As evidenced over the past few years, it’s more important than ever to do everything we can to stay healthy. Although we can’t completely eradicate illness and disease, we do have the power to choose foods to boost the immune system to keep us healthy.
What Is the Immune System?
The human immune system is a robust system of tissues, cells and organs that work synergistically to fight infection and keep your body healthy.
New findings indicate that 70% of the immune system resides in the gut microbiome, a unique community of microorganisms that contribute to nearly all of the body’s biological systems. Unbeknownst to some, we can actually influence our gut microbiota with the foods we choose to eat.
Because the balance of bacteria in our gut influences the workings of our immune system, it is important to strive to incorporate dietary choices that support a healthy ecosystem for our microbes.
How Does Diet Impact the Immune System?
A healthy, balanced immune system relies on a balanced mix of vitamins and minerals, in addition to good sleep hygiene and daily movement. Choosing to consume foods that boost the immune system is imperative to staying healthy.
When we really consider what constitutes a healthy diet, focusing on nutrient density as opposed to macronutrient and calorie count is key. Choosing foods to boost the immune system and provide a good balance of vitamins and minerals is one way to give your body what it needs to fight illness and disease.
Far too often, people focus on the laundry list of supplements that claim to power the immune system and fight infection. While supplementation has its place, starting with a diet rich in plants and whole foods is not only better for your wallet but also better for your body and brain.
Back when our ancestors foraged for food, the vitamins and supplements that line the grocery store shelves did not exist. People found ways to fuel their bodies and support the immune system by consuming antioxidant-rich plants, fruits and wild game.
So what foods boost the immune system and how exactly can we use them to fight off infection?
Foods That Support the Immune System
One way we can boost the immune system is by eating an anti-inflammatory diet, full of nutrient-dense, colorful foods. When considering which foods support the immune system, it is important to consider foods that are highest in essential vitamins and minerals such as zinc, vitamin D, vitamin C, Vitamin E, and beta carotene.
Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant that can reduce inflammation and boost immune system function in the body. Foods rich in beta carotene include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Green leafy vegetables such as spinach and romaine lettuce
According to Science Daily, zinc has the ability to interact with a process in the immune system that is vital to the fight against infection. Because zinc can regulate a key pathway in the body, it helps to ensure that the immune response does not spiral out of control in response to invaders and pathogens.
Studies also show that zinc appears to reduce the number of colds per year.
Foods rich in zinc include:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
Vitamin E is another key nutrient found in many foods that boost the immune system. Vitamin E improves immune function by fighting off free radicals, which can cause damage on the cellular level. Like vitamin C, vitamin E can be a powerful antioxidant that helps your body fight off infection.
Foods rich in vitamin E include:
- Sunflower Seeds
Although harder to get through food, Vitamin D can be found in specific foods that boost the immune system. Vitamin D is critical to activating and regulating our T-cells: the killer cells of the immune system that fight off serious infections in the body. Our T cells act like soldiers when they seek out and destroy pathogens and other invaders in the body. According to studies, if there is not enough vitamin D in the blood, T cells are not activated, which in turn can increase our risk of infection.
Although getting enough vitamin D just through dietary changes may be daunting, you can increase your intake through foods such as:
- Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines)
- Fortified foods such as milk, soymilk and orange juice
Although the jury is still out on whether vitamin C prevents illness, studies show that high doses of vitamin C can help to relieve cold and flu symptoms. Because vitamin C is water-soluble, any excess vitamin is excreted through urine and cannot be stored in the body for future use. This is why it is important to consume foods high in vitamin C daily. Thankfully, vitamin C is found in a variety of foods that boost the immune system.
Foods rich in vitamin C include:
- Broccoli, especially when it is steamed
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruits like orange and lemon
Probiotics are a hot topic these days. Probiotics are live microorganisms such as bacteria and yeasts that live in your digestive system. Unfortunately, antibiotics and pharmaceutical drugs have been shown to destroy some of the good bacteria in our gut microbiome, thus leading to a desire to replace these good gut bacteria with probiotic pills.
Contrary to popular belief, probiotic pills are not recommended for everyone. Because our microbiomes are so individualized and unique, nourishing it through whole foods is often the safest, most effective way. Finding whole foods rich in probiotics is one way to boost the immune system.
In addition to yogurt, Kefir is also a nutritious, probiotic-rich food that helps to boost the immune system. Consuming kefir and other probiotic-rich foods daily can help lower inflammation in the body and increase antioxidant activity.
Prebiotic Rich Foods
Although most people are familiar with the term probiotic, not as many understand what prebiotics are and how they can benefit our health.
Prebiotics are specialized plant fibers that promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines. In layman’s terms, prebiotics are food for the probiotics. Prebiotics are found in different fruits and vegetables—more specifically in ones that contain high amounts of fiber and resistant starch, such as asparagus, yams, and leeks.
Garlic is also a prebiotic food that boosts the immune system by feeding the good microbes and probiotics in our gut. This potent plant is known for its health benefits, such as fighting infections and killing opportunistic microbes and parasites.
In one study, British researchers gave 146 people either a placebo or a garlic extract for 12 weeks and discovered that those who ate garlic were two-thirds less likely to catch a cold.
Ultimately, we are responsible for keeping our bodies functioning optimally. Choosing foods that boost the immune system is vital to staying well and fighting off any pesky infections or illnesses. Equipping ourselves with this knowledge can help us to feel more in control of our health and overall well-being.
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