How to Boost Your Immune System through Diet
Everyone knows a strong immune system helps you avoid the common cold.
Did you know that immunity is so powerful it can protect you against cancer? And if you do have cancer, your immune system is capable of eliminating it completely from your body, even if it has spread.
Factors such as genetics, smoking, environmental toxins, and a bad diet are often blamed for cancer.
Regardless of its cause, cancer only becomes a disease once malignant cells escape from being destroyed by our immune system.
Our immune system is one of the best-known health defence systems we have.
It keeps us from becoming infected after we have a cut, fights off viruses, and prevents us from getting sick from harmful microbes coughed into the air by a coworker.
Research shows that several foods support the immune system and battle against the inflammation triggered by stress or common illnesses.
There’s probably a good chance that you’ve eaten many of the following foods. If you haven’t this is a perfect time to add them to your shopping list.
- Garlic. Garlic is an effective antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial,1 making it a go-to ingredient for a healthy immune system. Research shows that garlic helps reduce the severity of cold and flu symptoms. Chop or crush the cloves and let them sit out for 10 minutes – which helps convert alliin to allicin, the protective element in garlic – and add to sauces, soups, appetizers, or whatever you’re cooking. Aged garlic is a food that I commonly recommend adding into your cooking whenever possible because it boasts impressive defence-supporting compounds such as apigenin. In a randomized control trial conducted by the University of Florida Gainesville, some participants were assigned an aged garlic extract while others were assigned a placebo for 90 days. At the end of the study, the subjects who consumed the garlic had more immune cells circulating in their bloodstream.
- Red peppers. High in vitamin C, red bell peppers and hot chilli peppers have antimicrobial properties that protect against viruses and other microorganisms.
- Shiitake mushrooms. Eating shiitake mushrooms increases the levels of natural killer cells and immunoglobulin A, two important immune system components for fighting off viral attacks.
Viruses, like the common cold and influenza, cause inflammation in the body.
That inflammatory response can be a double-edged sword:
While it helps the body fight off infection, it can also cause serious problems that can contribute to lung damage and even death.
Many research studies suggest that modulating the inflammatory response could be key to improving health outcomes.
In addition, experiencing stress can cause an inflammatory response in the brain, which triggers the release of glucocorticoids, a class of steroid hormones.
If you’re in a constant state of chronic stress, your body can suffer from long-term inflammation – which can increase the risk of heart disease and is associated with a higher risk of cancer, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
Foods that show anti-inflammatory properties include:
- Turmeric. Maybe the most known spice widely used in cooking in India and derived from a ginger-family perennial plant, turmeric packs a double punch as both an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. Turmeric provides a polyphenol known as curcumin. Polyphenols are a group of compounds high in antioxidants that are found in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Curcumin has been well studied for the health benefits it provides, including the ability to suppress inflammation and help manage conditions such as arthritis, anxiety, and exercise-induced muscle soreness. It has also been shown to help memory and mood.
- Ginger. You’re able to find ginger in powdered form or fresh in the produce section of grocery stores, ginger root contains a substance called gingerol, which has been shown to help inhibit inflammation. Some studies have found that gingerol improves cardiovascular disorders and gastrointestinal health and helps reduce exercise-induced muscle pain.
- Fish and nuts. Omega-3 fatty acids – mostly found in fatty fish and some nuts – play an important role in regulating the body’s inflammatory process. Research has shown that including omega-3s as part of your diet helps improve outcomes for a range of conditions like heart disease, kidney problems, and autoimmune disorders.
Add these omega-3-rich foods to your shopping list:
- Salmon, tuna, trout, and mackerel
- Walnuts, pecans, flaxseed, and chia seeds
- Plant oils, including soybean oil, flaxseed oil, and canola oil
- Foods fortified with omega-3s, including some eggs, juice, milk, and soy beverages
3. Gut microbiome boosters
Many research studies have explored the impact that diet can have on a healthy gut microbiome – the complex gastrointestinal ecosystem made up of trillions of viruses, fungi, bacteria, and other bugs.
A healthy gut ecosystem supports the body’s immune function.
Because food directly affects these microorganisms, either encouraging or suppressing their growth, researchers have explored which foods support a healthy microbiome.
Some of these foods include:
- Fermented foods, including yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir
- Whole-grain, high-fibre foods
- Monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil
- Polyphenol-rich foods, including fruit, vegetables, seeds, tea, cocoa products, and wine
Pomegranate juice is loaded with the beneficial bacteria Akkermansia.
It is one of the thousands of types of bacteria that reside in the human gut microbiome. Akkermansia has numerous benefits, one of them being immune support. This powerful bacteria predict the best response to cancer immunotherapy of any gut bacteria. People who have Akkermansia in their digestive tract are more likely to fight cancer on their own.
Generally speaking, the Mediterranean diet has the best research behind it for overall health and improving many health conditions. It includes healthy fatty acids, fruits, vegetables, fibre, and smaller amounts of protein, which is associated with a healthier gut microbiome.
4. Foods high in antioxidants
Antioxidants are powerful molecules that are necessary to decrease inflammation and fight off disease.
You can think of these as little Pacman in the body, they go are and gobble up the inflammation.
You can consume these in foods you typically eat or from supplements.
Three key antioxidants – zinc and vitamins C and D – play crucial roles in helping protect the body’s cells from damage.
Antioxidants are commonly found in just about all types of fruit and dark, leafy greens.
Most salad greens, kale, and spinach include vitamins A, C, E, K, and folate, as well as high levels of fibre and immune-supportive minerals. These foods are also low in carbs, sodium, and cholesterol, making them a quadruple win.
Improve your immune system with healthy food
Diet is one way to strengthen your immune system, but it is even more effective when combined with physical activity, stress reduction techniques, and proper sleep hygiene.
A sedentary lifestyle has proven to be damaging to the immune system.
Try 20 minutes of walking in nature.
When you’re feeling stressed or sick, it’s common to not eat well or let your diet go by the wayside.
Eating the right foods can have a substantial impact on boosting immunity and decreasing inflammation in your body.
Don’t forget that the reverse is also true, unhealthy foods (especially processed sugars) have been shown to increase levels of C-reactive protein, a biomarker of inflammation in the blood.
And the reverse is true, too: unhealthy foods – especially processed sugars – have been shown to increase levels of C-reactive protein, a biomarker of inflammation in the blood. There’s no magic solution that will cure every virus – but a healthy diet is your best first line of defence.