Flu season is coming – if it isn’t already here – and if you look at the stats, you’ll see that not everyone is prepared. For instance, when it comes to children aged 6 months to 17 years, only 49.9% had their flu vaccinations in the last 12 months. As for adults 18-49… this number drops to 31.8%.1 Even worse, some people only check in on their immune systems during winter and flu season. But there’s plenty of reasons to boost your immune system year round.
However, people don’t think of their immune health until something goes wrong. And actually, this reactive mentality makes sense.
After all, how would you know there was an issue with your immune response until it failed?
But you SHOULD be proactive. There are steps you can take and even foods you can eat to support a healthy immune system.
So, How Does Your Immune System Work?
Well, part of what’s tough about supporting your body’s immune system is that it’s not one single entity. Your immune system is made up of a lot of moving parts. And these different components work toward the same purpose– defending the body from “foreign” influences like germs.2
Now, “germs” is kind of a catch all term. On top of viruses and bacteria, your immune system also fights back against parasites and fungi. However, the immune system has other important roles as well. For instance, your immune system also helps you –
- Recognize and neutralize potentially harmful substances in the environment.
- Fight against internal entities that have become harmful (like cells that have changed due to illness).
Now, most people associate the various bodily systems with their corresponding organs. The lungs, for instance, power the respiratory system. The circulatory system revolves around the heart. But things are a bit different when it comes to the immune system.
The immune system happens to be comprised of many different organs, cells, proteins, and tissues.
However, the body’s immune response starts with the skin and mucous membranes. These serve as a protective barrier against pathogens or outside substances. Combined, they’re called antigens.3
The thing is, all of this reacting to external influences requires a lot of work. Key to this is the cellular component of the immune system – leukocytes, commonly known as white blood cells. These are produced in several different areas. Among them are bone marrow, the thymus, and the spleen. These are called the lymphoid organs. The leukocytes are then stored in lymphoid tissue, primarily lymph nodes.4,5 They’re some the key players when it comes to immunity.
Supporting Your Immune System Through Nutrition
To be clear, any immune condition, from a temporary illness to an autoimmune disease, require the attention of a doctor. The tips below are more of a “first line of defense.” By strengthening the organs and other components of the immune system, it’s possible to help your body do its job.
Like any part of the body, the immune system needs fuel to run. And the entire human body gets its nutrients from the foods it consumes. The immune system is no different in this regard. As a result, foods rich in the following nutrients may be able to give you that extra immune boost.
Vitamin C is likely the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to immune health and its reputation is well deserved. Certain immune cells need C to function. Another study on people with the common cold showed that vitamin C supplementation led to a slight reduction in the duration of the illness.6
Now, if you associate vitamin C with citrus fruits, you’re not wrong. These foods are great sources indeed. But, there are also others you might want to start incorporating, including:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Bell peppers
Protein has a vital role in cellular growth and repair. It makes sense then, that it would play an important role in immune function as well. Research has shown that lack of quality protein can lead to immune cell depletion and other similar problems. And one interesting fact is that it’s not just protein deficiency that can lead to immune issues. Imbalance of the amino acids in protein may also raise concern.8
And if you’re vegan, getting the necessary amount of protein can be a bit more difficult. The primary vegan foods for protein include legumes, seeds, and certain grains. Experts recommend being sure to consume a variety of foods with protein to keep that balance.9
Vitamin E is a multifaceted nutrient. As an antioxidant, it mitigates damage from free radical molecules. And your body uses it to boost the immune system, enhancing its regular functions. It also helps cells interact with each other and can even help widen blood vessels.10
One of the nice things about vitamin E is that it is also present in a lot of vegan favorites – like nuts and seeds. Almonds and sunflower seeds are among the best. Green vegetables like spinach also have plenty of vitamin E.
Living an Immune-Boosting Lifestyle
So, when it comes to immune support, a healthy lifestyle is only going to help. Though science hasn’t found a direct link between the two, there’s plenty of potential. And in general, healthy living is a good first defense against illness.
A balanced diet has already been mentioned, but there are still other things you can do.
- Minimizing smoking and alcohol intake can be of assistance.
- Getting adequate sleep and taking active steps to avoid infection is important.
- And washing your hands thoroughly matters too.11
And though exercise can be more difficult during the winter months, it’s important in terms of supporting the immune system and controlling your weight.12
Finally, there might be one more piece to the immunity puzzle. On top of bacteria from the outside, the human body is home to many of its own bacteria.
These bacteria reside in your skin and mouth, but most of them live in your gut. And certain cells in the gut lining release antibodies into your gut.13 Some theorize that interaction between gut microbes and immune cells plays a role in immune response. As the probiotic trend shows, gut health has influence far beyond digestion. How the immune system factors into this is worth paying attention to as well.14
Immune Support In Review
The immune system is a complicated beast that science may never fully unravel. But as studies on the gut and in other areas show, immunity can be impacted in unexpected ways.
What’s important to note is that the body has inherent immunity properties. As a result, when planning immune support, know that you have many of the tools you need naturally at your disposal.
This doesn’t mean skipping your yearly flu shot. What it does mean is that you can stack the deck in your favor against many different conditions. Just plan wisely and be ready to adjust.