Boosting the Immune System

Health officials advise us each fall to get our flu shots.  The flu vaccine helps reduce the severity of flu symptoms and helps prevent against the virus. This year the flu shot’s importance has been heighten because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After getting the shot, the next step should be regular visits to your local grocery store to pick up foods that will continually boost your immunity.  It is important to note that NO diet or supplement will cure or prevent disease; rather a healthy immune system is a powerful weapon against colds, flu, and other infections.

There are several different vitamins and minerals that fall in the immune booster category. These booster foods can increase the number of white blood cells and enhance their function while helping to flush non-functioning cells from the body. Listed below are some key nutrients and the foods where they can be found.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C sits at the top of the immune boosters. It increases the production of white blood cells and antibodies which are key to fighting infections.  It also increases the antibody, interferon, which coats cell surfaces and prevents the entry of viruses. Besides helping with colds and flu, Vitamin C is a key element in fighting cardiovascular disease by raising HDL (good cholesterol) and decreasing blood pressure. Good sources of Vitamin C include: bell peppers (especially red peppers), citrus fruits (grapefruit, oranges, clementines, tangerines, limes, lemons), dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, sprouts), kiwi, papaya, and herbs (parsley, thyme).

Vitamin E

Vitamin E sometimes takes a back seat to Vitamin C but this powerful antioxidant is key to stimulating the natural killer cells that seek out and destroy germs, bacteria and even cancer cells. It’s a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it requires the presence of fat to be absorbed properly. Nuts (almonds, peanuts, walnuts) are packed with the vitamin and also have healthy fats. Other foods containing Vitamin E include: sunflower seeds, dark leafy greens (see Vitamin C), avocados, and sweet potatoes.

Beta-Carotene

Beta carotene is an antioxidant that converts to vitamin A and plays a very important role in immune health by increasing the infection fighting cells while decreasing the number of free radicals in the body. Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant and helps fight cardiovascular disease by interfering with the way fats oxidize in the blood stream to form plaque. It is also known to aid in the battle against cancer and promote eye and skin health. Common foods containing beta-carotene include: naturally orange foods (carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, squash) dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, red leaf lettuce, turnip greens), cantaloupe, red and yellow peppers, and apricots.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3’s boost immune function by increasing phagocyte, the white blood cells that destroy bacteria. They also protect the body against damage from inflammation due to infection. Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin E complement each other, working together to give a major boost to the immune system.  Omega-3’s are important to heart health by maintaining heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and improving blood vessel function. Foods high in Omega-3 include: fish and fish oil, canola oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables.

Zinc

Zinc doesn’t get as much attention, but our bodies need it so that our immune cells can function as intended. However, too much zinc can actually inhibit immune system function so the RDA (11 mg men, 8 mg women) is sufficient. Shellfish (oysters, crab, mussels) is the best source of zinc.  Other sources include: red meat and poultry, beans, nuts, and whole grains. 

Variety is key. Eating just one of these foods won’t be enough to help fight off cold, flu or other infections. Pay attention to serving sizes and recommended daily intake to keep things in balance. Beyond immune boosting foods, staying healthy also involves regular exercise, staying hydrated throughout the day, and practicing good hygiene to protect oneself from colds, flues, and other illnesses.

In light of the 2019 coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, it’s especially important to note that no specific food, supplement, diet, or other lifestyle modification has been shown to protect one from COVID-19.  As with other infections, immune boosting foods will help with the fight.  Physical or social distancing, masking, and proper hygiene practices are the agents known to protect one from COVID-19. 

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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