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To support your immunity, consider eating these expert-approved foods.
“When we consume foods that lack adequate supply and variety of vitamins and minerals, like the standard Western diet that’s high in simple carbohydrates and sugars, our body does not have the reserves to properly fight infection and maintain immune function,” says Paulina Lee, a functional dietitian and founder of Savvy Stummy, LLC. “Therefore, it’s important to include a variety of whole foods and complex carbohydrates in order to support our immune system.”
“Diets high in processed foods, simple carbs and sugars tend to increase inflammation which can lead to many diseases,” adds Lee.
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For optimal health, eating a wholesome and balanced diet, exercising, abstaining from alcohol and tobacco use and limiting stressors can go a long way, according to Dr. Annelie Vogt von Heselholt, registered dietitian and founder of dietitiandoc.com.
“If your immune system isn’t in top shape, daily stress from work and life can cause you to feel run down and develop inflammation and chronic diseases,” says Vogt von Heselholt said. “By eating foods that are immune system boosters, you can help your body be stronger and better resist stress and diseases such as heart disease and cancer.”
“One study from the Journal of Food Science in 2021 shows that blueberries may contribute to improved immune function,” adds Vogt von Heselholt.
Load up on these tiny-but-mighty berries by adding some to your oatmeal or tossing into a salad. Bonus: blueberries can help you look and feel younger, too.
Yellow Bell Peppers
Kim Yawitz, a registered dietitian and owner of Two Six Fitness (crossfit26.com) in St. Louis, Mo., is a big fan of this nutritious pepper.
“According to a 2018 review in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, taking 100 to 200 milligrams of vitamin C can shorten the duration of the common cold by up to 14 percent,” she says. “Considering one yellow bell pepper contains 341 milligrams of vitamin C, snacking on one when you have a sniffle could help you feel better faster.”
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Suggestion: eat as a snack or add them to pasta or salads.
“Goji berries (a.k.a. wolfberries) are a well known superfood due to their high vitamin C and A content and antioxidant abilities,” says Lee, adding that goji berries have been an important part of traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years due to their rich chemical composition and medical properties.
“One study found that drinking goji juice daily boosted the immune system by increasing several immunological responses, like increased lymphocytes [a type of white blood cell present in your immune system],” she says, referencing a 2009 study in the Journal of Medicinal Food.
Fermented Dairy Products
Fermented dairy products, like kefir, contain lactobacillus and other beneficial bacteria (known as probiotics) that are thought to increase the number of certain antimicrobial proteins in the body, says Yawitz, referencing a study in the journal Age (Dordr).
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“In [another] 2017 study published in The European Journal of Nutrition, men who drank a fermented milk drink every day during cold and flu season had 31 percent fewer upper respiratory tract infections than men who drank plain milk,” she adds.
In addition to kefir, try yogurt and cottage cheese. Be sure to look for products that have active cultures, says Yawitz.
Other Probiotic-Rich Foods
Along with dairy products, Lee stresses that other probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut, miso, and kimchi, “are all beneficial for gut and immune health.”
“The connection between our gut and immune system continues to be researched. With 70-80 percent of our immune cells located in our gut, daily intake of probiotic foods may help to provide a variety of healthy gut bacteria in order to maintain gut and immune balance,” she states.
“Garlic has been researched for its ability to increase natural killer cells that are involved in both adaptive and innate immunity, as well as tumor-killing,” says Lee. “One study [published in the journal Clinical Nutrition in 2012] found that aged garlic extract may enhance immune cell function thereby reducing the severity of colds and flu. The main active ingredient allicin is thought to be the powerhouse behind garlic’s immune-boosting abilities.”
Adding to that, Vogt von Heselholt points to another study from the journal Medical Hypotheses in 2020 which “shows that garlic can help boost the immune system.”
Furthermore, on its website, the University of Rochester Medical Center described allicin to be “a strong antibiotic.”
Oysters are the highest food source of zinc, says Lee.
“Zinc is essential for the immune system, and zinc deficiency affects multiple aspects of innate and adaptive immunity,” she explains. “One study shows that zinc supplementation can lower incidence of infections and oxidative stress markers.”
Other foods that contain zinc include legumes like lentils and beans, seeds, nuts and whole grains.
Here’s reason to load up on broccoli, whether raw, steamed or roasted: “One study in Molecules in 2021 shows that sulforaphane in broccoli can act as natural immune system enhancers,” says Vogt von Heselholt.
We know it’s not a food, but experts say this nutritious beverage is well worth incorporating into your diet to help bolster your immune system.
“Green tea is an abundant source of EGCG, a catechin. Catechins are polyphenols that usually have an overall positive benefit to wellness and are notable antioxidants,” says Lee.
“From what we know about polyphenols and antioxidants actions, we can infer that EGCG from green tea will have similar effects on our immune health. One study shows the direct impact of EGCG on immune health and how it can modulate immune cell function and improve some autoimmune disease in animal models,” she continues, highlighting a 2016 study from the Journal of Investigative Medicine.
“One study in the Journal of Cellular Physiology in 2018 shows that curcumin in turmeric can affect immune cells and lead to less severe immune-related diseases,” says Vogt von Heselholt.
More reasons to love turmeric? It may help with osteoarthritis knee pain, irritable bowel syndrome, eye and skin conditions, certain types of cancer and more.