Beyond Vitamin C: Eat These Foods for a Healthy Immune System

When winter comes, we stay indoors more often. This makes us easy targets for the flu and other viruses looking for a place to grow.

While it’s important to be healthy and keep your immune system strong all year round, it becomes especially critical during these cooler months. If you don’t want to stay in bed with the sniffles all winter, you need to make sure your immune system is up to the task.

The good news is that you can do a lot to boost your immunity, including changing your diet. Let’s take a look at how your diet can affect your ability to stay healthy and take a look at some of the best foods for immune health.

Can food boost your immune system?

Your immune system is a complex network of cells, chemicals, and pathways, all of which work together to protect your body from infection. The human body is built with powerful defense mechanisms that not only innately repel foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria, but also learn to recognize new ones so they can do a better job, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

However, to function effectively, your immune system needs your help. This includes a range of different supportive behaviors, from getting enough rest and managing stress levels to regular exercise and, yes, getting adequate nutrition. Each of these factors is important, but here we will focus specifically on diet.

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Malnutrition has been linked to poor immune health in many studies. Low levels of vitamins C and D or zinc, for example, have been shown to increase inflammation and increase susceptibility to infection. However, these are not the only nutrients your immune system needs. It needs a wide range of nutrients to function at its best.

If you can’t get enough of certain nutrients through your diet, multivitamins can be a helpful supplement. The best way to determine if you are deficient in any nutrients and would benefit from a multivitamin is to ask a doctor.

But you don’t they have taking supplements or eating specific “immune-boosting foods” like garlic or ginger to boost your immune health, according to Harvard Health. Rather, you can focus on eating a well-rounded diet that includes all the nutrients you need. They include:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamins B6 and B12
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Zinc
  • Selenium
  • Iron
  • Med
  • Folic acid (folate)
  • Fibers
  • Protein (including the amino acid glutamine)

It’s also important to understand the role of your gut in regulating your immune health. In fact, 70 percent of your immune system is located in your gut, and the bacteria that live there have a significant impact on your immune health, according to UCLA Health. This means that you not only need a diet rich in the above nutrients, but also one that supports gut health. A gut-healthy diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and limits highly processed foods, refined sugars, and red meat. You can also support your gut with prebiotic and probiotic foods, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.

Which foods should you shop for?

A masked person is shopping for green produce in the store.

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A nutrient-dense, immune-healthy diet can take many forms, according to the Mayo Clinic. You don’t have to eat a certain set of foods to get everything you need, so you can plan your diet in a way that fits your preferences and budget.

Here are some examples of nutrient-dense foods for immune health that you can incorporate into your diet, courtesy of Harvard Health and the British Nutrition Foundation:

  • Orange and red fruits and vegetables such as carrots, peppers and apricots are rich in vitamin A, which supports healthy skin. Your skin is a critical first line of defense against infection.
  • Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, strawberries and tomatoes are full of vitamin C, one of the most important vitamins for maintaining immune health.
  • Foods rich in iron and protein such as meat, fish, beans, nuts and fortified cereals support the healthy growth and function of immune cells.
  • Lots of seeds, nuts, peanut butter and vegetable oils contain vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps fight free radicals and strengthens your immune system.
  • Whole grains, along with many types of meat, seeds and nutsprovide zinc, which aids wound healing and strengthens the immune response.
  • Poultry, fish, some other meats, eggs, bananas and avocados contain vitamins B6 or B12 (and some contain both), which are important for the growth and communication of new immune cells.
  • Fatty fish, eggs, and some fortified grains and dairy products include vitamin D, which appears to support a better immune response.
  • Bread, rice, quinoa, shellfish and dried fruit are rich in copper, an important stimulator for immune cells.
  • Green vegetables, berries, oranges, nuts and seeds contain folate, which supports the production of new cells.
  • Foods with active cultures like kefir, kombucha, kimchi, fermented vegetables and some yogurts are known as probiotics because they contribute to the good bacteria in your gut.
  • Garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, and seaweed, along with lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grainsare considered prebiotic foods because they contain fiber and oligosaccharides to feed and support the bacteria in your gut.

As you can see, there is overlap in this list and many foods offer multiple nutrients that support immune health. A balanced diet, good rest, plenty of exercise and stress-reducing habits are key ingredients to building a strong immune system.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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