A well-functioning immune system is crucial to fending off pathogens, and with the cold and flu season in the imminent future, tuning up your internal defense network is key to staying healthy. Many factors can compromise the immune system, including stress and poor nutrition. Along those lines, here are some of the top nutrients—and where you can find them—necessary to support a robust and reliable immune system.
- Zinc, which is involved in hundreds of metabolic processes, is one of the most recognized immuno-nutrients. You can find it in pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, seafood (e.g., oysters, scallops, shrimp), beef, spinach, and cashews.
- Selenium is a key player in the body’s antioxidant defense network. Brazil nuts are one of the most highly regarded sources of selenium, which is also found in eggs, beef, sardines, and seafood (e.g., scallops, shrimp).
- Vitamin A (β-carotene) plays several important roles in the immune system. For instance, it enhances gut barrier function and reduces susceptibility to infection. Orange-colored fruits and vegetables (such as carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, mangos, papaya, and cantaloupe) are excellent sources of β-carotene, as are dark leafy greens, bok choy, bell peppers, and broccoli.
- B vitamins, such as B6, folate, and B12, help ensure a properly functioning immune system. The best sources of B6 are wild salmon, tuna, turkey, chicken, beef, potatoes, sunflower seeds, spinach, and bananas. Meanwhile, your best bets for folate are lentils, beans, asparagus, and dark leafy greens. The best foods for B12 are sardines, wild salmon, lamb, scallops, shrimp, beef, and dairy.
- Vitamin C is probably the first nutrient that comes to mind when talking about the immune system, and it certainly plays a role in immune function; however, there’s no need to go overboard. High doses of vitamin C are unlikely to prevent the common cold or reduce the severity of its symptoms. To support immune health, make sure you’re eating plenty of citrus fruits (e.g., oranges, grapefruit, clementine, and tangerines), bell peppers, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, pineapple, kiwifruit, cauliflower, dark leafy greens, cabbage, and tomatoes.
- Vitamin D is involved in much more in the human body than building and maintaining healthy bones. Our bodies, including the cells of the immune system, are laced with receptors for vitamin D, which is actually a hormone. Obviously, sun exposure is the best way to boost vitamin D levels, but this becomes tricky for many people (considering geographic location) during the winter when supplementation with vitamin D is often a good strategy considering that it’s only found in a few foods (e.g., oily fish, egg yolks, mushrooms).
- Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that protects our cells from free radical damage, which can suppress the immune system. Dark green leafy vegetables (like spinach, kale, mustard greens, collard greens, turnip greens, and Swiss chard), sunflower seeds, asparagus, almonds, broccoli, bell peppers, and tomatoes are all very good sources of vitamin E.
- Copper is also required by the immune system, can get your copper fix by eating Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, spinach, shrimp, and cashews.
- Iron is a bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to immunity, and the Goldilocks’ principle (not too much, not too little) certainly applies. Beef is the best source of dietary iron, as it is a much more readily absorbed form (i.e., heme) than iron from plant-based foods (i.e., non-heme), such as sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and spinach.
- Probiotics are most highly touted for their benefits on digestion and absorption. However, probiotics also support a robust and reliable immune system. Consider, for instance, that the digestive system contains over 70% of your immunity, and probiotics also enhance gut barrier function and promote a healthy inflammatory response. Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, and kombucha are the best sources of probiotics.
- Prebiotics are certain types of fiber that support immunity by promoting a healthy balance of gut bacteria (probiotics). When prebiotics, which serve as food for gut microbes, are fermented, it leads to the production of compounds that fuel the immune cells. Prebiotics occur naturally in foods such as leeks, asparagus, chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, whole grains (e.g., oats, wheat, corn), and soybeans.
That’s a lot of immune system boosting foods! The point isn’t that you need to eat ALL of them EVERY day. Rather, the point is to eat a variety of these whole, nutrient-dense foods and eat them regularly. If you can adopt this pattern of eating, you are more likely to have a robust, well-functioning immune system to show for it!
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