HOW NUTRITION CAN HELP SUPPORT A HEALTHY IMMUNE SYSTEM
Adequate nutrition plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system. It’s important to remember that there are steps you can take to help protect yourself and your loved ones through reinforcing your body’s own natural defenses.
Research has shown that a balanced diet is key to maintaining your overall health and well-being. And there are specific nutrients known to have a beneficial and supporting effect on normal functioning of your immune system.
Let’s look at how nutrition impacts your health and how adding supplements to fill any nutritional gaps can help keep you healthy and put you on track to optimize your immune function.
What Can You Do to Promote a Healthy Immune System?
To keep your body healthy, your immune system needs a regular supply of nutrients to run smoothly.
This may be especially true for older adults who are often deficient in certain vitamins and minerals. These deficiencies can leave your body more susceptible to certain illnesses. While immune response is impaired in older adults compared to younger adults, nutrient deficiencies may be part of the reason why some older adults experience more severe symptoms from certain infections.
Support Your Immune System Through a Healthy Diet
Eating a nutrient-rich diet, full of whole foods, provides your body with ample amounts of important vitamins, minerals and nutrients. These nutrients are needed to help your immune system to stay strong.
Here’s a basic list of food groups you’ll want to ensure you’re eating enough of for a well-rounded diet:
- Colorful fruits and vegetables, including dark leafy greens and veggies from the cruciferous family, such as kale, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower. These vegetables are full of selenium and zinc, vitamins A and C and are excellent sources of phytonutrients. It’s these phytonutrients that give fruits and veggies their color and enhance their immune-boosting effect.1
- Protein from milk and dairy items, chicken, lean beef, fish and legumes are sources of amino acids, which are vital to healthy immune function. The amino acids from protein also helps the body build and repair tissue and is crucial to form antibodies and the antioxidant glutathione that support a healthy immune system.2
- Healthy fats from sources like cold water fish and olive oil fuel energy and have a beneficial anti-inflammatory effect.3
- Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and various squashes, which are loaded with iron, calcium and selenium. They're also a good source of vitamin C and most B vitamins.
- Fermented foods containing probiotics to support your gut health. Examples are yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut, and kefir. Since nearly 70 percent of your immune system is found in your gastrointestinal tract, eating probiotics in adequate amounts can benefit health and help keep your immune system working at its best.4
When diet alone isn’t enough to have adequate nutrients needed to support your immune system, supplements can be a practical way to fill any nutritional gaps.
What Specific Nutrients Help Support a Healthy Immune System
Supplements are an effective way to avoid shortfalls in essential nutrients important for your body to process as normal. This makes them a powerful way to improve your body’s ability to fight off infection, especially for older adults.
Here’s a list of specific nutrients beneficial to help keep all the vital functions of your immune system in good working order:
As mentioned earlier, consuming certain amounts of probiotics is a great way to support a healthy gut and immune system. However, if you’re not getting enough probiotics through fermented foods alone, supplements with probiotics are a great way to fill this gap.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that prevents oxidative damage and fights against free radicals. Ensuring you have healthy levels of vitamin C can optimize your body’s natural immune response by supporting your immune cells.5
Vitamin D plays a crucial role in many aspects of your health, like modulating immune system function. More importanly, sufficient levels may help to decrease your vulnerability to respiratory infections.7, 8
Vitamin D is one nutrient many older individuals are often deficient in, unfortunately. This makes it an especially important vitamin to supplement to help safeguard and strengthen your body to fight against infections.
Vitamin E helps alert your body of pathogens, promotes antibody responses and is another necessary nutrient for your body to be able to make glutathione.
Vitamin E can also play a role in helping to manage inflammation and protecting your cells by reducing damage caused by free radicals
Zinc is an essential mineral that improves communication between cells and supports the activity of T-cells. The function of T-cells is to clear out damaged cells from your body.10
You can become deficient in zinc as you age because your body begins to lose its ability to effectively absorb it. This loss of absorption leads to a lack of support for your immune cells. So, it’s especially vital for older adults to get enough of this essential nutrient.
It’s important to know, however, that too much zinc can inhibit your body from absorbing copper, so balancing these two minerals are key.11
Selenium helps to support your body’s immune response and counteracts the damaging effects of oxidative stress. Like zinc, selenium also increases activated T-cells, which help stimulate your immune system.12
This antioxidant may also help reduce inflammation and enhance immunity and is essential for your body to maintain healthy levels of glutathione.13
N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) & Glycine
NAC is a highly absorbable form of the amino acid cysteine. It has been used to reduce the symptoms of viral infections for decades for very good reasons 18. Having optimal levels of cysteine and glycine in your body is crucial for healthy immune function. Yet, older adults are often deficient in cysteine and glycine, and both are required to make the cell-protecting antioxidant, glutathione.
Studies have shown that supplemental NAC may decrease the length and severity of symptoms of respiratory illnesses, suppress the spread of the virus throughout the body and inhibit an inflammatory reaction in the lungs.14,15 Research also suggests that supplements of Glycine together with NAC may normalize glutathione levels to help restore the body's natural protection 19.
Practices to Promote Good Health
Even though it's impossible to avoid viruses completely, there’s still a lot you can do to keep your loved ones and yourself safe every day. These are the same practical steps you would take to avoid spreading a cold or the flu. The best way to reduce your chances of getting sick and prevent spreading viruses is by incorporating these basic, yet effective, tips from the Center for Disease Control into your daily routine:17
- Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating or touching your face and after coughing or sneezing.
- Use an alcohol-based sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol to clean your hands when soap and water aren’t available. When using a hand sanitizer, wait until your hands dry completely for it to effectively kill the germs on your hands.
- Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Cover your mouth and nose with the inside of your elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze.
- Stay home when you’re sick and not feeling well but watch your symptoms carefully and seek medical care if needed.
- Disinfect frequently touched surfaces like countertops, light switches and doorknobs with wipes, rubbing alcohol or natural disinfectants with antimicrobial properties.
- Practice Social Distancing by keeping a 6-foot (1.8m) distance between you and others if you’re out and about. Also, avoid handshakes and hugs in social settings to avoid close contact with others, and avoid close contact with people who are sick.
A Few More Healthy Habits or Good Health
Here are a few more health-promoting lifestyle habits that benefit your overall health and immune system:
- Get enough restful sleep to help renew and restore your body’s vital functions and ability to fight off illness.
- Stay hydrated since nearly every system in your body depends on water to work correctly.
- Take time to relax and destress so your body can focus on keeping you healthy.
- Make sure to exercise to help further boost your immune system, strengthen your body and reduce stress.
You Can Protect Your Own Health
With all the available information about how to stay safe and healthy these days, it can be difficult to figure out exactly how to best protect yourself from infections and illness. Yet, there’s a lot you can do to promote a fully-functioning immune system.
Arming yourself with knowledge and staying proactive about your own health can help keep your immune system in tip-top shape.
2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17403271; Reference: Li P, et al. Amino acids and immune function. Br J Nutr. 2007;98(2):237-52.
4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515351/; https://www.gutmicrobiotaforhealth.com/guide-difference-fermented-foods-probiotics/
18 Reference: De Flora S, et al. Attenuation of influenza-like symptomatology and improvement of cell-mediated immunity with long-term N-acetylcysteine treatment. Eur Respir J. 1997;10(7):1535-41.
19 Reference: Sekhar RV, et al. Deficient synthesis of glutathione underlies oxidative stress in aging and can be corrected by dietary cysteine and glycine supplementation. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011; 94(3): 847–853.