A healthy diet rich in whole foods and nutrient-dense is the best way to support immune function. Foods that are rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals (such as garlic, berries, turmeric) can also help boost immunity.
Lean protein, dairy products or fortified alternatives, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables provide the nutrients needed to prime the immune system.
1. Eat a Balanced Diet
Food provides many immune-boosting nutrients, such as antioxidants, vitamin A and C, zinc and protein. Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean sources of protein. Limit added sugars, which can suppress the immune system.
Studies show that ingestion of simple sugars decreases white blood cells’ ability to engulf bacteria and other pathogens, according to one study. Added sugars also contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The immune system detects and eliminates harmful germs to keep you healthy, but if it overreacts, it can attack your own body’s tissues and lead to problems like autoimmune diseases or allergic reactions. Keep your immune system strong by eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly. Also, be sure to get all recommended vaccines.
2. Get Enough Sleep
Your immune system needs a good night’s sleep to function at its best. When you don’t get enough sleep, it can interfere with the ability of your immune cells to recognize and respond to threats like bacteria, viruses or fungus. It can also interfere with your body’s inflammatory response, which is one of the immune system’s primary weapons against disease and infection.
Research shows that a good night’s sleep is linked to improved immune system function, including increased production of anti-inflammatory proteins called cytokines. This can help to prevent and reduce the severity of infections.
You can get enough cytokines by eating protein-rich foods, such as lean meat, fish, beans and eggs. In addition to eating a balanced diet, you can take a daily multivitamin that includes Vitamins C, E and D to support your immune system. However, it’s always better to get your nutrients from food rather than supplements. You should talk to your doctor before taking high-dose supplements.
3. Exercise Regularly
While people often seek out certain foods and vitamin supplements that they believe boost immunity, the design of our immune system is incredibly complex and influenced by an ideal balance of many factors. A balanced diet that includes a variety of vitamins and minerals, along with healthy sleep patterns, daily physical activity and stress reduction techniques, is what best primes our bodies to fight off pathogens like COVID-19.
Studies suggest that regular exercise improves immune function by increasing the number of white blood cells, which are responsible for fighting infections, and antibodies, protein molecules that help fight off viruses and bacteria. While higher intensity workouts may provide a bigger boost, Nieman says moderate-intensity workouts are better for immune health since they prevent overtraining and increase levels of antioxidants, which also support immunity.
Aside from exercise, a balanced diet that emphasizes protein-rich foods, whole grains and non-starchy vegetables is key to immune-boosting nutrition. Vitamin A, beta-carotene and other antioxidants found in foods like orange produce and dark leafy greens are particularly helpful, as is vitamin E, which is abundant in nuts (a half-cup of almonds provides a day’s worth) and vegetable oils.
4. Reduce Stress
There’s no magic food or supplement that can boost immune function, but there are a number of healthy-eating habits that help. Aim for daily protein, lots of veggies and color, and try to avoid saturated fats, sugary drinks and processed foods.
Vitamin E is another important immune-boosting nutrient. Adults need about 15 mg each day. You can find it in nuts (such as almonds), kale, sunflower seeds, avocados and spinach.
Protein-rich foods deliver amino acids, which are the building blocks for antibodies and other immune cells. Add lean meat, poultry, fish and eggs to your diet. Try to include a serving at most meals and snacks. And don’t forget to add in some plant-based proteins such as legumes and whole grains. You’ll also want to get enough fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna, for heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water. This hydrates the body and helps prevent dehydration, which can trigger stress hormones that suppress the immune system.