Your immune system really doesn’t have days off. Whether you’re battling a cold or recovering from an infection, things are always running at full speed. But believe it or not, diet has a huge impact on your immunity, and there are some easy (and delicious) ways to keep your immune system in tip-top shape. Enter: vitamins to support the immune system.
“Nutrients from our diet, including vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients like protein, fats, and carbohydrates, are needed for immune cell production and overall immune system health,” says Stacey Simon, RDN, of Top Nutrition Coaching.
There is no such thing as an “immune diet,” but consuming a variety of vitamins and minerals can help prevent nutrient deficiencies, which can lead to decreased immune function. “Rather than picking raisins or adding nutrients here and there, an overall balanced diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and whole grains can help us consume adequate amounts of specific nutrients to To prevent deficiency symptoms and to keep our immune system strong,” says Simon.
Now you might think What about supplements? While there is certainly a time and place for them, e.g. For example, if you’re pregnant, struggling with nutritional deficiencies, or recovering from an illness or surgery, Simon always recommends eating first. “Think of supplements as a way to fill in gaps in an otherwise healthy and nutritious diet,” she says.
Because dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA and too much of the nutrient can be harmful, always check with your doctor before use. “Unless you’re nutrient deficient, there’s often no need to mega-supplement,” notes Simon. “The body actually absorbs nutrients in food and uses them more efficiently.”
And while diet plays a role in immune system health, other factors also play a role. Things like sleep, stress, certain medications, autoimmune disorders, and genetics also affect your immune function. “We have to make sure we maintain our defenses on all these fronts,” Simon says.
If you want to keep your immune health in tip-top shape, try incorporating these 10 essential vitamins and nutrients into your diet.
Meet the expert: Stacey Simon, RDN, is a nutritionist with more than nine years of clinical experience. Her particular focus is on treating chronic illnesses and maintaining the overall well-being of older adults.
Protein is often associated with building muscle and feeling full between meals, but it also plays an important role in wound healing, recovery and cell building, says Simon. “Amino acids, or the building blocks of proteins, help maintain immune system function by aiding in the production of immune cells.”
Plus, many protein sources offer a lot of “bang for your immune system” because they contain a slew of other important vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients, Simon adds. It’s a win-win situation!
“I suggest always eating whole or fresh foods first so you’re getting real sources of protein,” she says. If you’re looking for high-protein snacks on the go, look for something that’s as close to the real deal as possible and doesn’t have a lot of additives and artificial colors. Pro tip: If you read the ingredients list and aren’t sure what something is, it’s probably best to stay away.
Here are some examples of high protein whole foods.
- Lean beef
- Plain Greek yogurt
2. vitamin C
You’ve probably heard that vitamin C is important for immune function and shortens the duration of a nasty cold, but it actually does a lot more. Vitamin C also plays a huge role in wound healing, which goes a long way in maintaining your immune system by keeping your skin barrier intact, says Simon.
It’s also a powerful antioxidant that reduces inflammation in the body, ultimately reducing our risk of developing disease and feeling sick.
While orange juice might seem like the ultimate source of vitamin C, Simon also recommends eating the following foods to help keep you full.
- Cantaloupe melon
- Red pepper
3. Vitamin D
Vitamin D improves immune cell function by reducing inflammation in the body and reducing the risk of infection, says Simon. But here’s the thing, the best source isn’t actually food – it’s sunlight. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it can dissolve in fats and oils and be stored in the body’s adipose tissue and liver. To maintain healthy levels, get at least 15 minutes of sun exposure every day, according to Harvard Health.
If you live in a colder climate or can’t get regular sun exposure, it’s important to supplement it with food. “Vitamin D is one area that you don’t necessarily feel deficient in, even if you’re mildly deficient, but it’s one of those things that can be supplemented well with food to fill the gap,” says Simon.
Foods high in vitamin D include the following.
- Orange juice enriched with vitamin D
- Fortified Cereal
- Milk fortified with vitamin D or plant-based milk
- egg yolk
4. vitamin E
Vitamin E is another fat-soluble vitamin with powerful antioxidant properties to support immune cell production. “Vitamin E supports the growth of T cells, or white blood cells, which play an important role in immune function,” explains Simon. “If we think of cells in the body that defend and fight pathogens, vitamin E helps support the growth of these defensive T cells.”
Add these foods with vitamin E to your plate to boost immune system health.
- sunflower seeds
- Red pepper
Think of zinc as the immunity superstar. Not only does it play an important role in wound healing, but it also supports the development of immune cells by affecting the growth of T cells, says Simon. And while some studies show that zinc can help shorten the duration of a cold, there’s no reason to overdo your zinc intake. “Most people can keep their zinc levels in a healthy range by eating a normal, balanced diet,” says Simon.
You’ll find zinc in many of the foods you probably already eat, like the following.
- Red meat
- Fortified Cereal
“We often think that iron plays a huge role in how we feel about our energy levels and how we feel in our bodies, but it also builds up these immune cells and allows them to reach full maturity so they can go off and do their job,” says Simon.
Iron is also a major component of hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body), so heavy bleeding can cause your iron levels to drop. For this reason, research suggests that maintaining iron levels and eating iron-rich foods is especially important for women who are menstruating.
Try to include the following iron-rich foods in your diet.
- Lean beef
- Fortified Cereal
Selenium acts as a powerful antioxidant that can help reduce inflammation in the body, and studies show that it promotes heart health, optimizes immune function, and may even prevent cancer. While a generally balanced diet is usually appropriate for your daily selenium intake, low selenium levels have been shown to decrease immune function.
Stock up on some of the following selenium-rich foods.
- Brazil Nuts (Fun Fact: Eating one Brazil nut a day can help you meet your daily needs, says Simon.)
- Lean beef
Inflammation is a sign that your body is working overtime to heal or repair itself, but copper plays a big role in minimizing its effects by neutralizing free radicals, says Simon. Research shows that free radicals are unstable atoms in the body that can damage cells and cause disease, but copper has antimicrobial properties to reduce their presence and ultimately calm inflammation.
However, maintaining healthy copper levels is a balancing act because too little copper can suppress your immune function, but too much copper can be dangerous and lead to cell death. But no need to complicate it because copper toxicity is rare, Simon points out. “Just eating a balanced diet is a good way to ensure we’re getting enough copper and staying in that healthy range,” she says.
Focus on eating a varied diet by eating some of the following.
- Unsweetened baker’s chocolate
- sunflower seeds
- Potatoes (with skin)
- Shiitake mushrooms
You’ve probably heard that probiotics are the good bacteria in your digestive system, but they also play a role in immune system health, says Simon. Studies have shown that probiotics boost natural antibodies in the body by boosting the production of immune cells and fighting infection. Some research even suggests that probiotics may prevent respiratory infections like the common cold or flu and reduce UTIs in women.
Foods high in probiotics include the following.
Andi Breitowich is a Chicago-based writer and graduate student at Northwestern Medill. A mass consumer of social media, she cares about women’s rights, holistic well-being and non-stigmatizing reproductive care. A former college pole vaulter, she loves all things fitness and is currently obsessed with Peloton Tread workouts and hot yoga.