Did you know that your diet is a major component in keeping your immune system healthy? There are several nutrient-rich foods that, when eaten regularly, work to support your body’s natural ability to fight off infection.
Here, we discover how to boost immune system strength through the different components found in the food you eat.
What Affects Your Immune System?
The immune system is a complex group of cells, chemical reactions, and organs that act as a defense system against infection. The parts of the immune system that actively fight infection are:
- White blood cells
- The lymphatic system
- The complement system
- The spleen
- The thymus
- Bone marrow
When an agent that can cause infection is detected in the body, different parts of the immune system activate to localize and destroy any potential microbes.
Different factors affect the ability of your immune system to fight infection. Here are some of the most important ones.
- Stress - Mental stress, especially chronic stress, can dysregulate the immune system. The actual impact of this can vary from person to person.
- Exercise - Regular exercise (yoga included) helps boost the immune system, even in people who are already dealing with a chronic illness.
- Sleep - Getting enough sleep is essential to keeping your immune system functioning properly.
- Existing conditions or illnesses - If you’re currently ill or battling a chronic disease, your immune system will likely have a harder time fighting off new illnesses.
- Diet - Some dietary patterns promote inflammation, which negatively impacts your body’s ability to respond correctly to potential infection. Additionally, malnutrition can weaken your body’s ability to respond to illness.
This leads us to ask—how does the food we eat affect our health and our body’s ability to fight disease?
The Problem of a Weak Immune System
We tend to think of weak immune systems as the cause of colds, flus, and coughs. While this may be accurate, the reality of immune system issues impact our health way beyond bugs we’ll get over in a week or two.
When our body’s natural ability to fight off potentially damaging bodies is compromised, this causes long-term impacts on our health as well.
In other words, if we have a weak immune system, not only are we more likely to get a cold or cough; we’re also more susceptible to chronic diseases, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic pain, and even diabetes.
6 Immune-Boosting Foods to Add to Your Diet
Research shows that several elements in the food we eat positively or negatively affect the immune system.
Immune-system boosting foods contain copious amounts of good stuff, like calories, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and probiotic bacteria. Not only that, immunity-building foods are rich in vitamins A, C, D, and E, and minerals like zinc, selenium, copper, and iron.
Some foods especially high in immune-boosting elements include:
- Citrus fruits - Oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, clementines, and other citrus fruits are high in vitamin C and antioxidants, and help increase the absorption of iron in the body.
- Broccoli - Like citrus fruits, broccoli also packs a lot of vitamin C. It also contains other antioxidants, fiber, and the immune-system boosting vitamins A and E.
- Garlic - While garlic doesn’t pack much of the nutrients mentioned above, it's high in allicin—a compound that helps reduce inflammation.
- Yogurt - Natural, sugar-free yogurt containing live active cultures helps boost the immune system by supporting the population of “good” gut bacteria.
- Spinach - These leafy greens are high in vitamins A and C, iron, and antioxidants.
- Shellfish and seafood - This group scores high in minerals and omega-3 fatty acids—both of which help fight inflammation.
A Full Diet Approach to Boosting Your Immune System
Granted, eating the above mentioned immune-boosting foods in a meal or two today won’t instantly give you a bulletproof immune system. Research shows that there are foods with nutrients and other components that strengthen your immune system, but through different mechanisms. Some of these activations include:
- Fighting inflammation
- Providing components that improve the functioning of your natural immune system
- Helping rid your body of free radicals that can cause damage to your cells and weaken your immune system
For these nutrient-rich foods to significantly and sustainably nourish your immune system, however, you need to integrate them completely into your diet. Some key guidelines for ensuring your diet impacts your immunity positively are:
- Eat a variety of immunity-boosting foods.
- Eat these nutrient-dense foods regularly and in most of your meals.
- Turn these immunity-boosting foods into diet staples.
The word ‘diet’ here isn’t just referring to a list of foods you can and cannot eat to lose weight (i.e. how the weight loss industry uses the word). Rather, diet here means a regular eating pattern you can sustain over time because of the benefits it provides.
Diets proven to help boost the immune system are anti-inflammatory ones and those rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. At the same time, immunity-boosting diets exclude foods with excess saturated fat, salt, and added sugar.
There are many immune system-boosting foods out there, and the list above is in no way exhaustive. As mentioned, the ultimate immune-system booster food-wise is a well-rounded diet packed with nutrients and inflammation-fighting components.
In addition to a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, enough sleep, and proper treatment whenever you’re ill will help keep your immune system in tiptop shape. With a solid immune system, you’re well-equipped to fight any health threats that might come your way. Happy eating!