Having a strong immune system is very important throughout the year, but perhaps above all, during the cold months when the amount of colds and viruses is at its absolute peak. Apart from sleeping properly, avoiding stress and getting regular exercise, diet is also very important for keeping your immune system strong and resilient. A varied diet is a good foundation, but there are also certain foods and nutrients that can give an extra boost in times of illness.
The immune system is influenced by our lifestyles and our general health, so by keeping an eye on diet, exercise, stress, and sleep we can hopefully keep our immune systems in good form. When it comes to diet, it’s most important to eat a wide variety of foods consisting of different types of fruit and vegetables. The body needs a varied diet in order to take in all of the essential nutrients, to get enough fibre, and for a good balance between the macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
However, for people who want to take extra care of their immune systems, there are certain nutrients and foods that you should prioritise in your diet.
1. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is probably the nutrient most of us think of first when it comes to strengthening our immune systems. Vitamin C stimulates production of white blood cells and antibodies which help to kill off unpleasant viruses. And vitamin C is also needed for the production of collagen which then binds together cells, helping to heal sores and damaged mucous membranes, among other things.
Eat: Peppers, kiwis, oranges, grapefruit, parsley, blackcurrants, broccoli, strawberries
Beta-carotene is a type of antioxidant that is also a precursor to vitamin A. A diet rich in beta-carotene has been linked with having a strong immune system and stronger mucous membranes. As an antioxidant, beta-carotene also contributes to the protection of cells against oxidative stress which is believed to be the cause of several diseases and health problems.
Eat: Carrots, pumpkin, sweet potato, brussels sprouts, dark green leafy vegetables
Sulphur is one of the most common minerals in the body, after calcium and phosphorous, and is present in all of our cells. Sulphur also plays an important part in the immune system as it reduces oxidative stress and inflammation which can weaken the immune system. Sulphur also contributes to the production of glutathione – one of the most important antioxidants, which we need for the proper functioning of the immune system.
Eat: Different types of onion, garlic, cauliflower, radishes, mushrooms
4. Anti-inflammatory spices
An anti-inflammatory diet serves the purpose of reducing and preventing low grade inflammation in the body (read more about the difference between acute and low grade/chronic inflammation here), which in turn calms an overactive immune system and prevents several different lifestyle diseases. In practice, this means that you avoid inflammatory foods, such as dairy products and sugar, for example, focusing rather on a diet mostly consisting of plant foods. But there are also certain foods which are known for their strong anti-inflammatory properties – including several spices.
Eat: Turmeric, cloves, cacao, oregano
5. Probiotic and prebiotic foods
Over 70 percent of our immune system is based in the gut, so it’s clear that a balanced gut flora is important for a strong immune system. The balance of our gut flora can be affected by things such as stress, a diet that’s low in fibre, antibiotic treatments and exposure to unknown bacteria, for example on foreign trips. In these cases, apart from eating a varied diet, you can also make sure your gut flora is strengthened by taking probiotics (good bacteria) which can be found in sauerkraut and other fermented foods, as well as prebiotics (fibre) which can be found in plant foods and function as food for the gut bacteria. It’s also a good idea to take a dietary supplement containing synbiotics which combine good bacteria and fibres, for example Synbiotic 15.
Eat: A variety of fruits, vegetables and other plant foods, fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi
The mineral, zinc, is necessary for healthy fertility, for keeping skin, hair, and nails strong, and it also helps with healing sores and killing off viruses. This is why zinc has been thoroughly researched for its effect on viral infections such as colds, for example. Zinc deficiencies are quite common as the gut doesn’t absorb this mineral easily. If you also suffer from a gluten allergy or some other disease of the gut, your intake can be hampered even further.
Eat: Pumpkin seeds, beans, sweet almonds, fish and shellfish