Can diet influence your immune system?
The immune system is a complex network of cells, organs, and proteins that work together to protect your body against infection (1).
It’s influenced by an ideal balance of various factors – one of the most important being diet.
It's common for people to seek out certain foods. For instance, when someone comes down with the flu, they might include chicken soup, citrus fruits, and tea with ginger and lemon.
You're exposed to harmful microbes of all sorts every day. And experts suggest that a healthy immune system could be your best defense.
A balanced diet consisting of a range of vitamins and minerals coupled with healthy lifestyle factors such as adequate sleep and exercise works to increase your innate and adaptive immunity (2).
13 Superfoods for Boosting Your Immune System
You cannot build a robust immune system in a day or two.
Your best line of immune defense is to change your food habits and incorporate nutritious foods that work towards keeping your immune system healthy.
Incorporating certain foods into your diet will strengthen your immune system and prime your body to fight disease and infection.
Let’s detail some of the immunity-boosting superfoods you can add to your diet.
Now, this food product is probably already in your pantry. Not only is it a great flavoring agent, but it also contains potent anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Turmeric, for instance, has been proven to have immunomodulatory agents. Curcumin, the active compound that gives turmeric its strong orange-yellow color, can modulate the activation of T Cells, B cells, and dendritic cells, which form a vital component of your immune system (3).
Turmeric enhances antibody responses resulting in beneficial effects against arthritis, allergy, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. More interestingly, the National Cancer Institute has recognized curcumin as an effective anticarcinogen. Now, you have even more reason to incorporate some turmeric root powder into your diet (4).
Amla, or Indian gooseberry, is a fruit teeming with Vitamin C, an essential micronutrient that supports various cellular functions of both the innate and adaptive immune systems (5). Amla is one of the best sources of Vitamin C there is in the field. A 100-gram serving of the superfruit contains as much vitamin C as 20 oranges (6).
The fruit may also support healthy digestion and cellular regeneration. It also has powerful antioxidant properties making it a great addition to your diet.
Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogenic herb that strengthens both the immune system and brain function.
Plus, numerous studies have linked the herb to reduced stress levels. Ashwagandha reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) levels even in chronically stressed individuals (7). Increased stress levels can have detrimental impacts on immune functioning, reducing your body's ability to fight off diseases.
Not only is Ashwagandha great for your mental and emotional wellbeing, it also enhances your physical health through its powerful immune-stimulatory properties.
4. Goji Berries
The goji berry is the darling of the superfood world—the benefits of this bright-colored fruit range from potent anti-aging properties to glucose regulation and immune system support. The berry is an excellent natural source of micronutrients, including dietary fiber, protein, and vitamins such as riboflavin and thiamine. It’s also a good source of minerals like copper, selenium, and magnesium (9).
All these macronutrients promote immune functioning by increasing levels of immune cells in the body. Other benefits include enhanced eye, liver, and kidney health (10). Sun-dried goji berries should definitely be a part of your daily diet.
When used as a dietary supplement, astragalus offers multiple health benefits like possible immune system support, lowering blood pressure, and protecting the liver.
The herb also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and can be used on the skin for wound care. One study found that astragalus can strengthen the immunity in those whose systems have been compromised by chemotherapy and radiation (11). In this study, astragalus helped people to recover faster.
6. Acerola Cherry
The acerola cherry is a plant native to the Americas whose fruits contain up to 30 times more vitamin C than oranges. It's a powerful source of antioxidants, carotenoids, and flavonoids. The fruit can help the body fight infections, viruses, and even cancer (12) (13).
It's best to take the fruit in its supplement form. This is because the fruit decomposes within days of harvest. Powdered acerola cherry preserves all the nutrients of the cherry and is an excellent addition to your diet.
7. Purple Aronia
Aronia berries are considered one of the richest sources of plant antioxidants and, as a result, have become quite popular among health-conscious consumers.
Traditionally, aronia berries were used as cold medicine by the Native Americans. Modern science has since shown that the fruit has potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects (14). These berries pack quite the punch, helping your immune system function better and reducing recovery time
8. Noni Fruit
The noni fruit is rich in Vitamin C and is also a great source of biotin and folate. In addition to minerals such as potassium, magnesium, sodium, zinc, and selenium, noni fruits also contain high levels of antioxidants (15).
All in all, the noni is great for immune health. The nutrient capacity of the fruit enhances immune function by protecting your cells from free radical damage and environmental toxins.
What can I eat every day to boost my immune system?
Now, let’s talk about the everyday foods that can boost your immunity (2).
1. Citrus fruits
Vitamin C has been mentioned quite a bit in this article, and that's because its immune-boosting properties cannot be overstated. Almost all citrus fruits are high in Vitamin C. So, make sure to include grapefruits, oranges, clementines, lemons, limes, and tangerines in your daily diet.
2. Red bell peppers
As it turns out, fruits are not the only great source of Vitamin C.
Red bell peppers pack almost three times as much Vitamin C as oranges and are a great source of beta carotene that your body converts into Vitamin A for healthy skin, eyes, and immune function.
Broccoli is another great addition to your meals. It's supercharged with vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin A, C, and E. Make sure to steam broccoli as overcooking the vegetable could reduce its nutritional capacity.
You won’t miss garlic in most people’s pantries. It adds a little zing to your recipe and your immune system as well. Garlic has a heavy concentration of allicin, an immune-boosting compound that enhances your body’s ability to fight off disease.
Yet, another ingredient people turn to when they're feeling under the weather. Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties, which help to reduce sore throats and other inflammatory conditions.
Other immune-boosting foods you can add to your meal plans include:
- Wild salmon
- Dark chocolate
- Greek yogurt
- Green tea
In short, the list is endless. According to scientists, western-type diets that contain high levels of unhealthy fats and added sugar can impair immune response and are associated with increased risk of lifestyle diseases (16)
The key to strengthening your immune system is to have a diet rich in whole foods, such as quality protein and essential fats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes. It's also important to ensure you're getting the recommended dose of Vitamins A, C, D, and E as they can also impact immune response.
- Yatim, Karim M., and Fadi G. Lakkis. "A brief journey through the immune system." Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology 10.7 (2015): 1274-1281.
- Childs, Caroline E., Philip C. Calder, and Elizabeth A. Miles. "Diet and immune function." (2019): 1933.
- Jagetia, G. C., & Aggarwal, B. B. (2007). “Spicing up” of the immune system by curcumin. Journal of clinical immunology, 27(1), 19-35.
- Oyagbemi, A. A., Saba, A. B., & Ibraheem, A. O. (2009). Curcumin: from food spice to cancer prevention. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev, 10(6), 963-967.
- Rani, S. S., and A. M. C. Nair. "Immunostimulatory potential of Emblica officinalis (Amla) on murine immune system." Indian Journal of Comparative Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases 28.1and2 (2007): 32-35.
- Health Benefits of Amla (Indian Gooseberry). Nourish by WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/diet/health-benefits-amla#1
- Chandrasekhar, K., Jyoti Kapoor, and Sridhar Anishetty. "A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults." Indian journal of psychological medicine 34.3 (2012): 255-262.
- Dhabhar, Firdaus S. "Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful." Immunologic research 58.2 (2014): 193-210.
- Ma, Zheng Fei, et al. "Goji berries as a potential natural antioxidant medicine: An insight into their molecular mechanisms of action." Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity 2019.
- Amagase, Harunobu, Bixuang Sun, and Dwight M. Nance. "Immunomodulatory effects of a standardized Lycium barbarum fruit juice in Chinese older healthy human subjects." Journal of medicinal food 12.5 (2009): 1159-1165.
- Block, K. I., & Mead, M. N. (2003). Immune system effects of echinacea, ginseng, and astragalus: a review. Integrative cancer therapies, 2(3), 247-267.
- Manogna, Ch, et al. "Evaluation of cytotoxic activity of various extracts of sweet cherry (Prunus avium) against human colorectal adenocarcinoma HT-29 cell line." Int J Chem Stud 4 (2016): 17-21.
- Maria do Socorro, M. Rufino, et al. "Bioactive compounds and antioxidant capacities of 18 non-traditional tropical fruits from Brazil." Food Chemistry 121.4 (2010): 996-1002.
- Jurikova, Tunde, et al. "Fruits of black chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa in the prevention of chronic diseases." Molecules 22.6 (2017): 944.
- Potterat, Olivier, and Matthias Hamburger. "Morinda citrifolia (Noni) fruit-phytochemistry, pharmacology, safety." Planta Medica 73.03 (2007): 191-199.
- Christ, Anette, Mario Lauterbach, and Eicke Latz. "Western diet and the immune system: an inflammatory connection." Immunity 51.5 (2019): 794-811.