There’s no better time than RIGHT NOW to be thinking about your immunity! The vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals in plant foods are super important and play very specific roles in our immune system’s ability to keep us healthy. This is especially true when our immune system becomes activated (like when we get sick) and the demand for these nutrients is higher.
The food you eat on a regular basis becomes the building material for your body – from your cells to your joints and skin to the hair on your head!
From this perspective, we literally are what we eat, so let’s make sure we are building the healthiest body possible. We can do this by including these immune system boosting foods as often as possible in our daily diet!
First Things First, Eat The Rainbow
The easiest way to get the most immune system boosting foods into your diet is to eat the rainbow. The phytonutrients in plants are very functional – especially when it comes to helping your body’s natural detoxification systems and boosting your immune system. Vegetables and greens are rich sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, so make sure you fill half your plate with nutrient-dense veggies and greens daily. Choose foods from all the colors of the rainbow — the more color, the more variety of nutrients in the food. For immune health, look for foods rich in vitamins A, C, E, D, antioxidants, magnesium, and zinc.
Eat the Rainbow:
- Load up your plate with top-shelf veggies and dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, and chard, cauliflower, Brussels, broccoli, and cabbage
- Red bell peppers are a super-rich source of vitamin C (more than an orange!)
- Garlic and ginger are natural anti-inflammatories
- Nuts and seeds are rich in zinc, as are beans and legumes
- Blueberries contain anthocyanin, a powerful immune booster
- Kefir is a fermented drink that contains live cultures that help fight off bad bacteria and reduce inflammation
- Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are loaded with DHA
- Sweet potatoes are a great source of vitamin A
And speaking of vitamin A….
Vitamin A, Every Day!
Vitamin A plays a critical role in helping your cells communicate and regulate themselves effectively. Fruits and veggies that are orange and yellow contain the most vitamin A, like beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A in the body, but other foods are great sources, too!
Good Sources of Vitamin A:
- Sweet potato
- Orange bell peppers
Immune System Boosting Foods Rich in Vitamin C
I think most everyone knows that Vitamin C is important for immune health. And since we don’t make it, we have to get it from our diet. It’s also important to know that stress depletes vitamin C, as does smoking (including vaping). When we’re chronically stressed, most of the body’s supply of vitamin C goes to our brain and adrenal glands as part of the stress response. That’s why when you’re stressed, you’re more apt to get sick…because you deplete your vitamin C to make stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline).
Good Sources of Vitamin C:
- bell peppers
- citrus fruits
- cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower)
Vitamin E – Body Armor for Your Immune System
Vitamin E is super important for a strong immune system response; it acts like body armor for your T-cells. It helps to keep cell walls strong and protects against free radicals. So make sure to get plenty of foods that are rich in Vitamin E!
Good Sources of Vitamin E:
- Beet Greens
- Collard Greens
- Sunflower Seeds
Vitamin D – The Unsung Hero!
Almost every cell in the body has a receptor for vitamin D. Know what that means? We all need vitamin D! Vitamin D modulates both innate and adaptive immune responses. Ideally, you should get 15-20 minutes of morning sun each day, but in the winter months (and Northern hemisphere) sunshine is in short supply so a supplement is probably your best bet. I recommend getting your vitamin D levels checked before supplementing so you can personalize your intake.
Good Sources of Vitamin D:
- Fortified Milks
- Fortified Cereals
Magnesium for White Blood Cell Function
Magnesium is one of the most important minerals and supports many biological functions in our bodies. It also plays a key role in immune response, specifically helping in the function of white blood cells.
Good Source of Magnesium:
- whole grains
Get Out of The Cold With Zinc
Zinc is mostly known for reducing the duration of the common cold, but it’s also necessary for almost 100 enzymes to carry out important chemical reactions. Zinc is a major player in DNA repair, cell growth, building proteins, healing damaged tissue, and supporting a healthy immune system. Get your zinc in daily for optimal immune health!
Good Sources of Zinc:
- Red meat
- Whole Grains (quinoa, brown rice, wild rice and 100% whole wheat)
- Beans & Legumes
- Nuts and Seeds
Functional Mushrooms – Powerful Immune System Boosting Foods
Mushrooms are #1 on my list for immune system boosting foods! They are immune cell activators and immune system modulators – this means they adjust how they affect your body based on need at the moment. Mushrooms have a direct impact on both the innate and adaptive immune systems. They are rich in beta-glucans, which help build and maintain cell structure and help reduce the inflammatory response caused by cytokines. They also help T cells, B cells, and antibodies to work more effectively.
Some studies suggest that active compounds in mushrooms help reduce flu duration by inhibiting the enzymes the virus uses for replication (the same mechanism used for most antiviral drugs).
Functional mushrooms to include in your diet:
- Reishi – known for their anti-carcinogen and immunity-boosting benefits, they also help reduce stress and balance hormones
- Cordyceps – help boost energy, sexual health, and immunity in general
- Lion’s Mane – known for its brain benefits, acting as a powerful, natural defense for cognitive conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease
- Chaga – amazing immune booster; has the same amount of antioxidants as 30lbs of carrots!
- Turkey Tail – packed with powerful antioxidants known to boost the immune system and fight off harmful toxins
- Shitake – may protect the heart by keeping cholesterol and blood pressure low, also prevent plaque buildup in the arteries; they also boost the immune system and reduce inflammation
You can read more about the benefits here >>> functional mushrooms.
Herbs & Spices
Herbs and spices have so many healing properties. I could write a whole post just on that. Two of my favorite and easy to eat immune-boosting botanicals are ginger and garlic.
Ginger is antimicrobial and can help to thin mucus and help your body progress through a cold or the flu. Fresh-pressed ginger juice diluted in water or a tea made with fresh ginger is easy to make. I use both ginger and garlic in my immune booster shots. Use it at the first signs of viral infection!
Garlic is an immune stimulant, expectorant, and antimicrobial that’s super accessible and easy to incorporate into your meals regularly. Raw garlic cloves can ease some of the discomforts of a cold through its anti-inflammatory action, as well as shorten its duration by stimulating the immune system, thinning mucus, and lowering a fever.
Another favorite, astragalus root is also an “immunomodulant” herb, used much in the same way as medicinal mushrooms. It’s an “adaptogen” as well, helping to improve the body’s adaptability and resilience to colds and other immune stressors. It contains polysaccharides that increase the activity of white blood cells, stimulate the adrenal stress response, and encourage red blood cell formation in the bone marrow. Traditionally, astragalus isn’t used during an illness, but it’s great for preventative immune system support. I always add astragalus powder to my smoothies!
It’s kind of creepy to think that our bodies are made up of 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells, but it’s true. Good bacteria and other microbes live throughout our entire body, not just in our digestive tract. There are actually 100 known benefits to taking probiotics, among them are a strong immune system and a healthy gut.
Good Sources of Probiotics:
Prebiotics are fiber-rich, nondigestible components of food that help stimulate the growth of good bacteria in the colon. This is really important because having more of the “good” bacteria and a greater diversity of bacteria is what we want for optimal gut health. When the good bacteria in your gut ferment the prebiotic fiber in your colon, a short-chain fatty acid called butyrate is formed. Butyrate plays a major role in intestinal physiology. It supports healthy mucous production and a healthy intestinal barrier – which is super important when it comes to immunity! It also supports bowel motility, nutrient absorption, and immune activity in your intestinal cells. Butyrate is the preferred energy source for your colon cells…So the more butyrate you produce, the better! Prebiotics also include specific types of fiber like oligosaccharides and inulin.
If you eat a plant-based diet, you’re already getting in lots of prebiotics. Make sure to focus on foods that are especially good sources of prebiotic fiber like:
- garlic, onions
If you know me, you know water is not my drink of choice. But staying well hydrated is one of the simplest (and effective) ways to support gut health and immunity. For one, water keeps everything moving through the digestive tract and prevents constipation. Keeping things moving smoothly helps rid your body of toxins and metabolic waste and this keeps your gut bacteria super happy. I try to drink half my body weight in liquids each day. This includes coffee, tea, kombucha, and water!
I hope this list of immune system boosting foods was helpful. If you want more ways to stay healthy in the winter, you can get more tips here.