 85+. These are the age groups considered to be ‘extremely medically vulnerable’ to adverse health outcomes of COVID-19 and have been advised to participate in ‘cocooning’ (known as ‘shielding’ in the UK) during the pandemic.

The researchers also considered the findings of a range of medical studies into the role of Vitamin D in immune function and immune response to infection. One such study in 2017 carried out by Vanherwegen AS, Gysemans C, Mathieu looked at regulation of immune function by vitamin D and its use in diseases of immunity.

Principal Investigator of TILDA Rose Anne Kenny comments:

“We have evidence to support a role for Vitamin D in the prevention of chest infections, particularly in older adults who have low levels. In one study Vitamin D reduced the risk of chest infections to half in people who took supplements. Though we do not know specifically of the role of Vitamin D in COVID infections, given its wider implications for improving immune responses and clear evidence for bone and muscle health, those cocooning and other at-risk cohorts should ensure they have an adequate intake of Vitamin D.”

The researchers concluded that adults aged over 50 should take Vitamin D supplements, and not just in winter, but all year round if they don’t get enough sun.


Altruvita’s high quality Vitamin D supplement is from cholecalciferol and provides around 500% of the adult daily requirement for health.

Why is Vitamin D so important for our health?

sunlight

At a time when it’s crucial to have a healthy immune system, both to help prevent infections and support our body in recovering when we do get ill, we wanted to share some facts and important information with you about vitamin D. 

How do our bodies get vitamin D?

In humans, around 90% of the vitamin D we need is synthesised in the skin when we are exposed to sunlight and the other 10% is obtained from certain foods. The former is why it is sometimes referred to as the ‘sunshine vitamin’! The amount of vitamin D that we produce is influenced by the latitude we live at, the time of year it is, the time of day we tend to venture outside, whether we are wearing sunscreen and the natural pigmentation of our skin. 

For example, during the winter months in the UK (and anywhere else above the northerly latitude of 35 degrees) the UVB rays from the sun don’t penetrate all the way down to our skin, so we can’t make vitamin D. That’s why Public Health England recommends that all adults and children (over the age of 1) should take a vitamin D supplement throughout autumn and winter.

Why is vitamin D so important?

When our bodies get vitamin D (from either the skin’s exposure to sunlight or food) they turn it into a hormone called activated vitamin D or calciferol. This works to help to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphorus in our bodies for healthy bones, muscles and teeth. 

Did you know that even if you get plenty of calcium in your diet (from sources such as milk and leafy green vegetables), your body can’t absorb it unless you have enough vitamin D?  That means that a lack of vitamin D can lead to bone deformities such as rickets in children, and a bone condition called osteomalacia in adults. 

Activated vitamin D also contributes to the normal function of the immune system and the process of cell division. If you are keen to support your immune system function at this time, it’s worth considering if you are likely to be getting enough vitamin D. 

Who is at risk of vitamin D deficiency?

  • People who are unable to go out much during the daytime in those all-important spring and summer months, such as office workers, the housebound, and night shift or factory workers. 
  • People who cover most of their skin with clothing when they go outside, even during the warmer weather.
  • People over 65, because their skin is not as good at making vitamin D. 
  • Now that self-isolation and social distancing measures are part of our day-to-day life, we all need to keep an eye on the amount of sunlight we get.   

Which foods can we get Vitamin D from?

As mentioned above, the best source of vitamin D is when our bodies are exposed to sunlight and make it for us, but we can get a small amount by eating certain foods as well. 

The most common food sources of vitamin D include: 

  • Oily fish such as sardines, salmon, pilchards, trout, herring and kippers.
  • Eggs – mainly from the yolk, so be careful if you’re keen on egg white omelette! 
  • Red meat, though this will vary depending on what kind of meat and the time of year it is produced. 
  • Milk – again, it can depend on the time of year
  • Fortified products such as cereals, some dairy products and soy milk.

Altruvita’s high-strength vitamin D supplement

Along with vitamin C and selenium, vitamin D helps to support a healthy immune system, along with the other important roles it plays in our body. Shop Altruvita’s high-quality cholecalciferol vitamin D supplement here

How to support your immune system

There has never been a more important time to be proactive with our nutrition, with the aim of supporting the very best immune system defence.

Our immune systems play a role not only in fighting off infections, but also in promoting tissue repair to recovery. To function properly, our immune system requires plenty of both macro and micronutrients.

To help support your health over the next few months, we’ve put together a few diet and lifestyle pointers to keep you going in this worrying time.

Avoid strenuous exercise

Moderate-intensity exercise can be protective against illness by boosting the immune system, whereas high-intensity sessions actually compromise the immune system. Our immune system takes a hit for up to 72 hours following high-intensity training, making this a key time for susceptibility. This is especially important to note if you exercise in a class with others, where you’re more likely to pick up bacteria and viruses.

Let yourself sleep, rest and recover

Rest and recovery are key to prevent getting ill and further unwanted illness. If you’re always on the go with minimal rest, your immune system can be compromised long term. Poor sleep can affect the immune system and make you more susceptible to infection or illness. Sometimes it’s hard to stop, particularly when the future feels so uncertain, but don’t ever underestimate the importance of rest and relaxation! Run a hot bath, read a book, get a massage or listen to relaxing music every now and again.

Don’t drink excessive amounts of alcohol

Excessive chronic intake of alcohol can decrease the number of a few white blood cells types, which means that your immune system will not be as able to fight off any bugs. Keeping within the alcohol guidelines will help, which in the UK is currently set at 14 units per week. That’s 6 pints of beer or 6 glasses of wine if that’s your preferred tipple. If you do prefer to round off the week with a few drinks you could pick drinks with healthy, vitamin-packed mixers such as orange, tomato or pineapple juice.

It’s not the time to diet

If you are unlucky enough to pick up an infection, you will need plenty of energy to fight it off. That means that it might not be the wisest time to start a calorie reduced diet – unless of course you have a pressing health issue that means you need to lose weight urgently. Low intakes of carbohydrates such as bread, rice and potatoes, which end up as glucose in the blood, can be a contributing factor to impaired immunity.

Keep well hydrated

Unfortunately, being dehydrated can also contribute to a compromised immune system. Still at this time of year when there’s still a bit of a nip on the air, it’s easy to forget to drink. One of the front-line defences in our immune systems are the immune proteins in our saliva. When we’re dehydrated, the levels of these proteins decreases, meaning our initial defence to bugs entering through the mouth is also decreased. Make sure you don’t wait to feel thirsty before you drink up, carry a water bottle with you (everywhere!) and keep sipping throughout the day.

Taste the Rainbow

Fruit and vegetables contain a wide range of different micronutrients with varying roles within the body. Many of these nutrients are involved in immune function such as iron, vitamins C and D, selenium and zinc. Anyone with even mild deficiencies in any of these micronutrients can have an altered immune response.

The easiest way to ensure you’re getting enough micronutrients and other phytochemicals is to consume a wide variety of different fruit and vegetables. Taste the rainbow- choose different coloured and textured fruit and veg every single day!

Vitamin Supplements

Vitamin C, vitamin D and selenium all help to support a healthy immune system. Not everyone can eat enough to get these micronutrients (or get enough sun in a UK winter), so consider taking a food supplement if you are lacking some antioxidant or immune protection. Contrary to popular belief, huge doses of vitamin C are not required in winter. At doses of say 400-500mg a day, the excess vitamin C is simply excreted in urine, making it literally money down the toilet!

In summary: consume enough antioxidants to support your immune system, sleep well, drink plenty (but not too many drinks of the alcoholic kind), avoid strenuous activity and wash your hands before eating to stay well.

Answering the 3 most common vegan nutrition questions

Both in the UK and across the Western world veganism is rapidly growing in popularity.  The number of people who signed up to take part in ‘veganuary’ between from 2014 to this January is an excellent demonstration of just how quickly dipping a toe in veganism is gaining in popularity:

2014 – 3,300

2015 – 12,800

2016 – 23,000

2017 – 59,500

2018 – 168,500

2019 – 250,000

2020 – 400,000

Even if you’re only trying out veganism for a short time, it’s still important to ensure you are getting a balanced diet. We sat down with Altruvita’s nutrition team to talk about the 3 questions about vegan nutrition that they get asked most often and make sure you have all the answers you need.

Can I get enough protein in my diet if I am a vegan?

Of the eight essential amino acids our body needs, two – lysine and methionine – are given special attention in vegetarian and vegan diets. This is because, compared with foods of animal origin like eggs, milk and cheese, various plants have an imbalance of either lysine or methionine. This includes cereals, such as wheat, oats and rice, and legumes; beans, peas and lentils.  Wheat and rice proteins are comparatively low in lysine but better sources of methionine whereas beans and peas are relatively high in lysine yet in lower methionine. This has naturally led to the idea of cereals and legumes as ‘complementary’ proteins. In practice this means that meals that combine for example rice with beans or hummus with bread will provide a biologically ‘complete’ protein intake.   

As the body does not readily store amino acids try to combine ‘complementary proteins’ at each meal as it has some advantages and seems a sensible way to approach a varied and complete diet. It doesn’t matter if you can’t do this for every single meal you consume, however.

I’ve heard vitamin B12 is important – how do I ensure I’m getting enough B12? 

Vitamin B12 plays an important role in brain and heart health, nerve cells and red blood cell function. The most bioavailable form of B12 is unique to animal sources, with top sources including shellfish, lamb and beef. You may have good bodily stores of B12 when you begin a vegan diet which can keep you going for several months before they drop, and you start to notice symptoms like tiredness, brain fog, and poor memory. Vegans need to ensure they are consuming reliable sources of vitamin B-12, such as fortified foods or B12 supplements to keep adequate body stores and blood levels. 

Beware! Spirulina and other edible cyanobacteria (commonly called blue-green algae) contain a poorly bioavailable B12 which isn’t converted to B12 in humans.  We can’t absorb it, so consider using a B12 supplement if you plan to be wholly plant-based for more than a few months.

Can my dog become vegan too?

Dogs, like most canines, are naturally omnivores which means they eat both meat and plant-based foods. Some people who choose a vegan diet want to feed their pet one too. The reasons for feeding your dog a vegan diet might include the welfare of farmed animals being killed to feed our pets, as well as health, animal testing and the impact of meat on the environment. With a balanced variation in plant products, dogs can get all the nutrients they require from plants.

Pet food manufacturers have the option to declare ingredients by using ‘meat and animal derivatives’, which could include animals you don’t find acceptable, such as horses and body parts such as sheep intestines and rabbit ears. Parts of animals which are surplus to human consumption or are not normally consumed by people in the UK are classified as ‘animal by-products’.

There are now a number of vegan approved pet food brands certified by the Vegetarian society. 

Be aware of feeding fruit and vegetables known to be toxic to dogs.

For more vegan nutrition advice, why not take a look at our blog, Weighing up Veganuary?

A startling fact about British wintertime and vitamin D…

Do you feel a little gloomy and run down in the winter? It might interest you to know that the lack of sunshine during those colder months of the year doesn’t just impact our mood, it actually can impact on our physical health too. Direct sunlight acting on the skin provides the majority of our vitamin D requirement, so when there’s less sun, we make less of this essential nutrient.  

The link between certain health problems and a Vitamin D deficiency has been noted through comparisons between regions with relatively low levels of sunlight, and those that enjoy more hours of sunshine. Incidence of various cancers, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease have all been linked to low exposure to sunlight and a reduction in the potential of vitamin D production.

You might be deficient in vitamin D if you cover your skin, or if you spend the daylight hours indoors. For individuals living above the north latitude of 35 degrees (which is all of the United Kingdom!), the sun cannot not reach the necessary angle for UVB penetration for all of the winter months. That means that for UK residents there is no opportunity for winter vitamin D production, unless you head to warmer climes for a holiday! 

Vitamin D levels are also strongly linked to mental illness, with a Swedish study showing 58 percent of people who had attempted suicide were vitamin D deficient. They concluded that testing vitamin D levels in mental health care is of vital importance.

Thankfully, vitamin D can also be consumed through dietary sources! There are certain foods that are very rich in vitamin D. Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and tuna are not only excellent sources of vitamin D, they also contain omega-3 fats that deliver benefits to the cardiovascular system. Among the other foods that can boost your daily vitamin D intake are fortified milk, mushrooms, egg yolks, liver and fortified breakfast cereals. 

Sunlight is our main provider of vitamin D, so over the winter months especially, vitamin D supplementation is recommended for adults and children in the UK.

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Tiny particulates from emissions are causing diabetes

It has been suggested for some time that PM2·5 (the smallest type of particulates found in emissions which go unfiltered into the lungs) are associated with increased risk of diabetes; however, nobody really knew how big the effect was. 

To really dig down on what was happening, last year scientists took a group of 1,729,108 US veterans and followed them to see what happened over an 8.5-year period, taking note of the all the fine details, where they live and PM2.5 levels. 

Diabetes was recorded by using the International Classification of Diseases-9 code, diabetes medication prescription or abnormal blood glucose level tests.

A 10 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre) increase in PM2·5 was associated with increased risk of diabetes and exposure to PM2·5 was associated with increased risk of death. An integrated exposure response function showed that the risk of diabetes increased substantially above 2·4 μg/m3, and then exhibited a more moderate increase at concentrations above 10 μg/m3.

Globally, ambient PM2·5 contributed to about 3.2million incident cases of diabetes, about 8.2million disability adjusted life year (DALYs) caused by diabetes, and 206,105 deaths from diabetes attributable to PM2·5 exposure, especially in low-income and lower-to-middle-income countries.

Importantly, the study shows that substantial risk exists at concentrations well below those outlined in the air quality standards of WHO and national and international regulatory agencies, meaning targets need to tighten even further.

The biological mechanism underpinning the association is based on the premise that pollutants enter the bloodstream where they might interact with tissue components to produce pathological effects. This mechanism is now supported by evidence both in experimental models and humans that inhaled nanoparticles, which when sufficiently small can enter the bloodstream and interact with distant organs—including liver tissue—and exhibit affinity to accumulate at sites of blood vessel (vascular) inflammation.

Both research studies and human evidence suggest that exposure to ambient air pollutants can lead to clinically significant disturbances in oxidative stress, inflammation, cell division and broad metabolic derangements in glucose and insulin homoeostasis. This includes glucose intolerance, decreased insulin sensitivity and impaired secretion, and increased blood lipid concentrations, thus providing biological mechanistic plausibility to the association of PM2·5 exposure and the risk of diabetes.

The global burden of diabetes attributable to PM2·5 air pollution is significant. Reduction in exposure will yield substantial health benefits, but protecting the body from not only breathing particles in, but also providing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents must also become a focus until things that contribute to emissions, such as diesel fuels, are faded out.

Altruvita’s Air Pollution Formula is designed to provide natural support in a polluted world, click here to learn more about this food supplement.

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Living in a polluted area is as bad for your health as smoking 150 cigarettes a year

Living or working in the UK’s most polluted cities and towns increases the risk of an early death by the equivalent of smoking three cigarettes a week, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has warned today.

The BHF has called for air pollution to be declared “a public health emergency” following the starling results of a research project funded by the charity. The study in question found that breathing in the particulate matter found in polluted air is a serious risk factor for diseases effecting the circulatory system.

Around 11,000 coronary heart disease and stroke deaths each year in the UK are caused by particulate matter air pollution. It can also worsen existing health problems such as respiratory illnesses, but in truth it effects every part of our body.

It’s the PM2.5 – the smallest of the particulate matter found in vehicle emissions – that are of most concern, as these cannot be filtered out of the air we breathe by our nostrils or the tube going down into the lungs.

The BHF analysis shows that the Chelsea, Newham, Westminster, Kensington and Islington areas of London are worst hit by air pollution – the equivalent to smoking more than 150 cigarettes a year on average. Those in Waltham Forest, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Barking and Dagenham, Lambeth and Southwark in London are also badly affected, as are people in Slough, Dartford, Gravesham, Thurrock, Portsmouth, Medway and Luton,

The results of studies such as these have led to an increase in demands that the next government should urgently introduce the much tougher World Health Organisation (WHO) air pollution limits in place of EU limits. the current EU limits – which the UK comfortably meets – for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are 25 micrograms per metre cubed as an annual average. The WHO limits are much tougher – at 10 micrograms per metre cubed as an annual average. The potential health benefits of lowering these levels would allow everyone to live healthier lives for longer.

it’s not all doom and gloom – we’ve recently written about how dietary components can help play a role in combatting the effects of air pollution, which you can read about here. Altruvita’s medical and nutritionist team has also developed Air Pollution Formula, the very first food supplement of its kind and designed to provide natural support in a polluted world.

There are many ways you can try to limit your exposure to both indoor and outdoor air pollution, and to help you out we’ve gathered them together in our insightful Air Pollution Survival Guide. Download your FREE copy here.

Suffering from stiff and creaky joints?

Stiffness and aching joints are often associated with winter, in particular the dropping temperatures and increase in wet weather. The exact science behind why colder weather increases joint pain is still slightly unclear, but there’s plenty of evidence to show levels of discomfort rise when it’s cooler. For those living with arthritis or stiff, aging joints it’s worth exploring natural support to get through the winter in comfort. Introducing turmeric, a vibrant yellow spice that could be a secret weapon in the battle against join stiffness and pain. 

Turmeric has traditionally been used in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine to treat arthritis. Curcuminoids within turmeric are collectively called ‘curcumin’ and we are confident in the science which shows that curcumin blocks inflammatory cytokines and enzymes, including cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), in the same way as the common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) painkiller ibuprofen. A study on knee osteoarthritis patients compared the ability of curcumin and another NSAID called diclofenac to inhibit cyclo-oxygenase 2.Both the groups showed significantly reduced cyclo-oxygenase 2 secretions, meaning inflammation levels were lower after the use of a painkiller, but also after the use of curcumin.

Several recent studies show that turmeric/curcumin has noticeable anti-inflammatory properties and it also modifies immune system responses related to arthritis.  A 2006 study showed turmeric was more effective at preventing joint inflammation than reducing joint inflammation. However, a 2010 clinical trial found that a turmeric supplement provided long-term improvement in pain and function in 100 patients with knee osteoarthritis.

One study compared the effects of ibuprofen (2 × 400 mg/day) with those of curcumin (4 × 500 mg/day) in patients who were over 50 years of age, had severe knee pain and their radiography showed the presence of osteophytes. Both the groups showed improvements in all assessments but the curcumin group was statistically better in patient satisfaction, timed walk or stair climbing and pain during walking or stair climbing. 

A pilot clinical study evaluated the safety and effectiveness of curcumin alone, and in combination with diclofenac sodium in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis. Forty-five patients diagnosed with RA were randomized into three groups with patients receiving curcumin (500 mg) and diclofenac sodium, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). (50 mg) alone or their combination. The curcumin product reduced joint pain and swelling in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis better than diclofenac. More importantly, curcumin treatment was found to be safe and did not relate with any adverse events.

Another study evaluated the comparative efficacy of two different doses of curcumin with that of a placebo in active rheumatoid arthritis patients. Twelve patients in each group received placebo, 250 or 500 mg of the curcumin product twice daily for 90 days. Patients who received the curcumin product at both low and high doses reported statistically significant changes in their clinical symptoms at the end of the study. These reported changes were backed up by changes seen in patients’ blood tests. 

Curcumin+ is a powerful anti-inflammatory*, antioxidant* formula that helps support inflammatory issues for optimum wellness. It helps protect and support joint comfort and flexibility*.

* EFSA ARTICLE 13.1 BOTANICALS ON HOLD LIST.

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Air pollution- At what cost?

Let’s face it, there are no winners when it comes to air pollution. Plants, animals and humans all absorb it one way or another.

If you have ever experienced true smog or breathed in the dirty exhaust fumes when an old car drives past, you’ll know that pollution irritates the parts of your body that comes into contact with it – your chest (lungs), skin and eyes. Wheezing, ageing and itchy skin and sore eyes are really common symptoms of exposure to air pollution. The latest research also shows that much more life-threatening medical changes can happen too.

A team at King’s College London published data from 9 UK cities – London, Birmingham, Bristol, Derby, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford and Southampton. They found that high air pollution levels in those cities trigger hundreds more heart attacks, strokes and acute asthma attacks each year.

From ambulance call data, they calculated that the days with above average pollution levels would see an extra 124 cardiac arrests over the year. On days with high pollution levels, across the nine cities in total, they calculated that there would be a total of 231 additional hospital admissions for stroke, with an extra 193 children and adults taken to hospital for asthma treatment.

In London, high-pollution days would see an extra 87 heart attacks per year and an extra 144 strokes. 74 children and 33 adults would end up in hospital with asthma-related issues.

Among the long-term risks associated with high pollution levels are stunted lung growth and low birth weight.

The King’s College research also suggests cutting air pollution by a fifth, which is more than attainable over a short period, would decrease incidents of lung cancer by between 5% and 7% across the nine cities surveyed.

None of this should be a huge shock, after all we are breathing in toxic chemicals and particulates and of course air pollution costs lives and causes a range of illnesses, thus impacting more on the financial constraints of the health service.

The UK hosted an international clean air summit earlier in the month with the aim of exploring ways to improve air quality. Along with cleaning up the air in our environment, it may also be possible to support your health with a range of actions and a food supplement which contains ingredients proven to work against pollution. Read our Air Pollution Survival Guide to find out more.

Particular Particulates

A study just published today the 22th August, tells a tale of how our health is being affected by pollution, in particular particulates.

Teams from across the globe recorded their daily data on mortality (number of deaths) and their air pollution levels. Teams were located in 652 cities in 24 countries or regions.

Although there are dangers known for outdoor air pollutants; sulphur dioxide, ozone and nitrogen dioxide etc, this study was just looking at very small particles. They evaluated the associations of inhalable particulate matter (PM) with a diameter of 10 μm or less (PM10) and fine PM with a diameter of 2.5 μm or less (PM2.5) with daily all-cause, cardiovascular, and respiratory mortality. In other words, they measured the particles in the air on every day and recorded number of deaths on that day.

They found that increases short-term exposure to PM10 and PM2.5 led to small but significant increases in all causes of deaths, and cardiovascular eg heart attack, and respiratory mortality eg asthma attack.

These are just 2 types of pollutants, adding in data from all pollutants lead to further deaths.

It’s a stark reminder that pollution levels need to fall to improve global health.

Liu C, et al. Ambient Particulate Air Pollution and Daily Mortality in 652 Cities. N Engl J Med. 2019 Aug 22;381(8):705-715. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1817364.

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