The immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs (and the substances they make) that helps the body fight infections and other diseases. It does this by fighting against the foreign body or object trying to ‘invade’ the body. Robust immune systems make the body more capable of warding off disease. On the other hand, you are more prone to getting sick if your immune system is compromised.
Immune system boosters
Several studies examine the effects of diet, exercise, age, psychological stress, and other factors on the immune response. There is still much that researchers don’t know, but fueling your body with healthy foods might positively affect your health and help your body function at its best. Here are 10 foods that can support your immune system:
Citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, lemons, and limes contain high levels of vitamin C, which has been shown to increase the production of white blood cells. Additionally, citrus fruits are a good source of fibre, which can also help to support digestive health.
Eat them whole, squeeze the juice into your meals or try delicious fruity desserts – whichever way you prefer, don’t forget to add these tangy fruits to your diet.
Red bell pepper
Citrus fruits are probably the first food that comes to mind when thinking of vitamin C. Red bell peppers have nearly three times the amount of vitamin C (127 mg) as citrus fruits, such as a Florida orange (45 mg). They are also high in Beta carotene, which your body converts into vitamin A, which is known to help our immune system stay strong and helps keep your eyes and skin healthy.
When it comes to foods with high levels of vitamins C and K, as well as beta-carotene, folate and fibre, leafy greens are the real powerhouses. Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and collard greens can be powerful immune boosters.
According to a 2019 study published in Nutrition Reviews, leafy greens are also high in dietary nitrate, an organic compound with anti-inflammatory properties and the ability to help regulate the immune system.
Vitamin E typically loses ground to vitamin C in the prevention of colds. However, a strong immune system also depends on this antioxidant. It works in the body by minimizing the damaging effect of free radicals –unstable atoms that can damage cells – causing illness and ageing.
Because it is a fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin E needs fat to be fully absorbed. Nuts, including almonds, are loaded with this vitamin and healthy fats.
Broccoli is a great food to include in your diet for a healthy immune system. Like other leafy greens, broccoli is high in nutrients, that are important for a robust immune system, like beta carotene, vitamin C and vitamin K.
Additionally, broccoli contains a natural plant compound called sulforaphane, which has the potential to help boost the immune system.
According to recent research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, raw broccoli delivers substantially more of these beneficial vitamins than cooked. If you’re not a fan of raw broccoli, consider steaming it until it’s cooked but still crunchy.
Garlic is a well-known immune booster, and for a good reason. Allicin, believed to be the substance that gives garlic its immune-boosting benefits, is produced when crushing, chewing, or slicing garlic.
Ginger is a popular spice used in many different recipes and has been used for thousands of years as a medicinal herb, but did you know that it’s also great for your immune system?
Gingerol, the main bioactive compound in ginger, is responsible for much of this spice’s medicinal properties. It has excellent anti-inflammatory effects and mainly helps to “reduce oxidative stress, which results from having an excess amount of free radicals in the body”.
For optimal effects, use fresh ginger in teas or when cooking.
Spinach probably has a bit of a reputation as a healthy vegetable. It’s not only a rich source of vitamin C, but it’s also high in antioxidants and beta-carotene, which may increase the infection-fighting ability of our immune systems.
Numerous studies are looking at the best ways to consume spinach to ensure we can absorb the highest levels of its nutrients. One study from 2018 has concluded that the healthiest way to consume spinach is in smoothies. If smoothies are not your thing, steaming spinach is an ideal cooking method for nutrient absorption.
In both ways, it’s essential to maximize the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins by consuming spinach with a healthy source of fat.
Turmeric has been a faithful partner of Indian curries for decades and has certainly gained popularity in recent years. While there is still limited research on its effects on the body, curcumin – the “star” compound of turmeric – has promise as an immune booster (based on findings from animal studies) and an antiviral.
Last but not least, yoghurt contains “live and active cultures”, beneficial bacteria that can help stimulate your immune system to help fight diseases by improving the health of your gut microbiome. These effects don’t only apply to milk-based yoghurt but also vegan versions, as many vegan yoghurts include live active cultures.
With 70-80% of immune cells in the gut, there is a complex interplay between the microbiome and our immune system. To put it (very) simply: a healthy gut = a healthy immune system.
Other ways to boost your immune system
As highlighted in the beginning, the immune system is complex. As the name suggests, it’s a system, not a single entity. To function well, your immune system requires balance and harmony.
Eating well can help you feel your best and support your immune system, but it’s not a cure-all. Of course, there are other ways to boost your immune system, such as exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, hydrating, and minimizing stress. Again, these ways won’t necessarily cure or prevent disease, but implementing as many as possible can help you to build and maintain a strong, healthy immune system.
While there are many benefits to eating the foods listed above, remember that they are not a cure-all for disease. Always consult your doctor before starting a new diet or seek professional advice when adding new foods to your routine to ensure that it is safe for you.
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Co-Founder of Veano