Strengthen your immune system with the 10 best immune-boosting foods from Next Health. Discover how a balanced diet can fortify your body's defenses. Learn more
The immune system is just that--a system. It is a highly complex network of organs, cells, tissues, and proteins that work together to fight off pathogens (viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites) and mutated cells (cancer cells) that cause infection and disease.
A healthy immune response is your biggest line of defense against illness.
Conversely, an overactive or underactive immune response can actually work against you by allowing, or even supporting, the growth of disease. An example of this is autoimmunity, in which an overactive immune system actually starts attacking healthy cells and destroying the body’s own tissues.
The immune system also plays an important role in the prevention and treatment of cancer. Of course, unlike pathogens which come from outside the body, cancer cells come from mutations in the body’s own cells. This can make it trickier for the immune system to identify them as a threat.
Supporting a healthy, balanced immune system is essential to health optimization and disease prevention. This is more important than ever in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Unfortunately, it takes more than just the occasional orange-flavored vitamin C powder to keep your immune system (and health) in tip-top shape.
Your entire lifestyle--stress levels, sleep patterns, exercise (or lack thereof)--can impact your immune function, for better or for worse.
The best medical advice anyone can give is to get seven to nine hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night, commit to a regular exercise regimen, and manage stress with a mindfulness practice like meditation. All of this can help support a healthy immune response.
The foods you eat, especially, can mean the difference between sending your allied forces to battle with a full military arsenal or pushing them into the trenches with merely a knapsack of sticks and stones.
Inflammatory foods like alcohol, fried foods, processed meats, refined carbohydrates, and sugars stress the immune system, stripping it of its armor and leaving it ill-equipped to fight for your health. It is best to avoid or limit these foods.
A combat-ready immune system relies on a well-stocked arsenal of vitamins and minerals. These can be found in whole, unprocessed foods like these ten immune-boosters:
While all vegetables are micronutrient powerhouses, cruciferous vegetables have unique properties that make them particularly powerful when it comes to boosting immunity and fighting cancer.
This diverse group of veggies consists of broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, arugula, collards, watercress, and radishes.
They contain sulforaphane, a sulfur-rich compound with anticancer properties. Consuming at least one portion of cruciferous veggies per week as compared with no or occasional consumption has been associated with a significantly reduced risk of colorectal, breast, and kidney cancer.
Sulforaphane concentration is highest in raw vegetables and is only activated when the vegetable is damaged--as from chopping or chewing. Steaming cruciferous vegetables for one to three minutes may be the best cooking method to retain the sulforaphane value.
Native to Australia, Kakadu plums are the richest known food source of vitamin C on the planet. In fact, they contain 100 times the concentration found in an orange (up to 5,000 mg per 100g of fruit)!
Vitamin C is a well-known immune booster. It supports many functions of immune cells and acts as an antioxidant, fighting against harmful free radicals which can cause oxidative stress and impair immunity.
Your body doesn’t produce or store this immune-supportive vitamin, which is why daily consumption of foods that contain vitamin C is so important for your health.
If you can’t track down Kakadu plums, don’t worry! There are many other good sources of vitamin C: papaya, red bell peppers, kiwi, kale, spinach, strawberries, and citrus fruits.
This traditional healing food has seen a resurgence in popularity-- and for good reason!
Bone broth contains arginine, an amino acid which is essential for immune system function.
Bone broth is also rich in collagen, a compound that supports the function and repair of connective tissues and may help repair the gut lining. Leaky gut, a condition in which the intestinal barrier becomes compromised, has been linked to chronic inflammation and immune dysfunction, along with their associated illnesses, including cancer.
Bone marrow also contains lipids, especially alkylglycerols, which are necessary for the production of white blood cells. Alkylglycerols have been shown to boost the immune system and decrease the growth of cancerous tumors.
There are trillions of bacteria that reside within the digestive tract. This “microbiome” plays a critical role in digestive health as well as immunity and cancer prevention.
Many aspects of modern society have been found to impact the microbiome: overuse of antibiotics, changes in diet, and modern sanitation practices.
Changes in the diversity or population of the gut flora can alter immune responses and inflammation levels, both in the gut and throughout the body. Furthermore, this may impact its ability to maintain balanced immune responses, which is believed to contribute to the rise in chronic inflammatory and autoimmune disorders, like irritable bowel disease and multiple sclerosis.
Fermented foods contain loads of beneficial bacteria, or probiotics, which can help restore the gut flora. These foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, yogurt, miso, and tempeh.
But look out for sugar! Many kombuchas, yogurts, and kefirs contain added sugars which stress the immune system. Opt for the plain versions and add your own antioxidant-rich berries for flavor.
They might not be the most obvious health food, but oysters are abundant in zinc, an important trace element and immune system regulator.
Dubbed the “gatekeeper of the immune system,” zinc is essential to the function of virtually all immune cells.
Zinc deficiency is associated with immune dysfunction, which can lead to the development of allergies, inflammation, and diseases like multiple sclerosis, cancer, and diabetes.
If you aren’t a fan of oysters, other dietary sources of zinc include sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, cashews, and chickpeas.
It’s no coincidence that legumes are the cornerstone blue zone diets. The blue zones are five areas in the world where people live the longest with the lowest incidence of chronic illness.
Legumes are rich in immune-enhancing phytonutrients and they are particularly high in fiber.
Studies show that soluble fiber actually changes the behavior of immune cells from pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory, helping us recover faster from infection. It does this by increasing production of an anti-inflammatory protein called interleukin-4.
Another reason fiber is so important is that we can’t digest it, but our microbiome can. Soluble fiber acts as a prebiotic, feeding the population of beneficial gut bacteria that plays a key role in our digestion and immunity.
Legumes include beans (fava, black, soybeans, garbanzo, kidney, pinto, navy), lentils, peas, peanuts.
These tiny seeds pack a triple immune-boosting punch.
Ground flaxseeds are high in alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid), soluble fiber, and are the richest source of lignans (phytoestrogens that function like antioxidants) on the planet.
Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory and immune-enhancing properties. They may also prevent or inhibit the growth of cancers: alpha-linolenic acid has been shown to suppress the growth of prostate, breast, and bladder cancers.
These important fatty acids are sensitive to environmental factors (oxygen, heat, humidity, etc.). So, for maximum potency, refrigerate your flaxseed in an air-tight container and grind the seeds yourself with a coffee or spice grinder.
Other great sources of omega-3 fatty acids include chia seeds, oily fish (mackerel, tuna, salmon, sardines, herring, and trout), and walnuts.
Almonds are high in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that plays an important role in immune function. Your body cannot produce vitamin E, which means it must be obtained through diet and/or supplementation.
Almonds also contain other important micronutrients like manganese, magnesium, and fiber.
Other foods that contain vitamin E include sunflower seeds, peanuts, hazelnuts, spinach and broccoli.
Studies have shown that both black and green teas have cancer preventative mechanisms which mitigate cell mutation, replication, and tumor development. One reason for this may be that tea is high in polyphenols--antioxidant compounds that give vegetables, fruits, grains, and flowers their bright colors.
There is one polyphenol found almost exclusively in green tea: epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG).
EGCG contribute to the healthy functioning of several body systems, especially the immune system. Several types of immune cells are known to be affected by EGCG. Its ability to regulate T cells is particularly beneficial, as dysregulated T cell function plays a key role in the development of autoimmunity.
Wild-caught sockeye salmon is rich in astaxanthin.
This plant compound is what gives salmon its deep orange color and is one of the most powerful antioxidants found in nature.
In fact, it’s antioxidant power has been shown to be 6,000 times greater than vitamin C, 3,000 times greater than resveratrol, and 800 times greater than CoQ10.
Astaxanthin has also been shown to enhance immune response, decrease DNA damage, and lower C-reactive protein levels (a marker of inflammation).
Whenever possible, opt for wild-caught salmon rather than farm-raised. It contains substantially higher levels of astaxanthin do to its natural diet, which is high in astaxanthin-rich algae. The feed given to farmed salmon contains little, if any, algae which is why farm-raised salmon is usually much paler in color than wild salmon.
Other sources of astaxanthin include red trout, krill, shrimp, crab, and algae.