3 nutrition tips to support your immune system

Your body’s immune system is ever fluctuating. It gets stronger or weaker, depending on a variety of factors, including nutrition. So what can you do to make sure it’s working at top capacity to keep you healthy and safe? Be proactive with your nutrition.

”While there’s no magic bullet that will keep you from getting sick, a healthy, balanced eating plan can support a strong immune system and keep it at its best,” says Lois Duke, a senior performance dietitian at EXOS.

Use these tips to support your healthy immune system.

1. Assess your starting point.

All of your lifestyle factors help support your immune health, not just nutrition. “It’s never one thing,” says Duke. “It’s not just nutrition, it’s also sleep, stress management, and all these other things that work together.” Taking a holistic approach to building your immunity will get you farther than trying just one piece. So take care of your body in every way that you can to keep yourself as healthy as possible. (Learn more from Precision Nutrition.)

However, trying to change all of your lifestyle factors at once can be overwhelming. Because nutrition is one of the areas where you have the most control, start by evaluating your current eating habits and make plans to better support your immunity. “Keeping a food journal is a great first step toward making positive changes in your eating plan,” says Duke.

Once you’ve tracked what you eat and drink for a week or even a couple meals, take a look at your eating patterns. You might find that you aren’t getting a fruit or vegetable in every meal, or maybe your protein intake is low. Work on something small to start; small goals lead to big changes.

2. Figure out what you need.

Your body needs a variety of vitamins and minerals to support a healthy immune system. Vitamin A, vitamin C, beta carotene, vitamin E, vitamin B6, omega-3s, and amino acids are all star players when it comes to your immune system.

“Taking a vitamin supplement might give you a quick boost of nutrients, but it won’t prevent you from getting sick if you didn’t have a balanced eating plan prior to that,” says Kacie Sanderson, an EXOS performance dietitian at DTE Energy.

It can be tempting to try to load up on everything you see in the vitamin aisle. But it’s about having the right amounts of vitamins and minerals, and more isn’t necessarily better. Beyond choosing a multivitamin formulated for your age and gender, try to focus on getting your nutrients from foods. “We tend to run out and get the garlic supplement, or the turmeric supplement, but especially with the anti-inflammatory compounds in garlic, those are better fresh,” says Duke.

There are some groups that might need supplementation of certain vitamins and minerals to support their immune system. If you’re pregnant, or older, or you’re not eating as well and might have a micronutrient deficiency, or you’re vegan, then those are things you should discuss with your doctor.

3. Create your game plan.

When it comes to immunity, many people jump right into a single nutrient like vitamin C. While research does show that vitamin C can lessen the severity of symptoms and shorten time of specific types of colds, it won’t prevent you from getting sick or help with all illnesses. To truly stay healthy and recover quickly your body requires a variety of nutrients to do its job properly. “Think of your immune system like an engine, which has multiple components,” says Duke. “If you only have the gas and not the oil, it’s not going to run.”

Start with simple options

While the list of healthy, nutrient-packed foods is endless, here are a few you can add to your meals to start supporting your immune system.

  • Citrus fruits like grapefruit, oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes, and clementines are easy sources of vitamin C, which is thought to increase the production of white blood cells needed to fight infections.
  • Spinach is rich in vitamin C and packed with antioxidants and beta carotene, which may increase your body’s infection-fighting ability.
  • Avocados are packed with vitamin E, which is a powerful antioxidant and the key to maintaining a healthy immune system.
  • Green tea is a good source of the amino acid L-theanine, which may help produce germ-fighting compounds in your T-cells.

Sanderson says you can stock up on frozen fruits and vegetables that blend well into versatile smoothies. Use orange, red, and green fruits and vegetables to get vitamin A and C, such as strawberries, oranges, and spinach. Using Greek yogurt also adds probiotics and protein.

Power up with protein.

Duke explains that protein helps to rebuild and repair and plays a role in building antibodies. But that doesn’t mean you should start adding a ton of protein powder to everything. It’s still all about balance. Choose lean proteins from a variety of sources including fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, Greek yogurt, and plant proteins like legumes or tofu.

“Protein is important for building up all your cells, including the cells of your immune system that fight off illness and heal injuries,” says Sanderson. You can also get other benefits from protein. For example, poultry like turkey and chicken are rich with vitamin B6, which is vital to the formation of new and healthy red blood cells.

If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you’ll need to mix up your proteins to make sure you’re getting different sources of amino acids. Try combining rice and beans or hummus and whole-wheat bread to get a more complete amino acid profile similar to what is found in meat,” says Sanderson.

Trust your gut.

According to Sanderson, the majority of your immune system is housed in your gut, so it’s important to eat probiotics and prebiotic fiber to support a healthy gut. Greek yogurt contains live, active cultures plus vitamin D that may stimulate and regulate the immune system.

Probiotics are live, healthy cultures found in yogurt that keep the intestinal tract free of germs that cause diseases. When buying yogurt, choose a plain Greek yogurt and add a small teaspoon of honey or some fruit. That way you have control over the added sugars.

Take care for inflammation.

One aspect of your health that you can control through your diet is inflammation. “It’s a complex connection, but chronic inflammation is related to increased risk of chronic disease,” says Duke. “Generally, an eating plan of whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole-grains and starches, omega-3 fatty acids, and lean proteins with low amounts of processed foods and added sugars can play a role in fighting chronic inflammation.”

The connection between inflammation and our immune system is still being researched, but it’s clear that reducing inflammation in your body can help. So get your omega-3s from healthy fats like avocado, fatty fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds, and add in other anti-inflammatory foods like garlic and turmeric.

Also focus on stopping inflammation before it starts by avoiding foods that may cause it. “When foods containing high amounts of trans fat, saturated fat, and added sugar become staples in your diet, they can cause inflammation in the body over time. This inflammation can suppress your immune system’s response to disease-causing bacteria and viruses,” says Sanderson.

Interested in more ways to stay strong and healthy? Visit exosathome.com for daily workouts, mindset practices, and more.

About the Author

Kelsey Webb

As an editorial assistant at EXOS, I'm eager to help others improve every aspect of their lives through healthy living. I enjoy bringing effective strategies and information to light by working with experts in all fields.

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