These days, immune health is at the forefront of everyone's minds. While there are many components to immune health nutrition plays a key role. In fact, a recent review in the European Journal of Nutrition & Food Safety found that a variety of vitamins and minerals play an important role in supporting immune health.
Furthermore, the study also suggested that deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals can lead to a weakened immune system and greater susceptibility to infection. Thankfully, these nutrients are abundant in everyday foods.
You can effectively support your immune system by eating a balanced diet that includes protein, iron and antioxidants and other key vitamins and minerals.
Ever since the days of scurvy outbreaks, it's become common knowledge that vitamin C is a key nutrient for the immune system. According to a review in Nutrients, it contributes to the rapid increase in B cells and T cells, two white blood cells that play a role in secreting antibodies and killing off infections.
Although taking high doses of vitamin C is believed to prevent illness, research suggests otherwise. A review in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that taking at least 200 milligrams of vitamin C per day only reduced the risk of contracting a cold in extremely active people, like marathon runners and skiers. For the average person, large doses of vitamin C don't reduce the risk of catching a cold. That said, taking in at least 200 milligrams of vitamin C per day may lessen the duration of cold symptoms by 8 percent (or about one day) in most people.
Luckily, vitamin C is abundant in fruits and vegetables. Eating a well-balanced diet with all the colors of the rainbow will help you get the recommended 65-90 milligrams per day. And while vitamin C deficiencies are rare, they may occur if consumption drops to less than 10 milligrams per day, according to the National Institutes of Health.
According to a study in Molecular Medicine, zinc is pivotal in the development of neutrophils and natural killer cells, both of which aid in healing wounds and fighting infections. Although zinc won't prevent you from catching a cold, review of the literature published in Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews suggested that taking zinc at the onset of a cold might decrease its duration.
Good sources of zinc include beef, oysters, crab, cashews, chickpeas, Greek yogurt, pumpkin seeds and lentils. Since zinc isn't as prevalent in a lot of foods, deficiencies can occur, especially among vegetarians and vegans. With a zinc deficiency, the body produces fewer infection-fighting cells, which increases your chance of getting sick. That's why it's important to get the recommended 8-11 milligrams per day to keep the immune system functioning properly, noted Nutrients.
Although not an essential nutrient, probiotics — or the "good bacteria" in your gut — have been shown to affect overall immune health. Probiotics influence the microorganisms that live in the digestive tract, where 70 percent of the immune system is housed, and can help strengthen intestinal immunity. Probiotics initiate responses by macrophages, a type of cell that engulfs harmful substances and rids them from the body. Microbial agents may suppress inflammation in the lungs and replication of viruses.
There's no set number of probiotics that anyone should have in any given day. That said, eating plenty of fermented foods is an easy way to incorporate them into your daily diet. Yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh are all good sources of probiotics.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin that's one of the most important antioxidants in biological membranes of all cells. Vitamin E protects against oxidative damage of the immune cells and strengthens their physiological function.
According to a review in Nutrients, when supplemented, vitamin E has been shown to increase the percentage of T cells, the white blood cells that seek out and destroy harmful invaders. The recommended daily dose of vitamin E is 15 milligrams. You can get this important vitamin through almonds, sunflower seeds, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes and avocados.
How to Strengthen Your Immune System
While focusing on certain nutrients can help you support your immune system health, the best way to promote overall immunity is to eat a well-balanced and varied diet. Try to incorporate plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and lean proteins into your everyday diet.
And don't forget to exercise regularly and get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night, both of which contribute to overall health and immune system support. Aside from the benefits, focusing on your health and well-being can simply help you find balance during hectic and uncertain times — which is priceless.
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How to Build Your Best Plate To Support Immune Health
Remember, when you were told, “you are what you eat?” Even though you may think that is a silly saying, it rings true. Every bite, every choice, builds every ounce of our being. By choosing nutrient dense and functional foods to fill your plate, you can build your best self and support immune health. Now is the time to choose for the better and give your body the tools it needs. Hint: The color of your plate plays a considerable role. Watch this video from Pam Nisevich Bede, MS, RD, to understand which foods to look for to support a healthy immune system and start building the best plate possible.