WE CONSTANTLY HEAR on the importance of helping our immune system. And, social media is full of tips on how to do it, adaptogen injections to apple cider vinegar to sleep hacks. Some of them #immuneboost tips are great, but some are not. (And you can’t really “boost” your immunity, as you’ll soon learn.)
Truly, one of the best ways to keep your immune system healthy is also one of the simplest: making sure you have the right nutrients. However, the immune system is complex and nutrition is not the only factor that boosts your immunity.
“Nutritious foods can boost the immune system, but it would be somewhat of a misconception to say that any vitamin, or a special diet alone, could dramatically improve a person’s immune health,” says Marilyn Berger, Dt.P.clinical dietitian at CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.
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“The immune system is a bit more complicated than that,” she adds. “There are many other factors affecting immune health, such as physical activity, stressage and the presence of medical conditions.
The immune system is a network of organs, white blood cells, proteins and chemicals that work together to protect you bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi and other invaders that can make you sick. It has two parts: the innate immune system, which you are born with, and the adaptive immune system, which you develop when you are exposed to germs.
“There are definitely ways to improve your immune system,” says Louis Malinow, MDinternal doctor affiliated with MDVIP in Baltimore, Maryland. Vitamins, especially in supplement form, are just “a small crumb of what I consider to be important elements for boosting your immune system.”
But, if you’re looking to boost your nutrient intake for your health, these are the best vitamins for your immune system.
The best vitamins for your immune system
Choosing nutrient-dense whole foods provides most of the essential vitamins and minerals and properties to keep you healthy, Berger says. Here are the most important vitamins for your immune system:
Vitamin C is getting a lot of attention for its immune-supporting properties, and for good reason. It is a powerful antioxidant that promotes the production of white blood cells, which protect you against infections. “It kind of protects the white blood cells,” says Dr. Malinow.
Your body doesn’t naturally produce vitamin C, so you need to include it in your diet, Berger says.
Food sources: Citrus fruits (oranges and grapefruits), berries, tomatoes, melon, broccoli and peppers.
Vitamin E protects you from free radicals, which can cause disease, and helps the body fight infections, Berger says. Research shows that it is one of the most important nutrients for immune function and helps your T cells, a type of white blood cell, to function at their best.
Food sources: Nuts (almonds and peanuts, in particular), nut butters, seeds, wheat germ oil, spinach, mango and kiwi.
Vitamin A keeps the tissues of your stomach, intestines, respiratory system, mouth and skin healthy and helps you fight off infectious diseases, Berger says. Beta carotenefound in orange, yellow and leafy green vegetables, is an excellent source of vitamin A and also promotes eye health.
Food sources: Carrots, pumpkin, cantaloupe, butternut squash, leafy greens, fish oil, milk and eggs.
A lot of people can’t get enough zinc, especially those who adhere to a plant-based diet since most zinc-rich food sources are animal products, says Dr. Malinow. It is a mineral with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and research calls it the “guardian of immune function.” Zinc can also have antiviral properties. However, zinc can be difficult to absorb, so Dr. Malinow says when he prescribes it in supplement form, he combines it with the antioxidant quercetin, which helps absorption.
Food sources: Oysters, lean beef, blue crab, shrimp, turkey breast, pork, cheese, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, lentils, milk and canned sardines.
Research show that the iron helps regulate the immune system. “Iron helps transport oxygen to cells and is a component of enzymes that are important for immune cell function,” Berger explains. If you don’t get enough iron, your body can’t make the hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells) that you need to move oxygen through your blood vessels, which can lead to anemia.
Food sources: Red meat, beans, seafood, nuts and fortified cereals.
Vitamin D helps your immune system work properly and strengthens immune cells. A deficiency can increase your risk of autoimmunity and increased susceptibility to infections, Berger says. Sunlight is one of the best sources of vitamin D.
Food sources: Milk, eggs, salmon, tuna, sardines, and fortified foods, such as cereals and juices.
Vitamin B6 helps regulate the immune system. It stimulates the production of white blood cells and T cells which help your body fight bacteria, viruses and other harmful substances. It also has anti-inflammatory benefits.
Food sources: Chickpeas, beef, salmon, tuna, chicken breast, fortified cereals, turkey, potatoes and cottage cheese.
This mineral has been shown to boost your immune system when it encounters an invader. Selenium also prevents your immune system from overreacting, says Dr. Malinow. This characteristic could protect you from chronic inflammation and certain autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn’s disease.
Food sources: Canned eggs, Brazil nuts, tuna and sardines.
When should you take supplements
Eating lots of different food groups will help you get a variety of vitamins and minerals, which will maintain a healthy immune system, Berger says.
Food is the preferred way to ensure you get these nutrients. However, supplements may be needed in some cases if your nutrient intake is limited, such as if you are vegan or omit certain food groups.
“A single multivitamin supplement would be enough to fill those gaps,” says Berger.
What are other ways to keep your immune system healthy
What you eat and getting the right vitamins in your diet is only one piece of the puzzle in keeping your immune system healthy. There are several other things you should do to protect yourself.
Have plenty of sleep
“There are a thousand reasons why sleep is important, but one is immune health,” says Dr. Malinow, and you need at least seven hours a night. Research shows that lack of sleep can negatively impact your immune system and potentially increase your risk of disease.
Exercise plays a key role in your overall health, there are evidence that physical activity can remove bacteria from your airways, prevent bacteria from growing, cause positive changes in antibodies and white blood cells, and slow the release of stress hormones. Staying active also helps you sleep better and feel better.
To drink a lot of water
Hydration helps you stay healthy and wards off disease, says Berger. To drink a lot of water provides detoxification benefits, increases lymphatic drainage and helps eliminate waste. men need 15.5 cups of water per day (and women need 11.5 cups).
Maintain a healthy weight
Obesity can increase your risk for a number of health problems, such as diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease. It also increases inflammation and impairs immune function. Eating healthy whole foods, exercising, and maintaining a healthy weight are essential for immune health.
“Everyone is chronically stressed,” says Dr. Malinow. “You have deadlines. You’re up all night brooding. When you are stressed, you release cortisol.
Cortisol is an immunosuppressant, he adds. So taking steps to lower your stress levels will do wonders for your immune system.
Erica Sweeney is a writer who primarily covers health, wellness, and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.