Superfoods Part 8: 10 Immunity-Boosting Superfoods
Keeping your immune system strong helps your body to better fight off infections caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. The health of your immune system may be especially on your mind during the COVID-19 pandemic or in the midst of flu season, but immunity is important all year long.
It is important to know that no food or supplement will prevent or cure infections from COVID-19 or other germs. However, diet and other lifestyle modifications can help keep the immune system working at its best, which may help your body fight off an illness more quickly and effectively.
How Does Your Immune System Work?
Your immune system is made up of many cells, tissues, and organs. When a foreign object such as a germ enters the body, immune cells are activated. Some cells are responsible for finding the harmful object and destroying it. Other cells may have different roles, such as boosting the activity of the immune system, making antibodies (immune system proteins that help fight infection), or remembering the germ so that the body can more easily fight it the next time.
As your body fights infection, it creates inflammation. Signs of inflammation include a fever, a sick or tired feeling, redness, and swelling. A little bit of inflammation is a good thing — it helps the body heal. However, when the immune system is constantly activated, and inflammation lasts for a long time, it can lead to long-term illnesses.
It is good to have an immune system that works well to fight infection, but it is also important to prevent ongoing inflammation.
Superfoods to Support Immune Health
Within the world of nutrition science, there’s technically no such thing as a superfood — most foods contain some sorts of nutrients that help keep your body working properly, and eating a variety of different foods is the best way to support your health.
However, some foods give you more bang for your buck. Certain foods are loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, or other helpful nutrients. These are the foods and drinks that often get the “superfood” label. Choosing more of these items on a regular basis can help keep your immune system strong.
Here are ten superfoods that can help you achieve better immune health.
Citrus Fruits and Juices
Many people turn to vitamin C supplements when they have a cold or are worried about getting one. There’s a good reason for this: vitamin C is one of the best-studied when it comes to the immune system. This nutrient is found at high levels in citrus fruits, such as oranges and grapefruit. It can also be found in red bell pepper, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and strawberries.
Vitamin C does several important things for the immune system, such as:
- Helping immune cells ingest and destroy microbes
- Clearing out old or damaged immune cells
- Encouraging B cells and T cells (types of immune cells) to grow, divide, and produce new immune cells
- Helping cells make cytokines (proteins that help keep the immune system working correctly)
- Supporting the health of the skin, which helps keep out germs
Studies show that vitamin C usually doesn’t keep away the common cold or the flu. However, it may help prevent colds for people who undergo high levels of physical activity, or for people who have low levels of vitamin C. Vitamin C can also shorten the duration of colds and make symptoms less severe.
Oysters are completely loaded with zinc — just 3 ounces of these shellfish provide more than 600% of the amount of zinc that experts recommend eating per day!
Zinc is very important for immune health. It is needed for the proper function of immune cells such as T cells. This mineral also lessens inflammation, and it is an antioxidant, which means that it helps protect cells from damage.
Ingesting zinc every day through food or supplements can help reduce your chances of getting a cold. Additionally, if you start taking zinc soon after noticing cold symptoms, your cold may be milder and end sooner.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are a good superfood source of protein, healthy fats, and fiber. They also often contain vitamin E, an immune booster. The best nut and seed sources of vitamin E include:
- Sunflower seeds
Vitamin E is one of the most important nutrients when it comes to immune system health. It is an antioxidant found at high levels inside of immune cells, where it increases the cells’ activity and helps T cells grow and divide. Taking in more vitamin E may help reduce a person’s risk of contracting an infection.
Another essential immune system nutrient is vitamin A. Your body makes this vitamin from beta-carotene, the substance that gives red and orange fruits and vegetables their color. To increase vitamin A levels in your body, look no further than sweet potatoes. A single helping gives your body more than 150% of the recommended daily amount of this vitamin.
Vitamin A is necessary for the health of immune organs like the thymus and the bone marrow, where new immune cells are made. Many studies have found that people with low levels of vitamin A are more likely to get bacterial or viral infections, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough of this nutrient in your diet.
Fish that contain a lot of healthy fats, such as salmon, trout, tuna, and mackerel, are superfoods that provide many important nutrients. Fatty fish can support a healthy immune system, as well as keep your heart, blood vessels, brain, and bones healthy.
Fatty fish contain a lot of omega-3 fatty acids. These are healthy fats that can help activate immune cells and boost their ability to destroy germs. Omega-3 fatty acids can also reduce inflammation and keep the immune system working properly.
It’s not clear if ingesting more vitamin D can help your immune system if you already have normal levels of the vitamin. However, people with low vitamin D levels are more likely to develop infections. Vitamin D deficiency may also lead to worse outcomes when a person is infected with the flu or with COVID-19. Making sure your vitamin D levels are within the normal range can help protect your health.
Vitamin B6 helps the body make more immune cells and produce IL-2, a protein that helps immune cells grow and develop. People with low levels of vitamin B6 often have a weakened immune system.
Yogurt is a fantastic source of probiotics — helpful bacteria that can boost health. Probiotics may be able to improve digestion, help your immune system fight off disease, and treat certain chronic health conditions. Probiotics are also found in other fermented superfoods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi, or can be taken as supplements.
Studies have found that probiotics may help protect against infection. In one analysis that combined results from 10 clinical trials, researchers reported that people who took probiotics were 42% less likely to develop upper respiratory tract infections (infections of the nose, sinuses, throat, or airways). Probiotics may also help protect against gastrointestinal infections (infections that affect the digestive system).
Green tea is a fantastic superfood drink. It contains many molecules that can help lead to better health.
One of these molecules is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). EGCG activates genes that help immune cells identify and destroy viruses. It also increases the number of T cells, helping build up the body’s defenses.
Green tea also contains different kinds of flavonoids — antioxidant molecules known to improve health and help the immune system work better. People who eat more flavonoids are one-third less less likely to develop upper respiratory infections. Flavonoids can also be found in other popular superfoods like blueberries, wine, and dark chocolate.
Turmeric is a superfood spice that has long been used in traditional Indian and Chinese medical practices. It contains a chemical called curcumin that is known to have several positive health effects.
- Helping control the growth and activation of different types of immune cells
- Boosting the antibody activity
- Blocking the immune system from making proteins that lead to inflammation
So far, most of the research done into curcumin has been in laboratory or animal studies. There have not yet been many clinical trials looking at the spice’s effects on immunity in humans. More research is needed, but it is possible that adding turmeric to the diet could help keep the immune system healthy.
Garlic is used for flavor in many different types of dishes. Adding more garlic to your meals could help support immune health. However, taking a garlic supplement may be even more powerful.
A couple of small studies have analyzed the ability of garlic to help protect against infections. In one study, researchers found that people who took a garlic supplement were less likely to come down with the cold, and recovered faster once they got sick. In another study, participants who ingested aged garlic extract had greater numbers of immune cells and experienced shorter, less severe episodes of the cold and flu. Research also shows that garlic may reduce a person’s chances of getting the flu.
Are Superfoods Enough to Keep the Immune System Strong?
The cells of your immune system need many different nutrients in order to continue working properly. Adding one or two superfoods to a poor diet won’t be enough to keep you at your healthiest.
The best solution is to follow a pattern of eating in which you’re regularly eating a wide variety of different foods that contain different kinds of nutrients. The more often you can fit superfoods into your diet, the better. You may want to try starting small — add some fruit to your breakfast, or grab a handful of nuts for a snack. Then, gradually try to work in more nutrients to your lunches and dinners.
If you’re not getting enough superfoods, it may be a good idea to supplement with what I consider my “go to” supplements to help boost immunity.
Foods To Avoid for Better Immunity
It can also help to avoid certain foods that can harm the immune system.
When possible, stay away from processed foods like frozen food, packaged baked goods, processed cheese, candy, soda, and ready-to-eat foods like crackers and deli meat. Processed items typically have added ingredients, such as preservatives, food dyes, or chemicals to improve taste. These ingredients can affect the way immune cells work, often causing chronic inflammation, problems with metabolism, and weight gain.
Other research shows that additional ingredients often found in Western diets can also harm immune cells, including:
- Salt — Your cells need some of this mineral in order to function properly, but too much can lead to inflammation.
- Refined sugar — Consuming high amounts of foods like candy, cookies, baked goods, and sugary drinks can make it harder for immune cells to absorb and destroy germs.
- Saturated fats — These fats, found in foods that come from animals (like meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products) can create inflammation and prevent immune cells from sensing and getting rid of harmful bacteria and viruses.
Keeping Yourself Healthy With Superfoods
One of the best ways to protect against illness is to keep your immune system strong. Eating a diet full of superfoods can help your immune cells keep working as they should and may help you get sick less often. Many superfoods can also help prevent your immune system from becoming overactivated, reducing inflammation. Choose a superfood-rich diet today to help keep yourself from getting sick tomorrow.