They say “food is medicine” — and research shows it’s the truth. When it comes to building up your immune system, the foods in your kitchen may be the best prescription out there. Here are some delicious, whole foods to try the next time you start to feel a little run down.
How to boost your immune system
Our bodies do an amazing job of fighting off numerous infections naturally — most of which we never even know we had. However, on occasion, a nasty virus or infection will slip through and disrupt the careful balance in your body. When this happens, it’s vital to give your immune system the support it needs. But there’s something even better: you can work to boost your immune system before illness strikes.
Being proactive about your health and wellness is always better than being reactive. A healthy diet, coupled with a low-stress lifestyle, exercise and rich social connections, can help you fight off infections on your own so you don’t have to resort to antibiotics and medications that contain harmful side effects.
To get started building up your immune system naturally, here are 15 foods to add to your grocery list:
1. Citrus fruits
Vitamin C is well-known to enhance immune function, and citrus fruits are loaded up with stuff. In one study, vitamin C was shown to reduce the duration of a common cold. Make sure to keep oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit in your fruit basket year-round. One medium orange, for example, contains 70 milligrams of vitamin C. Other sources of vitamin C include dark leafy greens like spinach and kale, along with Brussels sprouts, strawberries and papaya.
If you’ve come down with a cold, ginger is going to be your best friend. But even if you’re not sick, your body will benefit. Ginger root contains gingerols and shogaols, which can kill the rhinoviruses that cause colds. In one study, ginger was proven to have antiviral activity in the respiratory tract. For the most effective treatment, use fresh ginger instead of dried.
3. Red bell peppers
A single red bell pepper contains 600 percent of the daily recommended intake for vitamin C — that’s nearly three times the amount in one orange! They are also a great source of vitamin E and carotenoids, which strengthen immune system function as well. While green bell peppers are flavorful and contain a number of important nutrients, they have less vitamin C than their red and yellow cousins. In this case, stick to red for the most bang for your buck.
4. Bone broth
There’s a reason your grandmother fed you a bowl of warm bone broth every time you came down with the flu. Bone broth can be made using any type of meat, like chicken, beef, pork or lamb. Once the bones are boiled down, the body can easily absorb the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in the broth. The collagen and amino acids, in particular, can improve immune system activity, aid weight loss and even reduce joint pain.
Yogurt is a natural source of the “good bacteria” that lives in your gut, called probiotics. Multiple studies have shown that a healthy gut microbiota is linked to better immunity, digestion and sleep. Make sure to find yogurt without added sugar, and look for labels that say “live and active cultures.” If dairy products aren’t your thing, other probiotics include sauerkraut, kimchi and miso soup.
Rich in allicin, raw garlic is well-known to fight off viruses, bacteria and fungi. The compounds contained in garlic produce a notable anti-inflammatory effect that can even ward off cancer cells. There are numerous studies assessing garlic’s effects on the immune system in juice, oil and powder form. We recommend using crushed garlic in your recipes to get the most health benefits.
Oysters, shrimp, spinach, kidney beans and flax seeds are all high in zinc, which helps regulate immune system function and the healing of wounds. Research has shown that zinc-deprived patients suffer from severe immune dysfunction and growth retardation. This is especially prevalent in developing nations, and in severe cases, it can lead to an early death. Zinc is essential for plants and animals — so make sure to get your fill regularly!
This beloved Indian spice does just about everything, but it’s most well-known for fighting inflammation. Research has shown that curcumin, turmeric’s active compound, can enhance antibody responses, even at low doses. Turmeric’s ability to rally the immune system may be why it has beneficial effects on patients with arthritis, allergy, asthma, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and cancer. This is one powerful spice to use on a daily basis!
Your body needs vitamin B6 for more than 200 functions in the body — including immune system support. Research has shown that vitamin B6 can help increase immune system response in critically ill patients, even in just 14 days. In other to get this vital vitamin, eat bananas, chickpeas, lean chicken breast and cold-water fish like tuna.
10. Sweet potatoes
Orange foods are your best bet for carotenoids, which get converted into vitamin A by the body. Research has shown that this vitamin has an antioxidant-like effect, removing free radicals and thereby strengthening the immune system. Along with sweet potatoes, make sure to eat plenty of carrots, pumpkin and cantaloupe.
Add these drinks to your routine
If you’re feeling under the weather, or your immune system needs a boost, try supplementing your meals with some of these drinks:
- Water: a vital liquid for flushing out waste and clearing congestion
- Kefir: a super-probiotic drink that can improve digestive function
- Kombucha: a millennia-old drink that supports your gut with healthy bacteria
- White, green or black teas: these contain polyphenols and flavonoids to destroy disease-causing free radicals in the body
- Chamomile tea: an ancient medicinal herb that contains terpenoids and flavonoids to alleviate a number of ailments, including immune system dysfunction
- Pomegranate juice: proven for its antimicrobial activity, this colorful fruit can help fight off several kinds of viruses, including the flu. Make sure to use real pomegranates and avoid store-bought, sugar-loaded juices which will do more harm than good
What these all have in common
The foods and drinks listed above may seem like they are all over the place. But, they all have one thing in common: they are all-natural. These immune-boosters are examples of unprocessed, whole, fresh foods straight from the source, rather than processed foods loaded up with chemicals, preservatives, fillers, food coloring and flavor enhancers that damage the body. Remember that eating whole, natural foods is imperative for general health, not just when you’re feeling sick. Supply your body with nourishment, and it will be good to you in return, year-round.
— Hilary Lebow