WE HEAR CONSTANTLY about the importance of helping our immune system. And, social media is full of advice on how to do that, from adaptogenic shots until apple cider vinegar until sleep hack. Some of these #immune boost tips are great but others are not so great. (And you can’t really “raise” your immunity, as you’ll soon learn.)
Really, one of the best ways to keep you going immune system staying healthy is also one of the simplest: by making sure you get the right nutrients. However, the immune system is complex and diet is not the only factor that boosts your immunity.
“Nutritious foods can boost the immune system, but it would be somewhat incorrect to say that a particular vitamin, or a special diet alone, could dramatically improve a person’s immune system,” says Marilyn Berger, RDa clinical dietitian CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.
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“The immune system is a little more complicated than that,” she adds. “There are many other factors that influence immune system health, such as physical activity, voltageage and presence of medical conditions.”
The immune system is a network of organs, white blood cells, proteins and chemicals work together to protect you against bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi and other invaders that can make you sick. It consists of two parts: the innate immune system, which you are born with, and the adaptive immune system, which you develop when you are exposed to microbes.
“There are definitely ways to improve your immune system,” says Louis Malinow, MDassociated with an internist MDVIP in Baltimore, Maryland. Vitamins, especially in supplement form, are just “a tiny crumb of what I consider to be the important components of boosting your immune system.”
But if you want to increase your intake of nutrients for your health, these are the best vitamins for your immune system.
The best vitamins for your immune system
Choosing nutrient-dense, whole foods provides most of the essential vitamins and minerals and properties to keep you healthy, says Berger. These are the most important vitamins for your immune system:
Vitamin C gets a lot of attention for its immune-boosting properties, and for good reason. It is a powerful antioxidant that stimulates the production of white blood cells, which protect you against infections. “It kind of makes the white blood cells bulletproof,” says Dr. Malinow.
However, your body doesn’t naturally produce vitamin C, so you need to include it in your diet, says Berger.
Food Sources: Citrus fruits (oranges and grapefruits), berries, tomatoes, cantaloupe, broccoli and peppers.
Vitamin E protects you from free radicals, which can cause disease, and helps the body fight infection, says Berger. Research shows that it is one of the most important nutrients in immune function and helps your T cells, a type of white blood cell, work optimally.
Food Sources: Nuts (especially almonds and peanuts), nut butters, seeds, wheat germ oil, spinach, mango and kiwi.
Vitamin A keeps tissues in your stomach, intestines, airways, mouth, and skin healthy and helps you fight off infectious diseases, says Berger. Beta-carotenefound in orange, yellow and green leafy vegetables, is a great source of vitamin A and also supports eye health.
Food Sources: Carrots, pumpkin, melon, butternut squash, leafy greens, fish oil, milk and eggs.
Many people can’t get enough of it zinc, especially those following a plant-based diet, since most zinc-rich food sources are animal products, Dr. Malinow says. It’s a mineral with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and research calls it the “gatekeeper of immune function.” Zinc can also have antiviral properties. However, zinc can be difficult to absorb, so Dr. Malinow says that when he prescribes it in supplement form, he combines it with the antioxidant quercetin, which helps with absorption.
Food Sources: Oysters, lean beef, blue crab, shrimp, turkey breast, pork, cheese, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, lentils, milk, and canned sardines.
Research show that iron helps regulate the immune system. “Iron helps carry oxygen to cells and is a component of enzymes important for immune cell function,” says Berger. If you don’t get enough iron, your body can’t make the hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells) you need to move oxygen through your blood vessels, and this can lead to anemia.
Food Sources: Red meat, beans, seafood, nuts and fortified breakfast cereals.
Vitamin D helps your immune system function properly and enhances immune cells. A deficiency can increase your risk for autoimmunity and increased susceptibility to infections, says Berger. Sunlight is one of the best sources of vitamin D.
Food Sources: Milk, eggs, salmon, tuna, sardines, and fortified foods, such as cereal and juice.
Vitamin B6 helps regulate the immune system. It stimulates the production of white blood cells and T cells that help your body fight bacteria, viruses and other harmful substances. It also has anti-inflammatory benefits.
Food Sources: Chickpeas, beef, salmon, tuna, chicken breast, fortified breakfast cereals, turkey, potatoes and cottage cheese.
This mineral has been demonstrated kick-start your immune system when it encounters an intruder. Selenium also keeps your immune system from overreacting, says Dr. Malinow. This feature may protect you from chronic inflammation and certain autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn’s disease.
Food Sources: Canned eggs, Brazil nuts, tuna and sardines.
When to take supplements
Eating many different food groups helps you get a variety of vitamins and minerals, which help maintain a healthy immune system, says Berger.
Food is the best way to ensure you get these nutrients. But supplements may be necessary in some cases if your nutrient intake is limited, such as if you are vegan or omit certain food groups.
“A single multivitamin supplement would be enough to fill those gaps,” says Berger.
What are other ways to keep your immune system healthy
What you eat and getting the right vitamins in your diet is only part of the puzzle of keeping your immune system healthy. There are several other things you should do to protect yourself.
Gets enough sleep
“There are a thousand reasons why sleep is important, but one is immune system health,” says Dr. Malinow, and you need at least seven hours a night. Research shows that sleep deprivation can negatively impact your immune system and possibly increase your risk of disease.
Exercise plays a key role in your overall health, it’s true proof that physical activity can flush bacteria from your airways, prevent bacteria from growing, induce positive changes in antibodies and white blood cells, and slow the release of stress hormones. Staying active also helps you sleep better and just feel better.
Drink lots of water
Hydration helps you stay healthy and keeps disease away, says Berger. Drink a lot of water provides detox benefits, increases lymphatic drainage and helps flush out waste. Men need 15.5 cups of water per day (and women need 11.5 cups).
Maintain a healthy weight
Obesity can increase your risk for a number of health problems, such as diabetes, some cancers and heart disease. It also increases inflammation and worsens immune function. Eating healthy whole foods, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight are crucial for immune system health.
“Everyone is chronically stressed,” says Dr. Malinow. ‘You have deadlines. You’re worrying all night. When you’re stressed, you release cortisol.”
Cortisol is an immune suppressor, he adds. So taking steps to reduce your stress levels will do wonders for your immune system.
Erica Sweeney is a writer who mainly writes about health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.