As the immune system is vital for keeping the body healthy and fighting off harmful diseases, it’s important to know how to maintain it. One of the best ways to support your system and give your immunity a boost is through specific foods. Certain foods are known to have qualities which stimulate the immune system, enhance it and help to maintain its functionality.
From nutritious fruits and vegetables, packed with essential vitamins, to the benefits of bone broth, here are some foods, nutrients and ingredients that are believed to improve your body’s natural defences, as recommended by the experts. A word of warning, however: if you have an underlying illness or are concerned about your health, always speak to a medical professional before dramatically changing your diet.
Of course, Vitamin C is top of the list! Ascorbic acid (better known as Vitamin C) is popular for a reason: it’s great for us. “Vitamin C is essential to boost the immune system”, Yalda T Alaoui, founder of Eat Burn Sleep tells us to: “Focus on whole foods, as juicing makes for a huge nutrient loss. Raw apples, carrots, crudités are packed with vitamin C, fibre and antioxidants. In a supplement form, liposomal vitamin C is more effective as it is slow delivery”. Other specific foods which are rich in vitamin C include citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, kiwi, papaya, and many more.
Zinc can be found in a variety of common foods such as shellfish, eggs and red meats; – as a vegan alternative, you could always substitute in legumes (beans, chickpeas and lentils). Wholegrains and nuts are also great sources of zinc too. Founder and CEO of Nourished, Melissa Snover, says zinc “Is necessary for a healthy immune system; a lack of zinc can make a person more susceptible to disease and illness. This essential nutrient helps maintain the body’s ability to make new cells and enzymes, process carbohydrate, fat and protein in food and also increases the speed of healing muscles and wounds. Some evidence also suggests that zinc is helpful in the prevention of colds and viruses and minimises symptoms for allergy and hay fever sufferers”.
Spinach is an excellent ingredient for supporting your immune system as it contains beta carotene, which can increase the infection fighting ability of your immune system. Next to this, it’s high in vitamin C and is teaming with antioxidants. It’s important to note, similar to broccoli, spinach is healthiest when it has been cooked as little as possible in order to retain its vital nutrients. However, lightly cooking spinach will enhance its vitamin A levels and allows other nutrients to be released via oxalic acid.
Initially, garlic was actually used for medicinal purposes; however, it has now become a staple in an abundance of recipes across the world. It was widely used in early medicine as it is rich in immune-boosting compounds, such as: manganese, selenium, fibre as well as vitamin B6 and C. “Garlic is a potent anti-viral, anti-fungal agent, and eating it raw, or as an uncooked puree alongside your normal food (add it to salad dressings) will wipe-out most miscreants”, says Sara Davenport.
Ginger is a wonderful ingredient, not just for its great flavour but especially if you’re feeling under the weather. As a natural antioxidant it is believed to fight off cold and flu symptoms, combat nausea, and is full of health benefiting nutrients like calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc. It’s also worth noting that in a 2013 study, they found that fresh ginger may help boost the body’s respiratory system, however, dry ginger did not show the same results. Additional benefits include caring for your gut; according to research which shows that ginger can help with digestion and constipation. Euan MacLennan, medical herbalist at a London NHS practice and Herbal Director at Pukka Herbs, says: “Ginger stimulates defensive responses in the upper respiratory and digestive mucosa helping the body fend off infections. I would recommend ginger for bacterial and viral infections such as colds, flu, chest infections and sore throats”. Some quick and easy ways to include more ginger in your diet is through teas and soups contain ginger, it is also commonly used in many Asian dishes.
Don’t go changing the page just yet, we know it may not sound the most appealing of foods, and a no-go for vegans or vegetarians, but if you’re a meat-eater, bone broth could be a very beneficial element of your meal. “Bone broth is full of L-Glutamine, an essential amino acid that the body cannot manufacture and can only get from foods”, says Yalda. “Glutamine supports cells repair, including the intestinal tract wall. A healthy and sealed gut is essential for a strong immune system”. Therefore, if you can stomach the idea of boiled bones (in water and vinegar), then these broths are jam-packed with calcium, magnesium and potassium to boost you immune system. Plus if you go for a fish bone broth specifically, you also get a hit of iodine. However, if the bone broth definitely doesn’t sound like an option for you, you can always supplement it with some tablet-formed daily vitamins instead.
You may know turmeric as a key ingredient in many curries. However, this bright yellow, bitter spice has also been used for decades as an anti-inflammatory when treating both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Additionally, a Trusted Research Source showed that in high concentrations of curcumin - which gives turmeric its distinctive colour - can help decrease exercise-induced muscle damage. So the next time you’ve gone a bit over board at the gym and nothing seems to be taking the pain away, why not try a turmeric infused recipe.
Euan says: “There are approximately 400 species of fungi that have been identified with medicinal properties, and many have antiviral, antimicrobial or anti-inflammatory qualities”. Mushrooms are high in beta glucans – natural substances found to help 'prime' our immune system, making sure it’s ready for action to fight off infection. Mushrooms are a great way to bring a unique flavour and texture to a dish. Vegetarian and vegan alternatives to meat often involve mushrooms and other fungi as key ingredients. A popular Italian dish including mushrooms is Risotto – not only a healthy dish, full of flavour but also a great option for vegetarians and gluten intolerance sufferers.
“If you like sauerkraut, miso, kefir and their immune-boosting relatives, add just a spoonful or two each day to your diet”, suggests Sara Davenport, health expert and author of Reboot Your Health. “Fermented foods encourage the growth of good bacteria in your gut and when their levels are high, so are your immune levels, defending you from viral infections”. As for the sauerkraut: “Avoid shop-bought which is likely to have been pasteurised by heating and stuffed with sugar, which will kill the bacteria off and make it generally unhealthy. Instead, make your own by grating raw cabbage and putting in a jar to ferment with salt”. Sounds so simple, so what are you waiting for?
Last, but not at all least, we have yoghurt. Many people incorporate yoghurt into their diet through healthy snack pots, as a light desert or pallet cleanser after a meal. For the health benefits, its best to look for yogurts which have "live and active cultures" printed on the label, like Greek yogurt. These cultures have been found to stimulate the immune system to help fight diseases. For good measure, try to get plain yogurts rather than preflavored kinds, as they are often loaded with sugar. As an alternative, you can sweeten plain yogurt yourself with healthy fruits or a drizzle of honey instead. Furthermore, yogurt can also be a great source of vitamin D, so where possible, select brands fortified with vitamin D. Vitamin D helps regulate the immune system and is thought to boost our body’s natural defences against diseases.
Hopefully, this has given you a bunch of fresh ideas for meals and ingredients to start including in your regular food intake. It’s important to note that the best way to boost your immune system is to include a large variety of the ingredients and foods listed in this post into your diet, as just including one or two won’t do the trick, even if you eat them constantly. You can find some ideas about how to mix some of theese ingredients together into a smoothie here. For good practice, pay close attention to portion sizes and recommended daily intake allowances, in order to avoid getting too much or too little of certain vitamins and minerals. With a wide range of benefits, you’re sure to find something to boost your immune system and get those natural gears going.