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Respiratory system health is something that is top of mind for people in these changing times and more than ever we are looking for ways to support our respiratory health and our own  natural immune defences.

Our body is equipped with many natural barriers and systems for swift immune responses to keep us safe in the world we live in. These are found throughout the body, but our first line of defence is in our respiratory system. Our respiratory system includes our nasal passages, our mouth, throat and our lungs. Since the nose and mouth are the entry points for everything breathed in from our environment there are many layers of immune defence to keep us safe and well.

Physical barriers for protection

The inner surfaces of our airways including our nasal passages, throat and lungs, are lined with small hairs called cilia. These are designed to sweep away inhaled dirt, debris and bugs, so they are cleared out of the airways. These same passages have cells that produce a sticky mucous that works like fly paper to trap and immobilise bugs. Their mucosal secretions also contain natural antimicrobial substances that help protect our body naturally.

Supporting our respiratory defences


Zinc is one mineral that can be found on all mucosal surfaces and supports our natural defences, so making sure we’re eating foods that are nutrient dense in zinc is important to support good immune health. Foods rich in zinc include seeds, legumes, nuts, mushrooms, green leafy vegetable, seafood and fish, sea vegetables like kelp and spirulina, eggs and animal protein.

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Manuka honey

Manuka honey has powerful immune-supporting properties that have been shown to support our natural healing capacity. Add honey and lemon to warm water for a soothing and healthy drink for a sore throat. Clinicians Nasal sprays for  adults and kids both contain New Zealand Manuka Honey MGO 100+.

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Border patrol for easy breathing

As well as having physical barriers there are other protective measures in place to support our own natural defences. All the mucosal surfaces of the respiratory system have immune cells that are on constant watch for suspicious inhaled substances, very much like our own border patrol. If anything is detected these cells have the ability to activate many systems in the body that help protect us naturally. For example, they increase mucous production to try and trap any bugs, which is why we have more mucous when we are unwell. They also send out message to the body asking for reinforcements, which bring extra immune cell helpers to the area to defend our airways.

What can we do to support these defence mechanisms?

Stay hydrated

Producing extra mucous requires plenty of fluid, so make sure you have your 8 glasses a day to stay well or have extra fluids if you are feeling unwell. Water and  herbal teas are a nourishing choice.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is an important nutrient for the airways in many ways. It supports healthy tissues in the airways and mucous membrane tone. It is also used by the body in the creation of our immune cells and actually forms part of these cells. This means Vitamin C levels can deplete quickly when we are unwell. It is also the number one vitamin to support our lungs as it is found in the lung fluids providing antioxidant support. Support airway health all year round by consuming fruit and vegetables rich in Vitamin C. Kiwifruit, berries, citrus fruit, capsicum, kale and other green leafy vegetables are all rich sources, and most fruit and veg have a Vitamin C content.

To support the absorption of Vitamin C, make sure you’re consuming bioflavonoids - antioxidant rich nutrients - found alongside Vitamin C in nature. Bioflavonoids are often found in areas like the pith of citrus fruit (the stringy white part between the peel and the fruit), so make sure you don’t just peel all this off and throw it away.

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Vitamin A

Vitamin A is another vitamin that airways can’t do without. It is needed for the development of airway tissues and helps keep the mucous membranes healthy. It also supports a healthy immune response and Vitamin A deficiency has been associated with lowered immune health. Vitamin A is easily obtained from many foods such as eggs, butter, liver and oily fish. Plant based eaters can obtain Vitamin A by eating fruit and vegetables rich in carotenoids. This is then converted in the body to Vitamin A. Rich sources include many orange-coloured foods such as carrot, pumpkins, kumara, mangos, apricots and peaches.

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The gut and respiratory connection

Our digestive system seems a world away from respiratory health, but research is finding growing connections between the two systems. We have looked at how the immune alert system in our border control functions and how it brings immune cells into the area. However, it seems messages are sent further afield to the digestive system via enzymes called lysozymes. These enzymes break up our good bacteria in the gut and the broken bacteria fragments are sent out through the body. They signal that our respiratory system may be under attack and our body responds by mobilising all immune defence in the lung and respiratory system. A fast immune response to “nip things in the bud” is all important for maintaining our respiratory health.

How to help our gut protect our airways

Your microbiome matters

A healthy microbiome with lots of beneficial bacteria is important for signalling our immune system; especially our lactobacillus bacteria.  Prebiotics are essential foods to grow a healthy flourishing and diverse gut flora. Fibre is a great source of prebiotics and is available from all fruit and vegetables. Having a good variety of colours and types of fresh fruit and vegetables is the key. Other good sources of prebiotics are found in seeds such as flax and chianuts and grains like oats and barley. Fermented foods are a way to introduce plant-based bacteria and also feed our own bugs. Increase fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkrautkombucha and kefir.

Supporting optimal gut-immune signalling is helpful for our natural immune response.  Lysated probiotics are available and are the piece of broken probiotics used to signal the body. They are a non-living probiotic, but work in the same way as our natural lysosome system. Another plant based support are Beta glucans are sugars that are found in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae and plants, such as oats and barley. When consumed they are broken down by the digestive cells and support a healthy immune response. This is why many studies on beta glucans look at how they support respiratory health. 

When we look at all the wonderful layers of security our respiratory system has, and how our immune system responds to support it when needed, we can perhaps breathe a little easier. By supporting these in-built systems with a healthy nutrient rich diet, stress balance and regular exercise we have the tools to support respiratory wellbeing.

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Always read the label and use as directed. If symptoms persist see your healthcare professional.

Clinicians (Douglas), Auckland

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