Seeing as we’ve hit the winter months, and we’re all looking for a way to stave off or at least minimize the amount of time we spend with a cold or flu, it seemed only fitting that we broached the subject of how your diet can affect your immune system. And as you’d expect there are a couple of foods that can really help you on this front, ranging from anti oxidants to flavonoids through to being packed with the vitamins and minerals your body needs to keep your immune system healthy. So let’s take a look at the top immune system boosting foods.
Yoghurt: and Anything Fermented
Yogurts, particularly those that are labelled as having "live and active cultures," can be a particularly useful for immune support. This also applies to things like Kimchi or any fermented foods that are also full of good probiotics. These cultures stimulate the immune system, helping it fight off diseases as well as propping up your microbiome, protecting your guy health. Opting for plain yogurt and sweetening it with fruits and a drizzle of honey is a healthier choice than flavored and sugary options.
Blueberries: Antioxidant Powerhouses
Blueberries are packed with anthocyanins which are a type of flavonoid that acts as an antioxidant. These antioxidants help to strengthen the immune system by protecting the body's cells from harmful free radicals. Research has shown that flavonoids play a vital role in the immune defense system of the respiratory tract. Which means they can play a part in reducing the risk of upper respiratory tract infections such as the common cold.
Garlic: Nature's Immune Booster
Garlic has long been recognized for its immune boosting properties. It contains sulfur based compounds such as allicin. These have then been shown to have antimicrobial and immune-enhancing effects. And of course it’s a great way to add flavor to a meal.
Fun Fact: Chicken Soup Can Help You Feel Better
Chicken soup has been a long-standing remedy for colds and illnesses, The interesting thing is there is actually some scientific evidence to support its healing properties. Chicken soup can fight inflammation, promote hydration, and help clear mucus. It's important to stay well-hydrated during illness, so drink plenty of fluids like water, broth, or sports drinks with electrolytes.
Mushrooms: Packed With Beta Glucans
Mushrooms, particularly varieties like shiitake, maitake, and reishi, contain significant amounts of beta-glucans. Beta-glucans are known for their immune boosting qualities which means that they can actually stimulate the production of immune cells. Now, there is a catch, as with most things, and that is that you would need to eat mushrooms every day to get their effects. That’s not impossible as you would most studies are done with about 6 grams a day, which can easily be added to a side of a lot of meals, but it is worth noting.
Dark Chocolate: A Sweet and Healthy Treat
Whilst this isn’t an excuse to binge on dark chocolate, but it does contain something called theobromine. This is another antioxidant that can help boost the immune system by protecting the body's cells from free radicals.
Myth: Dairy Increases Mucus Production
Contrary to popular belief, dairy products do not increase mucus production. There is no scientific evidence to support this claim. If you enjoy dairy products there is no need to eliminate them from your diet when you have a cold or flu.
Turmeric: The Golden Spice
Turmeric contains a compound known as curcumin. Curcumin has been quite well demonstrated to have notable anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The only issue is that for it to be effective you normally need about 500-1000mg of it daily and Turmeric generally only contains around 8% curcumin. It’s great if you can get enough, but unless you really like the seasoning, it may be one that has to be supplemented rather than included in your diet. It would be further up the list if this wasn’t the case as curcumin is definitely one of the more well researched natural compounds on here.
Oranges and Citrus: Vitamin C Superstars
Citrus fruits like grapefruits, oranges, clementines, tangerines, lemons, and limes are excellent sources of vitamin C. The recommended daily intake of vitamin C for most adults is 75 mg for women and 90 mg for men. Incorporating citrus fruits into your meals or enjoying them as snacks can provide a tasty and nutritious way to support your immune system.
Myth: Vitamin C Can Prevent Illness
While vitamin C is often associated with immune health, it cannot prevent illness on its own. However, when taken before cold symptoms start, it may help shorten the duration of a cold. It's important to note that vitamin C does not provide protection against flue or other specific viruses. If you’re too low on Vitamin C that can weaken your immune system, but taking excess Vitamin C won’t do anything.
Oily Fish: A Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Oily fish such as salmon, tuna, and pilchards are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids have been shown to improve the function of such as phagocytes and macrophages. These are the cells which are responsible for engulfing and destroying pathogens in the body, in other words the bodies defence system. There are different types of Omega 3 though, and you can learn more about it here. The ones from plants don't work the same way.
Broccoli: A Superfood for Immune Health
Broccoli like citrus fruits is in this list due to having a great amount of the vitamins you need for a functional immune system. But, it also has a few flavonoids and anti oxidant compounds too that can also help the overall health of the immune system. Vitamin C in particular is essential for immune cell production.
Sweet Potatoes and Carrots: Rich in Beta Carotene
Carrots and sweet potatoes are a great source of beta carotene. We haven’t mentioned Beta Carotene yet, but it’s a precursor to vitamin A. Beta carotene not only gives carrots and sweet potatoes their orange color but also plays a crucial role in maintaining healthy skin and supporting immune function.
Ginger: A Powerful Spice with Immune-Boosting Properties
Ginger has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties, including its immune-boosting effects. It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties that can help support immune health. Incorporating ginger into your diet, whether in cooking or as a tea, can provide you with its immune-boosting benefits.
Green Tea: A Soothing Drink with Immune Support
Green tea is widely recognized for its antioxidant properties. It contains a really high amount of flavonoids. The one most notable flavonoid found in green tea is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). EGCG has been studied for its potential antiviral effects and there’s a fair amount of backing to support it’s use.
A Bit About Immune Boosting Nutrients
Vitamin C: The Immune System Superhero
When it comes to immune health vitamin C is often touted as the key micronutrient we should focus on. And yes it is important, but there are a lot of myths around it like the one we mentioned earlier. Get enough of it and you’ll be fine, but taking extra beyond the RDI isn’t going to do much.
Beta Carotene: The Immune-Boosting Nutrient
Beta carotene found in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables is another nutrient that supports a healthy immune system. The thing with Beta Carotene is it’s often ignored, but it is quite important for converting nutrients. So be sure to get enough.
Vitamin D: The Sunshine Vitamin
Vitamin D plays a crucial role in regulating the immune system and is thought to boost our body's natural defenses against diseases. We also have the issue in winter that a lot of parts of the country simply don’t get enough sunlight. Some studies suggest deficiency is as high as 60%. As a result it’s probably a good idea to supplement Vitamin D, if you’re not getting enough from fatty fish or fortified foods.
Zinc: The Immune System Supporter
Zinc is a mineral that supports hormone and immune function and helps the body fight off infections. While animal sources like beef and seafood are better absorbed by the body there are a few plant based sources like beans, nuts, and tofu also contain zinc. It's important not to exceed the daily recommended amount of zinc by too much as too much can actually inhibit immune system function.
Beta Glucans: Why Mushrooms Matter
Beta-glucans are a type of soluble dietary fiber found in the cell walls of certain fungi, yeasts, algae, and cereals like oats and barley. They are mostly known for their potential to boost the immune system. This can happen through a few mechanisms, but the most notable one is the fact that they can stimulate immune cells, particularly white blood cells called macrophages, neutrophils, and natural killer (NK) cells. These immune cells play a vital role in defending the body against infections.
Lifestyle Factors for a Strong Immune System
While incorporating immune-boosting foods into your diet is essential, it is equally important to consider other lifestyle factors that contribute to a strong immune system. Here are some additional tips to support your overall well-being:
Maintain a balanced eating plan: Focus on a varied diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
Don't skip meals: Ensure your body is well-fueled by eating regular meals throughout the day.
Practice good hygiene: Wash your hands frequently and clean glasses, utensils, and produce to prevent the spread of germs.
Get adequate sleep: Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night for adults and age-appropriate sleep for children.
Manage stress: Explore stress management techniques such as meditation, listening to music, or engaging in physical activity.
Stay hydrated: Drink adequate fluids throughout the day, with water being the best choice.Avoid harmful habits: Quit smoking and limit alcohol consumption for optimal immune function.