How Does Nutrition Affect the Immune System?
As you evaluate the connection between nutrition and the immune system, you see that the two are closely related. Your body's immune system is made from multiple complex cells, chemicals and processes that are always defending you from dangerous pathogens. Without a properly working immune system, you can become susceptible to viruses, bacteria and toxins.
Nutrition is an essential aspect of keeping your immune system working the way it should. You must make healthy food choices to ensure your body gets what it needs. The role of nutrition in immunity works in conjunction with how much sleep and exercise you get.
So, how does nutrition affect the immune system, and what can you do to boost your immunity?
To start, you need to center your diet around foods to strengthen the immune system — specifically foods that contain minerals and vitamins to strengthen the immune system.
However, not everyone finds that they can get the recommended daily amount of those vitamins and minerals through their diet. In these situations, you may want to consider supplementing your diet with vitamins and minerals to ensure you’re receiving enough.
For optimal immune system function, stick to the foods listed below. Additionally, consider some of the vitamins and minerals listed below to supplement your daily vitamin and mineral intake.
Vitamins and Minerals for Immune System Support
Nutrition and the immune system go hand-in-hand. Without proper nutrition, you can count on a weakened immune system. In fact, a 2007 study shows that micronutrients are responsible for building a strong immune system across three levels: physical barriers, cellular immunity and antibody production.
When it comes to creating physical barriers with the skin and mucous membranes, zinc, Vitamin C and Vitamin E are essential. From the cellular level, you will see that Vitamins B6, B12, E, D, C, folic acid, selenium and zinc all play a role. Additionally, almost all micronutrients are needed to create antibodies.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don't get enough of the healthy foods needed to provide the body with these nutrients. It’s also common to turn to healthy foods only in a time of need. But it isn't helpful to eat an orange after you feel a cold coming on. Instead, you need to consistently maintain a healthy immune system that’s prepared to take on anything that comes its way.
When you combine proper nutrition with exercise and regular sleep, you will see an improved performance by your immune system. You can start by searching out foods rich in the nutrients you need. And if you find areas where you are lacking, you can consider adding in a supplement.
B Vitamins are essential to overall nutrition support. The most common are B6 and B12, which are both vital for creating a healthy immune response. The role of B Vitamins and the immune response has been heavily researched. This study shows the effect of B6 deficiency and T Cell populations.
The body requires B12 to create red blood cells, DNA, nerves and perform everyday functions. However, this vitamin isn't made by the body; it’s only received through nutrition and supplements. Yet, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey concluded that over three percent of adults over the age of 50 might be seriously deficient, while nearly twenty percent face borderline deficiencies.
Probably one of the most well-known vitamins to improve immunity is Vitamin C. It's a popular supplement that a lot of people take to boost immunity. Vitamin C studies show that this nutrient supports the immune cells and enhances the ability to fight off infections. It also works as an antioxidant that reduces oxidative stress and reduces free radicals in the body.
Vitamin C is best known for how it reduces the duration and severity of the common cold. One review shows that supplementing with Vitamin C can reduce the duration of a cold term by about eight percent in adults, and up to 14 percent in children.
When most people think of Vitamin D, they immediately consider milk, but there is so much more to this fat-soluble nutrient. As we look at nutrition and the immune system, we see that Vitamin D is needed to enhance pathogen-fighting aspects of the body. It can also decrease inflammation, which aids the immune system further.
Vitamin D and immune system studies show that a deficiency can lead to impaired functions. The decreased immune functions present themselves through allergic asthma, influenza and other upper respiratory tract infections. In fact, a review of several studies shows that Vitamin D supplementation can reduce the risk of these infections.
Folic acid is added to foods that support immune system functions. This water-soluble B vitamin is the synthetic version of folate, which occurs naturally. Inadequate amounts of folic acid can alter the immune response by adjusting the nucleic acid production. Deficiencies are also linked to inhibiting the immune cells, reducing protein synthesis and interfering with the body's metabolic process.
Folic acid has been given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriage or neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. Additionally, folic acid has been used for other conditions, such as strokes, depression, cognitive dysfunctions and dementia. It can be found within many B-complex vitamin supplements.
One of the top minerals to improve immunity is iron. Studies show both a deficiency and an excess of iron can severely impact overall nutrition and immunity, as well as the growth of microbial pathogens.
However, most people won’t develop an iron deficiency, especially if they maintain a healthy diet that supports the immune system. Those most at risk include pregnant women and endurance athletes.
Additionally, vegans, vegetarians and women with heavier menstrual cycles might find that taking an iron supplement is necessary. In addition, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements, nearly sixty percent of patients with chronic heart failure face an iron deficiency.
Another mineral that strengthens the immune system is selenium. One study explains how it’s linked to immune system functions, specifically in the case of avian influenza in chickens.
Selenium is considered an antioxidant that keeps free radicals in check. It has also been shown to decrease oxidative stress and lower the risk of several cancers.
In fact, many people opt to take a selenium supplement to reduce oxidative stress, boost the immune system or aid in recovery following radiation treatment for cancer. Studies also show that eating a diet rich with selenium helps to keep your heart disease risk to a minimum.
Another mineral that is popular for nutritional supplements is zinc. This mineral is required for cell communication and development. It also aids in reducing the body’s inflammatory response. This essential micronutrient catalyzes more than a hundred enzymes in the body.
Zinc deficiency has been linked to an increase in infection and disease, particularly pneumonia in elderly patients, according to one study. Unfortunately, zinc deficiency tends to occur in about two billion adults worldwide, with up to thirty percent of the older population considered deficient. Unlike many of the other nutrients, zinc can be beneficial to consume once illness sets in. One study showed a decrease in infection time and hospital stay duration among children with a respiratory tract infection.
Magnesium is an essential mineral if you want to boost your immune system. First off, it has been shown to reduce stress in the body. Studies indicate that magnesium deficiency can lead to an increase in adrenaline and cortisol production, increasing the chances of getting sick. Additionally, magnesium can help promote restful sleep, which is vital to maintaining a healthy immune system.
If you plan to take Vitamin C to boost your immune system, you’ll want to look at the relation between Vitamin C and magnesium. When magnesium levels are low, studies show there is also a decrease of Vitamin C absorption, further compromising your immune system.
Foods That Boost the Immune System
If you want to incorporate foods that help fight infections into your daily diet, you could start with these:
- Almonds: High in Vitamin E
- Broccoli: Packed with Vitamins A, C and E, plus fiber and other antioxidants
- Citrus fruits: High in Vitamin C
- Kiwi: Filled with Vitamin C, folate, Vitamin K and potassium
- Papaya: Not only high in Vitamin C, but also magnesium, folate and potassium
- Red bell peppers: High in Vitamin C
- Shellfish: Lobster, mussels, crabs and oysters are rich in zinc
- Spinach: Rich in Vitamin C, beta carotene and antioxidants
- Sunflower seeds: Filled with magnesium, B Vitamins, Vitamin E and phosphorus
- Yogurt: Excellent source of Vitamin D and cultures to fight diseases
It can be difficult for some people to incorporate enough foods to reach the daily requirements of vitamin intake. If you find it hard to eat enough healthy food, you might be interested in adding a multivitamin product or specific supplements for what you are lacking.
But what's most important is that you make healthy choices regarding nutrition and the immune system if you want to ward off disease and take care of your body.
Other Ways to Boost Your Body's Natural Defenses
- Boosting your immune system during cold and flu season
- Using Vitamin C to boost your immune system
- Using Vitamin D to boost your immune system
COVID-19 and Your Immune System
Now that we've discussed the best vitamins and minerals for immune system support, it's vital to look at the connection between COVID-19 and the immune system. According to the CDC, people with compromised immune systems may have an increased chance of suffering complications from COVID-19.
If you have a weakened immune system, you could remain infected by COVID-19 for a longer time and could deal with dangerous complications. Aside from preventing the exposure to this disease, it's wise to invest in boosting your immune system through nutrition and supplements.
You can talk to your health care professional about what minerals and vitamins protect the immune system. Then, you can try incorporating vitamin- and mineral-rich foods to improve the immune system into your diet. If that's not enough, consider adding a supplement to strengthen your immune system.