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Best foods for immune health

The flu and other viruses thrive when the weather gets colder — and this year is particularly bad. Although it is important to stay healthy and keep your immune system strong throughout the year, it becomes especially critical during these months. If you don’t want to sit in bed with the snuff all winter long, you need to make sure your immune system is up to the task.

The good news is that there is a lot you can do to boost your immunity, including adjusting your diet. Let’s take a look at how your diet can affect your ability to stay healthy and explore some of the best foods for immune health.

Can Food Boost Your Immune System?

Your immune system is an intricate network of cells, chemical compounds and pathways, all of which work together to defend your body against infection. The human body is built with powerful defense mechanisms that not only innately repel foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria, but also learn to recognize new ones so they can do their jobs better, according to Cleveland Clinic.

However, to function effectively, your immune system needs your help. This involves a range of different supportive behaviors, from getting enough rest and managing stress levels to regular exercise and, yes, adequate nutrition. Each of these factors is important, but we will focus particularly here on diet.

Illustrated figure of a shield defending against virus cells.

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Malnutrition has been associated with poor immune health in many studies. For example, low levels of vitamins C and D or zinc have been shown to increase inflammation and increase susceptibility to infections. However, these are not the only nutrients your immune system needs. It needs a wide variety of nutrients to perform at its best.

If you can’t get enough of certain nutrients through your diet, multivitamins can be a helpful supplement. The best way to determine if you are deficient in any nutrients and would benefit from a multivitamin is to ask a doctor.

However, you don’t has taking supplements or eating specific “immune-boosting foods” such as garlic or ginger to boost your immune health, according to Harvard Health. Instead, you can focus on eating a well-rounded diet that includes all the necessary nutrients. This includes:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamins B6 and B12
  • Vitamins C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Zinc
  • Selenium
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • folic acid (folate)
  • Fiber
  • Protein (including the amino acid glutamine)

It is also important to understand the role your gut plays in regulating your immune health. In fact, 70% of your immune system is located in your gut, and the bacteria that live there have a significant impact on your immune health, according to UCLA Health. This means that you not only need a diet rich in the above nutrients, but one that supports gut health. A gut-healthy diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and limits highly processed foods, refined sugars and red meat. You can also support your gut with prebiotic and probiotic foods, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.

What foods should you buy?

Masked persons buy green products at the store.

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A nutrient-dense, immune-healthy diet can take many forms, according to the Mayo Clinic. You don’t need to eat a specific set of foods to get everything you need, so you can plan your diet in a way that suits your preferences and budget.

Here are some examples of nutrient dense foods for immune health you can include in your diet, courtesy of Harvard Health and the British Nutrition Foundation:

  • Orange and red fruits and vegetables such as carrots, peppers and apricots are rich in vitamin A, which supports healthy skin. Your skin is a critical first line of defense against infection.
  • Citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruits, strawberries and tomatoes are packed with vitamin C, one of the most important vitamins for supporting immune health.
  • Iron and protein rich foods such as meat, fish, beans, nuts and fortified cereals support healthy immune cell growth and functioning.
  • Lots of seeds, nuts, peanut butter and vegetable oils contains vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps fight free radicals and boost your immune health.
  • Whole grains, along with many types of meat, seeds and nutsprovides zinc, which supports wound healing and strengthens immune response.
  • Poultry, fish, some other meats, eggs, bananas and avocados contain vitamins B6 or B12 (and some contain both), which are important for new immune cell growth and communication.
  • Oily fish, eggs and some fortified cereals and dairy products includes vitamin D, which appears to support better immune response.
  • Bread, rice, quinoa, shellfish and dried fruit is rich in copper, an important booster for immune cells.
  • Green vegetables, berries, oranges, nuts and seeds contains folate, which helps in the production of new cells.
  • Foods with active cultures like kefir, kombucha, kimchi, fermented vegetables and some yogurts are known as probiotics because they contribute to the good bacteria in your gut.
  • Garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus and seaweed, along with lots of fruit, vegetables and whole grainsare considered prebiotic foods because they contain fiber and oligosaccharides to feed and support the bacteria in your gut.

As you can see, there is overlap on this list, and many foods provide multiple nutrients that support immune health. A balanced diet, good rest, plenty of exercise and habits that reduce stress are all key ingredients for building a strong immune system.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider about any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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