A strong immune system is essential for overall health and wellbeing. With cold and flu season ramping up, many people are looking for ways to naturally boost immunity through diet and lifestyle changes. The right foods and nutrients can support immune cell function, fortify your body’s defenses, and help you stay resilient in the face of germs and viruses.
This comprehensive guide will explore the top foods, diets, and recipes to optimize your immune health. Read on to learn research-backed strategies for strengthening immunity and safeguarding your body through strategic eating.
An Overview of the Immune System
The immune system is your body’s natural defense against pathogens like bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that can cause illness. It’s an intricate network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect you.
Here’s a quick overview of how it works:
- The first line of defense are physical and chemical barriers like skin, mucous membranes, tears, saliva, and stomach acid that prevent pathogens from entering your body.
- If pathogens get past these barriers, the innate immune system kicks in. This includes immune cells like macrophages that engulf and destroy foreign invaders.
- The adaptive immune system then targets the specific pathogen. This involves lymphocytes like T-cells and B-cells that launch a specialized attack and create long-lasting immunity.
- Key immune system players are white blood cells, antibodies, the complement system, the lymphatic system, bone marrow, spleen, and thymus.
- Proper immune function relies on getting adequate sleep, managing stress, exercising, and eating a nutritious diet. Deficiencies can compromise your immunity.
The right diet provides the nutrients you need to keep immune cells, tissues, and organs functioning optimally. Let’s look at the top foods and nutrients to incorporate.
The 12 Best Foods To Boost Your Immune System
Certain nutrients have a major impact on immune health. Focus on getting enough of these immunity-boosting compounds:
1. Citrus Fruits
Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, and tangerines are packed with vitamin C. This powerful antioxidant supports the production and function of immune cells.
- One large orange provides 100% of your daily vitamin C needs.
- Vitamin C also acts as an antihistamine to help reduce congestion and respiratory symptoms.
Aim for at least one serving of citrus fruits or juice daily. Enjoy whole fruits or squeeze juice over salads or grains.
2. Red Bell Peppers
Red bell peppers are another excellent source of immune-boosting vitamin C. One medium pepper has 152% of the daily recommended value.
The vitamin C content is even higher than citrus fruits. Other colorful bell pepper varieties like orange, yellow, and green are also nutritious but red has the most.
Enjoy raw bell peppers with hummus, add them to stir-fries, tacos, pasta salads, and more.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli provide nutrients that boost immunity in several ways.
- Broccoli has vitamins A, C, and E – antioxidants that support immune cell function.
- It also provides sulforaphane, a sulfur compound with antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects.
- The B vitamins in broccoli aid immune response. Folate, for example, helps white blood cells produce pathogens-fighting antibodies.
Aim for 1-2 cups of broccoli florets 3-5 times per week. Roast broccoli, add it to grain bowls and soups, or enjoy it steamed or raw with dip.
Garlic offers antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory benefits to fortify your immune defenses. The sulfur compounds allicin and alliin are responsible for much of its immune-boosting potential.
- Garlic may help prevent colds and reduce symptoms. It’s also used to boost immunity and speed recovery in traditional medicine practices like Ayurveda.
- Research shows garlic extracts help strengthen immune cells like macrophages and lymphocytes.
To maximize garlic’s immune benefits, aim for 1-2 cloves per day. Crush, mince, or press it to enhance allicin production then add it to dressings, sauces, broths, baked goods, and more.
Ginger root is commonly used to relieve nausea but also provides antimicrobial potent compounds called gingerols that fortify your defenses.
- Ginger supports healthy immune cell function and contains antioxidants that quell inflammation.
- It may help prevent or treat cold/flu symptoms like body aches, chills, and sore throat.
- You can take ginger root supplements in capsule form when traveling or during cold/flu season as a preventive.
Enjoy fresh ginger root steeped into tea, blended into smoothies, or grated/minced into stir fry, soups, and curries for an immunity boost.
Leafy greens like spinach provide a wealth of nutrients to optimize immune health.
- Spinach is rich in vitamins C, E, A, and K which support immune cell function and help fight infection.
- It also provides vitamin B6, iron, magnesium, potassium, and folate – nutrients vital for proper immune response.
- Beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin act as antioxidants to reduce inflammation.
Aim for 1-2 cups of spinach daily. Add it to smoothies, scrambled eggs, pasta dishes, soups, salads, and use it as a pizza topping or bed for cooked grains or beans.
Probiotic-rich yogurt offers friendly bacteria that benefit your gut microbiome and immune function.
- Research shows probiotic yogurt may boost cells like macrophages and T-cells, increasing their pathogen-fighting powers.
- The probiotics may also fortify the gut lining, preventing “leaky gut” that allows pathogens and toxins to enter the body.
- Look for labels marked “live and active cultures.” Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus reuteri are two probiotics shown to boost immunity.
Choose plain unsweetened yogurt and enjoy a serving daily. Top it with fruit, nuts, granola, or use yogurt in smoothies.
Almonds provide an array of immune-supporting nutrients.
- They’re high in vitamin E, an antioxidant that assists immune cell functions. Just 1 ounce meets 37% of your daily needs.
- Magnesium supports wound healing, calms stress, and aids sleep – all key factors in immune health. Almonds provide good amounts of magnesium.
- They also supply B vitamins for cell metabolism/energy and bone-supporting manganese.
Enjoy a 1-ounce serving (about 23 almonds) as a snack, in salads, yogurt, or stir-fry. Soak them overnight to aid digestibility.
Turmeric root contains the powerful compound curcumin which provides antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Research suggests curcumin may help regulate immune responses. It can strengthen weakened defenses but also calm overactive functions.
- The anti-inflammatory effects help ease cold/flu symptoms like body aches and chills.
- Curcumin may also protect against tissue damage and lung changes from respiratory viral infections.
Add turmeric powder or fresh grated turmeric root to curries, soups, smoothies. The black pepper boosts curcumin absorption.
10. Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds provide several immune-boosting nutrients including:
- Vitamin E – A potent antioxidant and free radical scavenger. Just a quarter cup of sunflower seeds meets 50% of your daily needs.
- Selenium – Supports immune response and protects against pathogens and cell damage. Sunflower seeds are an excellent source.
- Zinc – Essential for immune cell development and communication. Deficiency affects immunity.
- Copper – An antioxidant mineral that aids healthy immune cells. Works with zinc for proper function.
Incorporate a quarter-cup serving into trail mixes, salads, or eating the seeds by themselves.
11. Green Tea
Green tea provides the antioxidant EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) which offers anti-inflammatory benefits to support immunity.
- EGCG may help immune cells respond more nimbly to invading pathogens. It supports first-line-of-defense innate immunity.
- It may also protect lipids from peroxidation and oxidative damage linked to poor immune function.
- Compounds in green tea provide broad-spectrum antimicrobial effects against bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Sip 2-3 cups of green tea per day either hot or cold. Matcha powder also provides an antioxidant boost.
12. Bone Broth
Broths made by simmering animal bones provide collagen, amino acids like arginine and glutamine, and key minerals that fortify immunity.
- Broths act as an anti-inflammatory food to calm immune over-responses implicated in cold/flu symptoms.
- The amino acid glutamine supports gut health and immune cell metabolism.
- Broths replenish electrolytes depleted when you’re sick.
Enjoy bone broth as a soothing hot drink or use it as the base for soups, stews, rice/grains, or as cooking liquid. Use chicken, beef, lamb or fish bones to make broth.
5 Immunity-Boosting Diets and Eating Patterns
Certain dietary patterns provide a synergistic combination of protective compounds, micronutrients, and probiotics to optimize immune health.
Here are some top anti-inflammatory, immune-supportive diets to consider:
1. The Mediterranean Diet
This diet is consistently ranked as one of the healthiest eating patterns.
- Abundant plant foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, herbs, spices.
- Whole grains.
- Olive oil as the main cooking fat.
- Moderate dairy intake, mainly yogurt and cheese.
- Low-moderate fish and poultry intake.
- Eggs in moderation.
- Little red meat.
- Wine in moderation with meals.
The Mediterranean diet provides antioxidants and polyphenols that fight inflammation and protect immune function. Olive oil offers anti-inflammatory oleic acid. Yogurt provides probiotics. The wide range of plant foods gives you plenty of the vitamins, minerals, and compounds your immune system needs.
Follow a Mediterranean style of eating for immune protection and overall wellness.
2. The DASH Diet
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) plan emphasizes fruits, veggies, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
- Load up on a variety of produce.
- Go for low-fat versions of yogurt and other dairy foods.
- Include plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, edamame.
- Choose heart-healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts.
- Avoid saturated and trans fats that trigger inflammation.
- Limit sodium to keep blood pressure in check.
- Drink water as your main beverage.
This balanced approach provides antioxidants to quell inflammation along with nutrients to fortify immunity like vitamins A, C, and E, zinc, and magnesium.
3. The Flexitarian Diet
This plan focuses on primarily plant-based eating with the occasional inclusion of meat/poultry/fish.
How to follow it:
- Make fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans the foundation of your diet.
- Limit meat to a few times a month, as a side, not the main component of meals.
- Swap out dairy for plant-based milk alternatives.
- Choose eggs, seafood, chicken, or turkey as your main animal proteins since they’re tied to less inflammation.
- Avoid or strictly limit red meat like beef, pork, and lamb.
The anti-inflammatory effects of plant foods combined with immune-supportive vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals make this diet beneficial for immunity.
4. Intermittent Fasting
This eating pattern cycles periods of fasting and non-fasting instead of restricting what you eat. Popular plans include:
- 16:8 method – Fast for 16 hours (like overnight), feast for 8 hours.
- 5:2 diet – Eat normally 5 days a week, limit to ~500-600 calories 2 non-consecutive days.
- Time restricted feeding – Limit eating window to 6-8 hours per day.
Benefits may include:
- Lower inflammation which supports immune function
- Improved metabolic flexibility
- Cellular recycling processes like autophagy
- Circadian rhythm optimization
Fasting gives your immune system a chance to recharge and renew. Keep it hydrated with plain water, herbal tea, broth during fasts.
5. Autoimmune Protocol (AIP)
This specialized diet aims to calm autoimmune disease activity and inflammation by eliminating trigger foods.
- Omit grains, beans/legumes, dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, nightshades, oils, alcohol.
- Focus on meat, seafood, veggies, herbs, broth, plantains, ferments.
- Tailor reintroductions to your unique tolerances.
By removing pro-inflammatory foods, this diet can calm an overactive immune system and underlying inflammation. It helps identify personal trigger foods as well.
10 Soothing Foods When You’re Sick
When your immune defenses have been breached, focus on nourishing foods that provide comfort along with key nutrients to aid healing:
1. Chicken Soup
The classic home remedy, broth-based chicken soup protects against inflammation while delivering fluid/electrolytes and nutrients like protein. Let it soothe sore throats, stuffy noses, and more.
2. Coconut Water
The electrolytes in coconut water rehydrate you and replenish what’s lost through fever, sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea. Choose plain varieties without added sugar.
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Honey coats and soothes sore throat while providing antioxidant and antimicrobial benefits. Choose raw manuka honey for maximum immune effects.
4. Ginger Tea
Ginger acts as an anti-inflammatory, pain reliever, and decongestant. Steep it into tea or blend into lemon-honey drinks.
Bananas are easy to digest, provide potassium to address muscle cramps/fatigue, and include prebiotics to feed good gut bacteria.
Oatmeal offers soluble fiber to feed good gut bacteria along with manganese to aid wound healing. It’s a soothing bland food when you have nausea or diarrhea. Avoid gluten varieties for sensitive stomachs.
Garlic’s antimicrobial properties can help fight off the pathogen causing your illness. Use it liberally in soups, broths, stir fries or garlic honey.
8. Leafy Greens
Greens provide antioxidants and nutrients but avoid raw salads if you have diarrhea. Opt for cooked greens in soups and stews.
9. Bone Broth
Sip mineral-rich easy-to-digest bone broth to stay hydrated and replace electrolytes. Broths also offer collagen to heal leaky gut.
Stay hydrated with watermelon, which provides fluids along with antioxidants like glutathione to speed healing.
6 Recipes To Strengthen Your Defenses
Incorporate these delicious recipes brimming with cold/flu fighting nutrients into your routine for immune system insurance:
Immune Boosting Green Smoothie
- 1 cup coconut water or coconut kefir
- 1 frozen banana
- 1 cup baby spinach
- 1 tablespoon almond butter
- 1/2 avocado
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- Dash of ginger and black pepper
Blend all ingredients until smooth and creamy. The greens, citrus, avocado, ginger, turmeric, and probiotics boost immunity.
Warming Curry Lentil Soup
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 3 celery stalks, chopped
- 1 cup red lentils, rinsed
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 1 tablespoon curry powder
- 1 (14 ounce) can lite coconut milk
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Fresh cilantro, basil, or parsley
Saute onion, garlic, ginger in oil. Add carrots/celery and cook 5 minutes. Add lentils, broth, curry powder and simmer 20 minutes until lentils soften. Remove from heat and stir in coconut milk and lemon. Garnish bowls with fresh herbs.
Immune-Boosting Chicken Zoodle Soup
- 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 32 ounces chicken broth
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 carrots, sliced
- 3 celery stalks, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 knob fresh grated ginger
- 2 medium zucchini, spiralized
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley
Poach chicken in broth and bay leaf for 15 minutes. Remove and shred chicken, reserving broth. Heat oil in pot and saute onion, carrots and celery 5 minutes. Add garlic, ginger and cook 1 minute. Add reserved broth, chicken and zoodles. Simmer 5 minutes until zucchini softens. Remove from heat, stir in lemon juice and parsley.
Overnight Immunity Oats
- 1/2 cup rolled oats
- 1/2 cup yogurt
- 1/2 cup milk of choice
- 2 tablespoons chia seeds
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 tablespoon raw honey
- 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
- 1/4 cup dried cranberries, chopped apple or orange slices
Combine all ingredients except toppings in a mason jar or bowl. Refrigerate overnight. Top with your choice of dried fruit, nuts, seeds, coconut flakes or granola.