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Whether it’s flu season, a summer common cold, or that pesky cough that just won’t go away, you’ve likely found yourself asking how to boost the immune system. However, your immune system affects much more than your ability to fight infection.
Did you know that your immune function affects digestion, sleep, and even your mood?
There are many factors that can negatively impact our immune response, like stress, depression, lack of sleep, and smoking. Beyond addressing these, how can we add positive foods and supplements to our routine to give our immune system the essential nutrients it deserves?
In this article, we’ll dive into how your immune system responds, the best foods you can eat to support it, and what immune-boosting supplements it needs for optimal health.
Our Immune System Response in 3 Parts
A healthy immune system is wired to respond to harmful agents in the environment and within the body. We need this system’s response to survive day-to-day, or we’d die of illness immediately.
Different groups of immune cells within the body work seamlessly to combat germs and harmful reactions. Unfortunately, when this system is out of alignment, our whole body can immediately begin to suffer.
The immune system is in charge of responding to health threats on three different levels.
- First, it is responsible for responding to pathogens (harmful bacteria, fungi, viruses, or parasites) and removing them from our bodies.
- Second, the immune response scouts out and eliminates harmful substances we’ve picked up from our environment.
- And finally, our immune systems protect us against our own cells that have “gone rogue,” like in the case of tumors.
Our immune system is an amazing and comprehensive feature within our bodies. So, what could cause us to get sick, and what sorts of pathogens, or germs, could slip past this barrier? To understand this, we must first study what makes up our immune system and the types of reactions for which it is responsible.
White Blood Cells
White blood cells, or leukocytes, circulate through the bloodstream and the lymphatic system. You can find these pathogen punishers stored in the spleen, thymus, bone marrow, and lymph nodes.
When patrolling white blood cells find an invading pathogen or problem, it’s time to fight the infection. They immediately begin multiplying and send out signals to other response cells to do the same.
There are actually two subcategories of these white blood cells: phagocytes and lymphocytes. Phagocytes have the job of swallowing up pathogens by surrounding and absorbing them. They also perform secondary duties like healing wounds and removing cells that are dead or dying.
Lymphocytes produce antibodies that help the body remember diseases it has previously fought off. These lymphocytes come in two major forms: B cells and T cells. T cells also destroy the body’s cells that have been compromised and signal to other leukocytes when they find a problem. B cells produce antibodies and communicate any problems to the T cells.
Our body has an innate, or built-in immunity to pathogens. This response relies on everyday functions that many people take for granted.
The mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, and mouth, or the skin that keeps us from being exposed to airborne germ attacks. Also, your tears, sweat, and even tiny hairs in your lungs keep germs from making themselves at home in the body.
If our external responses let a pathogen through, our body has another line of defense. The body will send phagocytes and inflammatory cells, creating a swelling response, raised temperature, and sometimes even fever. This innate response by the immune cells is built to flush out and kill the invading germs.
Our adaptive response is our body’s amazing memory bank of pathogens. This adaptive response is also what vaccines like the flu shot use in order to keep us healthy. When we are exposed to a new germ, whether naturally or in a weakened form like a vaccine, our body remembers how to fight it long after it’s gone.
Our adaptive response can also be called our acquired response because we gain these responses through experience. We “adapt” to combat a new infection or germ, and can easily eliminate it the next time around. Thanks to our adaptive response and its library of past experience, the immune system never forgets a former foe.
8 Foods That Boost the Immune System
It is evident that our immune system is a multi-faceted and crucial part of our daily life. At this point, you’re probably wondering what foods you can eat to support a strong immune system. Here’s our list of natural foods that will not only give your immune system a boost, but improve your overall health.
1. Bell Peppers
Perhaps you’ve been told that a glass of orange juice will keep you well when you start coming down with something. Well, science has shown that there’s an even better remedy. Organic, raw red bell peppers pack a tremendous punch, containing 190 milligrams of vitamin C per cup. That’s over four times the amount found in an orange!
A team of researchers called organic raw red peppers “one of the best sources” of antioxidants, vitamin C, and other compounds that serve the immune system. The best news is that they’re an easy, quick snack!
Just wash and eat, or try them dipped in hummus or as part of a veggie tray. Next time you feel a tickle in your throat, reach for these bell peppers and help your body fight back.
Beets can help your body in a multitude of ways, from helping the liver detoxify to reducing chronic inflammation. To be clear, this isn’t the helpful inflammation your immune system uses to fight germs, but a harmful, long-term reaction.
When we ingest too many processed foods and sugars, we consistently inflame certain systems. This can pull the immune system in far too many directions and distract it from fighting pathogens.
If you haven’t heard, beets aren’t boring! There are many ways to eat beets, including fermented beets to further boost the immune system. You can even enjoy beets in a superfood smoothie or in these other creative beet recipes.
3. Citrus Fruits
Citrus fruits are an excellent source of vitamin C. They also contain flavonoids, antioxidants that help the immune system in the digestive tract. In recent years, however, we’ve learned they have even more to offer us. Citrus fruits also significantly aid in iron absorption, which also boosts immune system function.
In terms of which fruits to eat, we recommend grapefruits, oranges, lemons, and limes for their high nutrient content. In fact, even their peels are full of immune-boosting antioxidants. So, don’t be afraid to sprinkle some citrus peel zest into your recipes as well.
4. Kale and Other Leafy Greens
Eating more fruits and veggies with vitamin C may lower your chances of heart disease, stroke, and even cancer. Kale and other leafy greens are no exception, and also contain excellent anti-inflammatory properties. These are also an incredible source of folate.
Folate deficiency can drastically affect antibody production, and T cells have less effective responses. Staying stocked up on leafy greens can help with vitamin C intake, lower inflammation, and keep your folate levels optimal.
5. Shiitake Mushrooms
While most mushrooms have a positive immunological effect, shiitake mushrooms are likely the most impactful. Shiitake mushrooms contain high levels of zinc, a crucial nutrient for fighting inflammatory and infectious diseases. Zinc also regulates how adaptive and innate immune system cells signal to each other.
Without a proper level of zinc, the communication between leukocytes and the body’s ability to fight off disease would be compromised. Throw some mushrooms into your next salad, stir-fry, or sub sandwich for a boost of zinc. Your immune system response will thank you.
Fennel is a great source of selenium, and it’s a fun flavoring you may not have tried in the kitchen. While fennel pairs well with salmon, roasted with parmesan or shaved into a salad, it’s best combination is with the immune system. The selenium it contains is a powerful antioxidant that aids cells in both the innate and adaptive immune system.
Most American adults don’t get enough selenium in their diet, so adding in fennel may be an excellent solution. It’s important to note, though, that this refers to the vegetable, not the dried seeds. The seeds don’t contain the same beneficial selenium levels.
Not only is garlic a popular and delicious seasoning, but you can now mark it down as an answer for how to boost your immune system. Garlic has formidable antifungal and antibacterial properties on its own, helping your immune system fight off pathogens.
It’s also been shown to lower blood pressure. If that weren’t enough, it also strengthens your natural immune system functions
Garlic can contribute to treating diseases like obesity, ulcers, and cancer. It also stimulates immune cells. Finally, it can help stabilize and regular the immune system itself, including regulating leukocyte production.
Garlic goes well in most cuisines from across the world and can be found in many recipes. Using fresh garlic is always recommended.
8. Green Tea
Technically, green tea isn’t a “food,” but the amazing health benefits it provides are too good to ignore.
Green tea is packed with polyphenols, which assist the immune system in a variety of ways. Polyphenols aid the genes involved in regulating the immune system, boost our immunity to tumors, and help our intestines fight pathogens. What’s more, polyphenols can even help traditional medicines fight bad bacteria.
With all of these incredible properties, we recommend up to six glasses of green tea daily. Stir in some honey and lemon, and you’ve got a delicious answer to how to boost the immune system. One note: avoid adding milk, which will bind to the polyphenols and take away green tea’s benefits.
Not looking to add several glasses of tea to your day? Green tea extract, which you can take in supplement form, is a great alternative.
8 Supplements to Strengthen Your Immune System
While a multivitamin is a great place to start, there are many supplements that can strengthen your immune system beyond a traditional vitamin regimen. These supplements of vitamins and minerals may be more important than you think– nutrient deficiencies are extremely common both in the U.S.A. and across the world.
Consider adding these supplements, alongside the recommended diet changes above, for a well-rounded disease defense.
1. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is an incredible supplement that has been shown to help regenerate white blood cells, specifically T cells. Supplementation is particularly important in the case of Vitamin C because the human body doesn’t naturally produce or store it. Therefore, a daily supplement of vitamin C can be extremely helpful when boosting the immune system.
We learned earlier about how crucial leukocytes, or white blood cells, are needed to defeat pathogens inside the body. Without vitamin C, your body may struggle to replenish its low white blood cell count after fighting off an infection. Supplementing with vitamin C may shorten recovery time in colds and other illnesses, getting you back to health again in no time.
2. Vitamin D
Most adults don’t get enough vitamin D, which is produced by our bodies in sunlight. For many, office jobs have prevented us from synthesizing the full amount we need. The effects of this deficiency can be harsh: our body uses vitamin D to fight off disease, and it helps our innate immune response to bad bacteria.
Vitamin D is fat-soluble, so taking it alongside a meal with healthy fats is the best option. Unfortunately, not many foods naturally contain adequate levels of this vitamin, so a liquid or capsule supplement is likely needed.
Want to get vitamin D in a form even easier than a supplement? Stand outside when the sun is highest in the sky for 10-30 minutes without sunscreen (depending on your propensity to sunburn).
Probiotics are almost unbelievably effective in answering how to boost your immune system. A good gut microbiome can help to correct T cell deficiencies and aid in addressing allergies, eczema, viral infections, and responding to vaccinations. If that weren’t enough, they also enhance our immune responses on several levels and protects our immune system’s response during stress.
What a resume! Even better, there are multiple ways to get probiotics in your diet. You can take probiotic pills, but preferably, try naturally occurring probiotic foods.
These include kombucha, sauerkraut, yogurts with live cultures, kefir, kimchi, fermented beets, and more. These incredible bacteria that can even help prevent the common cold, so be sure to supplement with them regularly.
4. Elderberry Syrup
Long used in home remedies, the amazing benefits of elderberries are being recognized by the medical community.
One study found that participants taking elderberry syrup had their flu symptoms four days less than other patients, perhaps due to its antiviral properties. Another study found that air travelers who caught a cold were sick for a shorter time if they took elderberry syrup.
Taking elderberry syrup can positively impact your respiratory tract, not to mention shortening the length of any infections (including respiratory infections). While you may not use it year-round, stocking up on this syrup during flu season or once you’ve been infected is a great idea on how to boost the immune system as you heal.
5. Vitamin A
Vitamin A, sometimes called beta-carotene, is another supplement that’s vital for optimal immune health, improving the body’s response to several infectious diseases.
A great vitamin A supplement can have excellent effects on the immune system but don’t overdo it. Overdosing with this vitamin may actually cause your adaptive response to forget previous illnesses it’s fought off, so it’s a great idea to get most of your vitamin A from food sources.
6. Vitamin E
In studies, researchers have found that adding vitamin E to the diet can enhance the immune system. This powerful antioxidant assists the body in fighting off infections and tumors, strengthens T cell production, and counteracts our bodies’ decreased immunity as we grow older.
In fact, as we age, this vitamin becomes more important than ever.
In recent years, turmeric has exploded into the health world scene thanks to its active ingredient, curcumin. This compound has the capability to help the immune system fight off infected cells while sparing healthy ones.
It also reduces inflammation and contains antibacterial and antioxidant properties! Turmeric capsules are widely available and are a great idea to supplement your immune responses.
8. Vitamin B6
Vitamin B6 supports reactions inside the immune system. This vitamin helps white blood cells develop properly, and can prevent a weakened immune system as we age. It also is an effective agent in fighting disease and tumors. Be sure that your vitamin B supplement includes a good dose of B6.
Talk to a Doctor
Hopefully, this article has given you some new ideas on how to boost your immune system, but please proceed carefully. Before adding any supplements or drastically changing your diet, talk with your health care provider. They can advise you on the appropriate dosage of supplements and give appropriate medical advice on any conflicts with current medications.
- There are many lifestyle choices that can lead to a healthier immune system, like quitting smoking, getting enough sleep, and limiting stress when possible. However, a healthy immune system may need more.
- Many foods like bell peppers, garlic, and beets can be added into the diet for incredible health results.
- There are also a variety of supplements your immune system needs to work properly, such as vitamins A, C, D, and E, along with more traditional remedies like elderberry syrup or probiotics.
- After talking to your doctor about your best options, add in some of these options for an improved immune system that fights off disease faster, produces the white blood cells needed, and defends you against pathogens.
- If you’re asking how to boost the immune system, these 16 foods and supplements are a great place to start.