Immune-Boosting Foods: Eating Your Way to Super Immunity
By Christina Pasternak More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the FOOD-A-MINS Blog Series
Our immune system is one of the most important, yet overlooked, systems of the human body. Its job is to protect our body from infection, such as the common cold, and the development of more life-threatening diseases, such as cancer. The key to vibrant health is our body’s ability to achieve and maintain internal balance and live an infection and disease-free life. The only way this is possible is through supporting and enhancing our immune system.
Is your immune system in need of some fine-tuning? If you answer yes to any of the questions below, then you are likely in need of an immune-boosting diet.
- Do you easily catch colds and flu?
- Do you get colds or flu more than three times a year?
- Do you have a chronic infection?
- Do you get frequent cold sores, fungal nail infections, or do you have genital herpes?
- Do your lymph glands get sore and swollen at times?
- Do you, or have you ever had, cancer?
When people are susceptible to infection and disease, it creates a dangerously repetitive cycle:
Weakened immune system ---> chronic infection ---> depletion of our body’s natural protective factors
Eat Your Vitamins and Minerals
Nutrient deficiency is the most common cause of a depressed immune system, which is actually good news because this means we can boost our immune system with the foods we eat. One might be wondering if a quality vitamin and mineral supplement can do the trick. My answer is two-fold:
- Our food supply provides our body with a unique balance of vitamin and mineral reserves that cannot be duplicated by taking any combination of supplements.
- The food we eat plays the most crucial role in our health. Eating an unhealthy diet full of processed food products rather than nutrient-dense whole foods will inevitably lead to poor health, no matter how many supplements we are taking.
The following vitamins and minerals are crucial for optimal immune function, which can be found in a variety of foods:
Vitamin A and Carotenes
Vitamin A deficiency may predispose our body to an infection, and when our body must fight off an invader, our body’s vitamin A reserves plummet. Carotenes function as antioxidants and convert into vitamin A in our body, which are crucial for thymus function and a healthy immune system.
Food Sources: Orange vegetables and fruits, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, apricots, citrus, and butternut squash. Dark and leafy greens, such as kale, turnip greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, spinach, and collards. Just one cup of one of these greens provides more than 100% of our daily Vitamin A needs.
Vitamin C has been proven to have antiviral and antibacterial properties, which contribute to optimal immune function. Clinical studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of vitamin C in the treatment of infections, and possibly even cancer at very high intravenous dosages.
Food Sources: Citrus fruits, bell peppers, chiles, berries, cabbage, parsley, potatoes, sprouts, tomatoes, dark leafy greens, and kiwi.
Vitamin D contains antimicrobial peptides, which clear bacteria in immune cells. It also provides protection against the development of autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn’s disease, type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis. Vitamin D is especially important in protecting us from bacterial and viral infections.
Food Sources: Fish and fish oils, sunflower sprouts, mushrooms, and chlorophyll-rich foods, such as seaweed, micro-algae (chlorella, spirulina, blue-green algae, and marine phytoplankton), and dark leafy greens.
Vitamin E contributes to antibody production, increases white cell response, and protects against free radical thymus damage - all the things we need to live a healthy, disease-free life.
Food Sources: Nuts, seeds, whole grains, broccoli, cauliflower, dandelion greens, sprouts, asparagus, cucumbers, and spinach.
B Vitamins and Folic Acid
Vitamin B and/or folate deficiency can lead to thymus, spleen, and lymph node shrinkage, a drop in white blood cells, and a reduction in antibodies. These factors inevitably contribute to a depressed immune system. To ensure good health, our body must have an adequate supply of B vitamins and folic acid.
Food Sources: Whole grains, beans, legumes, spinach, dates, mushrooms, oranges, beets, nutritional yeast, seaweed, carrots, peas, sunflower seeds, and walnuts.
Iron deficiency, even marginal deficiency that does not lower blood values, can negatively influence the immune system through thymus and lymph node atrophy, decreased white blood cell function, and increased bacterial growth.
Food Sources: Whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts, beets, nutritional yeast, sesame seeds, seaweed, prunes, raisins, dates, molasses, and unrefined salt.
Zinc aids in the destruction of foreign particles and microorganisms, protects against free radical damage, and inhibits the growth of many viruses, particularly common cold viruses and the herpes simplex virus.
Food Sources: Whole grains, legumes and beans, seaweed, dill, radishes, vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, and unrefined salt.
Selenium affects all components of our immune system, especially the development and use of white blood cells. Selenium has been shown to stimulate thymus function, which is crucial for a healthy immune system.
Food Sources: Garlic, mushrooms, nuts, sunflower seeds, seaweed, whole grains, beans, and legumes.
Mix it Up!
When eating your way to super immunity, the most important factor to remember is that variety is the key to good health. Each food has its own unique nutritional profile, so we want to ensure our diet has a wide spectrum of health-promoting qualities. Don’t sell yourself short by eating the same foods every day for the rest of your life. Though they may be healthy, their offering of vitamins and minerals is limited. Remember to mix it up, experiment, and enjoy the endless benefits of disease-fighting foods. Your immune system will thank you for it.
Murray, M.T., & Pizzorno, J. (2012). The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Wood, R. (2010). The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Penguin Books, Inc.