Top Nutrients for your Immune System

This article has been researched and written by Allbeing's in-house writers.

Without a healthy immune system, you could pick up infections and infectious diseases more easily, and the effects could be serious – even fatal. It’s easy to take the immune system for granted because it does such a good job at keeping us free from infection around the clock! If you’ve got a healthy immune system, look after it and it will look after you.

When the body's immune cells receive the nutrients they need, they function crisply and efficiently, warding off threats and not allowing harmful pathogens to take root.

Your immune system is your greatest asset — Here's how to care for It

Vitamins and minerals are essential for cellular health in every organ system in the body. For immune cells, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Iron, and Zinc appear to be particularly important. These nutrients “are needed for the immune system to maintain its normal function and have the ability to produce the arsenal they need to combat pathogens when they face them,” says Simin Nikbin Meydani, Ph.D., professor of nutritional immunology at Tufts University.

“When you have a deficiency of these nutrients, the cells of the immune system cannot function normally and their ability to fight pathogens will be impaired.”

How to eat in the new normal?

You are not eating for this pandemic, you're eating for the next one!

Good Immunity requires commitment, not a miracle. Your first line of defense is to choose a healthy lifestyle. Every part of your body, including your immune system, functions better when protected from environmental assaults and bolstered by healthy-living strategies if done rightly.

Good Immunity requires commitment, not a miracle. Your first line of defense is to choose a healthy lifestyle. Every part of your body, including your immune system, functions better when protected from environmental assaults and bolstered by healthy-living strategies if done rightly.

  1. Don't smoke.
  2. Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables.
  3. Exercise regularly: 20 min of moderate exercise is better than heavy ones.
  4. Maintain a healthy weight.
  5. If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.
  6. Get adequate sleep: sleep is the best way to keep the immune system in shape.
  7. Take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly.
  8. Try to minimize stress.

Top nutrients with immune health evidence

"The right raw materials can... double or triple the protective power of the immune system." -Joel Fuhrman

Often, a change in season can compromise your immune system (particularly when we start to enter warmer months!). Whether eaten as whole food or in the form of a pill, the following supplements may help keep you healthy by naturally supporting your immune system and keep you healthy.

Below is a quick rundown of how each of these nutrients benefits the immune system and how to work them into your diet.

1. Amla: The translucent green fruit

Amla, better known as Indian Gooseberry, is widely used in the Ayurvedic medicine system of India. Rich in vitamin C, helps in fighting coughs & colds, boosting immunity, slowing down aging, & improving hair, skin, and throat health. These berries also help in reducing blood sugar levels and improving heart health.

Amla acts as a diuretic agent and is therefore thought to enhance food absorption, balance stomach acids, fortify the liver, and improve overall health.

Why should we eat Amla?

How to use Amla?

Because taste plays such an important role in the digestive process and signals the body to initiate its own supportive mechanisms, Ayurveda traditionally recommends tasting herbs. Amla can be taken internally in four forms: a powder, a tablet, candy, a liquid extract, a pickle, or in a jam.

2. Beta-Glucan: The Heart-healthy fiber

This natural substance is found in baker’s yeast, is a soluble fiber found naturally in cereal grains, yeast, and certain mushrooms, and also sold as a supplement. As a soluble fiber, beta-glucan itself is not digested, however, it slows food transit in the intestines.

As a result, carbohydrates are absorbed slower, resulting in more steady blood sugar. In addition, it moves slowly through the digestive tract, taking cholesterol with it.

Also read about Beta Glucans' role in our immunity here.

Various types of Beta-Glucan

Not all Beta Glucans are the same. There are many subtle, but important differences in structure within the Beta Glucan family that lead to large differences in function and potential health benefits.

Mushroom and yeast-based beta-glucan(s) are the most common. Barley Beta-glucan is becoming more popular to treat high cholesterol but has very little Active Linkage in it. Yeast Based Beta Glucan has much more Active Linkage than Mushroom Beta Glucan.

What are the Benefits of Beta Glucan?

How does Beta-Glucan work?

Beta-glucan isn’t absorbed directly during the digestive process. Instead, it slows down the transit of food. When food is digested slower, carbohydrates are absorbed more slowly. In addition to this, beta-glucan can take cholesterol with it as it moves through the digestive system.

The immune-boosting benefits of beta-glucan tend to be most prominent in medicinal mushrooms. Whereas, beta-glucan derived from cereal, particularly oats, has been found useful for managing cholesterol levels. You also have yeast-derived beta-glucan from baker’s yeast.

Which Beta-Glucan to choose and why?

While evaluating a beta-glucan for its immune health benefits and functionality, it's important to take a few things into consideration:

  • The manufacturing process
  • The quality assurance methods
  • The mechanism of action in research journals explained, defined, or published in peer-review
  • The researchers' findings
  • The safety protocol of the ingredients and also its verification

3. What is Curcumin?

Curcumin is a yellow pigment derived from the Curcuma longa plant, a flowering plant of the ginger family commonly known as a Tumeric. Curcumin is used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for its analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic activity.

Curcumin can help fight inflammation and aid the body’s immune response, as found by a study published in Molecules.

Curcumin and the curcuminoids found in turmeric can be extracted to produce supplements that have a much higher potency than turmeric. However, curcumin is absorbed poorly during digestion, so a myriad of different formulations have been created to improve its bioavailability.

Health Benefits of Curcumin

Turmeric may be the most effective nutritional supplement in existence. Many high-quality studies show that it has major benefits for your body and brain. Here are the top 10 evidence-based health benefits of turmeric:

What is the difference between turmeric and curcumin?

Turmeric is a popular root/spice, and curcumin is a highly potent chemical in turmeric, but hardly the only one. Curcumin and curcuminoids are present in turmeric at around 22.21-40.36mg/g in the rhizomes and 1.94mg/g in the tuberous roots, so turmeric is less potent as a source of curcumin than an extract and anti-inflammatory.

However, there are still some discussions going around suggesting that turmeric has benefits, and it's possible that it has benefits that curcumin alone doesn't.

How can I get a daily boost of curcumin?

Unfortunately, curcumin does not seem to be very well absorbed in the body--so you have to take in a fair amount (up to 4,000 mg per day) in order to raise blood levels of curcumin and its metabolites. It is said that turmeric can be absorbed better if taken with a pinch of black pepper.

That's probably a lot more turmeric (or curry powder) than most people could work into their daily diet. For those who are trying to use curcumin therapeutically, supplements are probably more practical.

4. Ginger: The Universal Medicine in Ayurveda

Ginger is the gnarled bumpy root of the ginger plant Zingiber officinale, which belongs to the same family as turmeric and cardamom. It was domesticated in the islands of Southeast Asia and came to the West via the spice trade.

Though there are many varieties of ginger root, the most common has light brown skin and yellow flesh. Ginger is available in six forms: fresh, dried, pickled, preserved, crystallized (or candied), and powdered/ground. It's easily used both in sweet and savory cooking applications.

Food is either medicine or poison, depending on what it contains, so you sent to eat a clean diet. Don't over-medicate. Flush your lymphatic system regularly with lots of water. Get plenty of rest.

Ginger may have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, and other healthful properties. Below are some of the possible medicinal uses of ginger:

  • Can help treat chronic indigestion
  • Can treat many forms of nausea, especially morning sickness
  • Easing a cold or the flu
  • May help with weight loss
  • Can help with osteoarthritis
  • May drastically lower blood sugars and improve heart disease risk factors
  • May significantly reduce menstrual pain
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Contains a substance that may help prevent cancer

Ways to enjoy ginger in your diet

Ginger can be freshly grated and used in cooking. It is also available as a supplement that can be taken on a daily basis.

Grated ginger root mixed with diluted lime juice helps to soothe the digestive tract and reduces flatulence. It can be made into oil and used to massage areas of localized chronic pain. It can also be used in extract form to reduce inflammation.

5. Zinc: An Essential trace element

“There are a lot of factors that go into enhancing the immune system. It does not happen overnight, and it’s not all about diet.”

Zinc is essential for immune cell maintenance and development. The deficiency of this micronutrient can cause cells to break down and malfunction. Too little zinc is known to suppress the immune system, particularly in adults over the age of 60.

Zinc deficiency can make a person more susceptible to disease and illness. Because your body doesn’t naturally produce zinc, you must obtain it through food or supplements.

Benefits of Zinc

The recommended intake for Zinc

Males 9-13 years old require 8 milligrams of zinc per day. After the age of 14, the requirement increases to the 11 milligrams per day that is required for all adult males. For females over the age of 8, the requirement stays stable at 8 milligrams per day, except for ages 14-18, where the recommendation increases to 9 milligrams per day.

Pregnant and lactating women have an increased need for zinc at 11-13 milligrams per day, depending on age.

Signs of Zinc deficiency

Normally, zinc deficiency is due to insufficient dietary intake. However, it may also be due to malabsorption and chronic illnesses such as diabetes, malignancy (cancer), liver disease, and sickle cell disease. Zinc deficiency signs include loss of appetite, anemia, slow wound healing, abnormal taste, diarrhea, and hair loss.

Food Sources for Zinc

Many animal and plant foods are naturally rich in zinc, making it easy for most people to consume adequate amounts. Animal products, such as meat and shellfish, contain high amounts of zinc in a form that your body easily absorbs.

Keep in mind that zinc found in plant-based sources like legumes and whole grains is absorbed less efficiently because of other plant compounds that inhibit absorption.

While many foods are naturally high in zinc, certain foods — such as ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, snack bars, and baking flours — are fortified with zinc.

6. Vitamin D3: The Sunshine Vitamin

Vitamin D stimulates the body’s first line of defense by increasing the number and activity of cells that gobble up invading pathogens.

The nutrient is unique in that it is primarily synthesized in the skin from sunlight. Vitamin D is harder to obtain through diet, although it can be found in fatty fishes like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Milk, orange juice, and many kinds of cereal are also fortified with vitamin D to aid with calcium absorption. Adults should consume 15 micrograms of vitamin D, also measured as 600 international units (IU).

Vitamin D3 benefits

  • Promotes Weight Loss
  • Boosts Bone Strength
  • Improves Immune Function
  • Enhances Mental Health
  • May Help Fight Cancer Cells

Signs and symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency

Most individuals might not experience any symptoms. Although, if one has issues such as bone pain and muscle weakness, you must undergo a test to check for vitamin d deficiency. The following are some of the signs and symptoms of vitamin D3 deficiency.

  • Mood changes
  • High blood pressure
  • Bone and back pain
  • Impaired wound healing
  • Unexplained infertility
  • Thinning or brittle bone
  • Muscular Pain
  • Fatigue and tiredness

The best foods for finding a natural source of vitamin D3 are Fruits, Vegetables, Dairy products, fish, soy products, and cereals.

In addition to including a variety of vitamin D3 foods in your diet, taking a vitamin D supplement can also be incredibly useful. Taking vitamin D3, in particular, can help increase vitamin D levels in the blood to protect against a deficiency.

Difference Between Vitamins D2 and D3

Vitamin D3 is a naturally occurring vitamin D that is found in animal fats and fish liver oils. The human body is also capable of synthesizing this form on exposure to sunlight. On the other hand. vitamin D2 is synthesized in plants and can be obtained from fortified foods and supplements. This vitamin is typically found in food and is not made by the body when exposed to sunlight.

Vitamin D3 supplements are more effective in raising the concentration of vitamins in the blood as compared to vitamin D2. Vitamin D3 is also found to increase the markers of calcium balance more than vitamin D2.

7. Vitamin C: An essential Vitamin

“Vitamin C seems to work a little better than placebo for the common cold — but it may just be a really great placebo.”

Vitamin C is the micronutrient most famously associated with a robust immune system. It is an antioxidant that protects cells from toxic byproducts that immune cells produce when destroying pathogens.

Vitamin C also helps with the production and function of immune cells that attack viruses and bacteria. According to the Oregon State University Micronutrient Information Center, “Immune cells accumulate and concentrate vitamin C and then quickly use it up during an active immune response.”

Impressive Ways Vitamin C Benefits Your Body

  • May reduce your risk of chronic disease
  • Protects your memory and thinking as you age
  • May help manage high blood pressure
  • May lower your risk of heart disease
  • Boosts immunity
  • May reduce blood uric acid levels and help prevent gut attacks
  • Helps prevent iron deficiency

Signs and Symptoms of Vitamin C Deficiency

  • Rough, Bumpy Skin
  • Corkscrew-Shaped Body Hair
  • Bright Red Hair Follicles
  • Spoon-Shaped Fingernails With Red Spots or Lines
  • Dry, Damaged Skin
  • Easy Bruising
  • Slowly Healing Wounds
  • Painful, Swollen Joints
  • Bleeding Gums and Tooth Loss
  • Persistent Iron Deficiency Anemia

As a general rule, it is always best to get your nutrients from food rather than pills. With that being said, taking a daily vitamin C supplement won't cause you any harm and can bolster your RDA if you happen to fall short.

If you don't think you're getting enough vitamin C in your diet, don't hesitate to supplement at the recommended dosages. At the same time, increase your intake of the following foods rich in vitamin C: Citrus fruits, strawberries, oranges, lemon, amla (gooseberry), tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, and kiwi are all excellent sources of vitamin C.

The National Academy of Medicine recommends 90 milligrams of vitamin C per day for men and 75 milligrams for women. Those amounts can easily be achieved with a cup of strawberries, half a cup of red pepper, or one large orange.

8. Vitamin E: An Antioxidant

“Vitamin E is like the Tale of Two Cities”

Vitamin E is another type of antioxidant that shields immune cells from damage and hormones that suppress the cells’ activity. Through its protective effects, vitamin E enhances immune cell function.

A fat-soluble nutrient, vitamin E is found in vegetable oil, seeds and nuts, and avocados. Adults need an average of 15 milligrams of vitamin E a day, which can be achieved through three tablespoons of vegetable oil or two ounces of almonds.

Health benefits of Vitamin E

Vitamin E deficiency may lead to:

  • Muscle weakness: Vitamin E is essential to the central nervous system.
  • Coordination and walking difficulties: A deficiency can cause certain neurons, called the Purkinje neurons, to break down, harming their ability to transmit signals.
  • Numbness and tingling: Damage to nerve fibers can prevent the nerves from transmitting signals correctly, resulting in these sensations.
  • Vision deterioration: A vitamin E deficiency can weaken light receptors in the retina and other cells in the eye. This can lead to loss of vision over time.
  • Immune system problems: Some research suggests that a lack of vitamin E can inhibit the immune cells. Older adults may be particularly at risk.

How should I take vitamin E?

Use vitamin E products exactly as directed on the label, or as prescribed by your doctor. Do not use in larger or smaller amounts or for longer than recommended.

Vitamin E works best if you take it with food. Vitamin E is plentiful in a wide variety of foods. The body cannot produce it, so it must be obtained from the diet or a supplement. Foods that contain vitamin E include vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, milk, and most vegetables, including spinach, red peppers, and avocados.

9. What is Elderberry?

Elderberry is one of the most commonly used medicinal plants in the world. Elderberries are the fruit of the Sambucus tree. The most common type is Sambucus nigra. The tree has clusters of small white or cream elderflowers and bunches of small blue or black elderberries.

Native Americans and European herbalists have long used elderberries for their supposed range of health benefits. These include boosting the immune system to help the body fight off colds, flu, and other respiratory infections.

Additionally, the berries can be cooked and used to make juice, jams, chutneys, pies, and elderberry wine. The flowers are often boiled with sugar to make sweet syrup or infused into the tea. They can also be eaten fresh in salads

Health Benefits of Elderberry

  • High in Antioxidants
  • May Improve Cold and Flu Symptoms
  • High in Nutrients
  • May Be Good for Heart Health

Why go for plant-based health supplements after all?

The whole food supplements, directly produced from food, herbs, enzymes, and their derivatives. These contain all of the cofactor constituents, the combination of nutrients that produce a positive synergistic effect that synthetic chemicals cannot duplicate.

Minimally-processed, plant-based supplements offer several advantages over synthetic vitamins and minerals. Here are the top benefits of plant-based supplements.

  • Better Bioavailability
  • Lower Toxicity Risk
  • Additional Co-factors & Co-nutrients
  • Natural Smell & Taste
  • They Are Vegan

The Bottom Line

Let's get something out of the way: It's impossible to immediately boost your immune system. Vitamin C supplements, turmeric juices, green smoothies— none of them will give you virus-fighting superpowers. That doesn't mean vitamins and minerals aren't critically important for immune health, but the benefits take time to build up.

The salad you eat today is a long-term investment, not a quick fix or an insurance policy against an immediate threat.

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