The old saying, “An apple a day can keep the doctor away,” may have some truth behind it after all. Eating nourishing foods rich in certain vitamins can help your immune system fight off illness.
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We talked to registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, for a closer look at which vitamins are best for boosting your immunity, as well as what foods you can find them in and how they can help keep you healthy.
Vitamins that boost immune system health
Choosing foods with the right vitamins can help you build up your immune system.
“You build a strong immune system by maintaining healthy eating habits over time,” Zumpano says. “The more you regularly choose a vitamin-rich diet, the more likely you are to strengthen your immune system for the long haul.”
In other words, you can’t just eat four oranges at breakfast one day and expect to be protected against catching a cold all season. It’s a cumulative effect.
Zumpano shares which vitamins you need to give your immune system a boost and how to get them.
This one, you probably know about. Vitamin C is one of the biggest immune system boosters of all. In fact, researchers say vitamin C deficiency can make you more prone to getting sick. Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant, meaning it can protect your body from toxins that cause inflammation in your body.
Getting your intake of vitamin C on the regular is essential for good health because your body doesn’t produce it on its own. It also doesn’t store it to use later. The good news is that vitamin C is in so many foods that most people don’t need to take a vitamin C supplement unless a doctor advises it.
Vitamin C-rich foods
Vitamin C is most commonly associated with orange citrus fruits, but you can get your fill of vitamin C from a variety of fruits and vegetables. Zumpano suggests these 10 foods, ranked from highest levels of Vitamin C to lower levels:
- Red bell peppers.
- Oranges and orange juice.
- Grapefruit juice.
- Green bell peppers.
- Cooked broccoli.
- Brussels sprouts.
- Raw broccoli.
B6 is vital to supporting biochemical reactions in your immune system. One of its major roles is in producing white blood cells and T-cells. Those are the cells in your body that respond to fight off invaders, like viruses and bacteria.
Foods full of vitamin B6
Vitamin B6-rich foods include the following, in order from most B6 to foods with lower (but still good amounts!) of B6:
- Chickpeas (the main ingredient in hummus).
- Beef and beef liver.
- Cold-water fish, like salmon and tuna.
- Chicken breast.
- Fortified breakfast cereals.
- Cottage cheese.
- Winter squash.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps your body fight off infection. Researchers say vitamin E is one of the most effective nutrients for your immune function. That’s because it helps keep your T-cells working at peak performance.
Get your fill of vitamin E
Zumpano says to avoid taking vitamin E supplements. Not only is there little clinical research showing that vitamin E supplements benefit your health, but they may also be harmful in some situations.
Instead, load up your plate with these vitamin E-filled foods. The higher on this list, the more vitamin E they contain:
- Wheat germ oil.
- Seeds, like sunflower seeds.
- Nuts, like almonds, peanuts and nut butters.
Zinc is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Researchers call it the “gatekeeper” of your immune system because it’s responsible for making all your immune cells function properly.
Foods rich in zinc
Oysters are the highest food source of zinc. Other foods to boost your zinc intake include these, again ranked from higher levels of zinc to lower levels:
- Beef (choose lean cuts only).
- Blue crab.
- Pumpkin seeds.
- Broiled pork chops.
- Turkey breast.
- Cheddar cheese.
- Canned sardines.
- Greek yogurt.
Dietary selenium is a one-two punch for keeping you healthy. Researchers say it not only activates your immune system when there’s a threat, but it also tells your immune system when to pump the brakes. That means it can keep your immune system from going overboard, protecting you from chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and psoriasis.
Try these foods high in selenium
Zumpano suggests getting your fill on these foods high in selenium. Foods listed higher on this list contain the most selenium:
- Brazil nuts.
- Canned sardines.
- Lean meats.
- Cottage cheese.
- Brown rice.
- Milk and yogurt.
- Nuts and seeds.
Some ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are fortified with selenium, too.
Get your vitamins with a colorful diet
A simple rule can help you when choosing fruits and vegetables at the grocery store or farmers market: The more colorful the fruits and vegetables, the better. (And prettier, too!)
“Try to eat a wide variety of foods, and aim to eat fruit and vegetables from every color of the rainbow,” Zumpano advises. “Your plate will be more enticing to look at, and you will ensure that you’re getting as many health-boosting vitamins and nutrients as possible.”
Up your water intake
In addition to a vitamin-packed diet, staying hydrated can boost your immune health, too, Zumpano says.
“Water helps your body produce lymph, which carries white blood cells and other immune system cells,” she adds.
Try to avoid overdoing beverages that can make you dehydrated, like coffee and soda. And try eating more hydrating foods, such as cucumbers, celery and watermelon.
What about vitamin supplements for immune health?
While vitamins and supplements can help fill in the gaps in your diet, the best way to load up on essential nutrients is to get them straight from the source, Zumpano states.
Your body absorbs and uses vitamins and nutrients better when they come from the foods you eat than from a supplement.
Some supplements may have side effects, too, especially if taken before surgery or with other medicines. Supplements can also cause problems if you have certain health conditions. And the effects of many supplements haven’t been tested in children, people who are pregnant and other groups.
For these reasons, experts say it’s best to get your immune system-boosting vitamins through food rather than supplements if you can.
If you think you need a supplement, Zumpano suggests talking with a healthcare provider first. “They can help you understand whether a supplement is right for you and advise you on how to get your fill of the nutrients your body needs.”