How to Keep Your Immune System Healthy

Paula Diaque Ballesteros, RD, CDCES and Melinda Maryniuk, MEd, RD, CDCES

The immune system is in charge of defending our body against infection, bacteria and viruses. The design of the immune system is complex and influenced by an ideal balance of many factors. There is not a single food (such as chicken soup), vitamin (such as vitamin C) or herb (like ginseng) that is guaranteed to boost your immunity. 

However, there is good news! Many of the healthy behaviors you already know are good for you are also good for keeping your immune system strong and healthy. Here’s a few suggestions for keeping your immune system (and your whole body!) healthy…

Eat a balanced diet. Include vegetables, whole fruits, lean proteins, whole grains, nuts, legumes, dairy and plenty of water.

Choose colorful fruits and vegetables. These tend to be the ones that have the most nutrients that can help build a strong immune system.

Take a multivitamin if needed. Sometimes it is hard to get all the nutrients we need due to time, food intolerances or other factors. Talk with your healthcare provider about taking a multivitamin if you think this applies to you. Choose one that is balanced and contains the RDA for a variety of nutrients instead of a megadose of single nutrients. 

Focus on more whole and less processed foods. Foods that are ultra-processed are usually low in nutrients and can negatively affect a healthy immune system. It is also becoming clear that diets high in refined sugar and red meats and low in fruits and veggies lead to poor gut health, chronic inflammation and suppressed immunity.

Build up your gut bugs. Scientists are finding that the trillions of microorganisms or microbes that live in our bodies (mostly in the stomach and intestines) play a key role in immune function. High-fiber, plant-rich diets appear to support the growth and maintenance of these good bacteria. In addition to fiber-rich legumes, fruits, veggies and whole grains, consider adding some foods with live active bacteria cultures such as yogurt, kefir, fermented veggies, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha tea.

Exercise regularly. In addition to the many benefits of exercise, regular activity contributes to a strong immune system by promoting good circulation. This allows the disease-fighting cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely to fight infection.

Maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight is associated with low-grade chronic inflammation and a higher risk of complications from viruses such as influenza or corona. 

Drink alcohol in moderation (if you drink alcohol). The general guidelines are no more than 1 drink per day for women, and 2 drinks per day for men.

Don’t smoke (or try to stop smoking, if you do).

Sleep 7-9 hours per night. This is best achieved by sticking to a schedule – going to bed and waking up around the same time each day.

Aim to manage stress. This is easier said than done – but try to find some healthy strategies that work for you. This might include a daily walk, meditation or prayer, talking with a friend, or mindful breathing exercises.

Practice good hygiene. Wash hands often, especially when coming in from outdoors or a shopping trip, before and after preparing / eating food and after coughing or blowing your nose.

Get a flu shot every year and stay up to date with your vaccinations. Diabetes can make it harder for your immune system to fight infections, so you may be at greater risk for complications from an illness compared to people without diabetes.

Here’s a list of the nutrients that are of particular importance for our immune system and the foods where they are found!

  • Vitamin C: Stimulates the production of antibodies which improves our immune response. Foods such as citrus fruits, berries, melons, tomatoes, peppers, and broccoli are rich in this vitamin.
  • Vitamin D: Important because it can affect the immune response. Vitamin D comes primarily from sunlight. It can be found in foods such as fatty fish, eggs, milk, and juices fortified with vitamin D.
  • Zinc: Affects the immune system in different ways. It is important in the development and functioning of cells that regulate the immune system. It can be found in beef and seafood, as well as in plant sources such as beans, nuts, and wheat germ
  • Beta carotene: Pigments that belong to the colors yellow, orange, or red, and are a fundamental source of vitamin A. They help increase the number of cells and their activity within the immune system. They can be found in foods such as yams, carrots, spinach, tomatoes, and broccoli.

Remember, no single factor alone keeps us healthy and prevents disease, but a healthy lifestyle that causes our overall health to improve is a great place to start.

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