Your immune system is your body’s primary defense against things that can make you sick.
You can boost your immune system and protect your body by including healthy immune boosting foods in your diet.
Of course, the term “immune boosting foods” can be a bit misleading. Actually “boosting” your immune system wouldn’t be a good thing – that would mean that your immune system is working in overdrive. What people generally call immune “boosting” foods are really foods that simply help to keep your immune system functioning properly so that your body is adequately able to fight infection and diseases.
Now more than ever, people are concerned about how to keep themselves healthy. The coronavirus pandemic has made us all keenly aware that we need to protect ourselves from illness and disease. But a healthy immune system is essential all the time.
That’s why we’ve compiled this list of immune boosting foods – rather, foods that can help support a healthy and functioning immune system.
We also reached out to experts to weigh in with their favorite foods for immune system support.
Why is the immune system so important?
The immune system is necessary for helping to protect your body from germs and diseases, like respiratory infections and the flu. It’s often called your body’s first line of defence – it can protect you from bacteria and viruses that can make you sick. And how does it do that? The immune and lymphatic system produces and carries white blood cells through your body – these are the cells with antibodies that can fight off infections.
If you have an underactive immune system, you leave yourself more vulnerable to various diseases like cancer, the flu, and other viruses. Conversely, an overactive immune system can lead to other diseases like allergies, multiple sclerosis, or lupus. The goal is to have a healthy and efficient immune system that functions the way it’s supposed to.
Foods to help support a healthy immune system
What you put into your body affects your health in a number of ways – from your weight, to your cholesterol, to how well your body can use immune cells fight off infections.
Let’s take a look at what the experts think are some of the best foods for your immune system.
My Nutritarian diet uses the acronym G-BOMBS to help people remember to eat the 6 most immune-supporting, anti-cancer foods daily: Greens, Beans, Onions, Mushrooms, Berries, and Seeds. What we know for sure are the same foods that support immune defenses against cancer also enhance defense against microbes and viruses. In fact, the main reason so many people are suffering from such a severe illness is the inadequacy of the SAD (Standard American Diet), and the immune suppression that occurs from being overweight and eating baked goods, fried and processed foods.
Joel Fuhrman, MD, Board-certified Family Physician, NY Times best-selling Author
- Fuhrman M.D., Joel (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 416 Pages - 12/29/2020 (Publication Date) - HarperOne (Publisher)
Many berries can have a positive effect on your immune system, but let’s specifically take a look at the elderberry. The elderberry has a lot of health benefits, and it’s been used medicinally for centuries. Elderberries are often used to make syrup and lozenges – which makes perfect sense, since the medicinal properties in elderberries can reduce swelling in mucus membranes. This particular berry is most lauded during flu season, as it has been shown to reduce the duration of the flu by helping your immune system stave off the infection.
Another berry that’s beneficial to the immune system is the acai berry. Acai berries have seen a big uptick in popularity lately, especially in dishes like acai bowls. These berries are rich in antioxidants, like anthocyanins, that can help your immune system and reduce inflammation.
As part of a healthy diet, mushrooms can help boost your immune system. Button mushrooms in particular are high in selenium and B vitamins, such as niacin and riboflavin. These are important vitamins and minerals to immune function.
Additionally, mushrooms are a good source of polysaccharides, which can also help to improve the function of your immune system. They can also be an excellent source of vitamin D.
“Vitamin D is a vital nutrient that supports our immune system. The sun is the main source, but mushrooms can be, too, if you give them a few hours to ‘sunbake’ before you eat them – which boosts their vitamin D levels.”
Dr. Tim Crowe, Nutrition Researcher, Educator, and Media Communicator
Mushrooms are also a tasty way to help your immune system. They can be grilled, added to scrambled eggs and omelets, and they make a lovely addition to soups and salads.
And, speaking of salads…
Incorporating a salad into your diet is a great way to get a variety of healthy foods all in one place.
Salads can be extremely versatile, especially when you have a variety of fresh produce at your disposal.
“My favorite immune supporting food would be a big colorful salad – because it’s fresh and full of vitamins and minerals that we need for a healthy immune system. I would encourage everyone to do what they can to ensure a steady flow of as much fresh produce – vegetables and fruits – as possible. Join a Community Supported Agriculture (C.S.A.) organization or find another way to get products delivered to your house. Consider sprouting grains, seeds, and legumes or growing an indoor or outdoor garden. We need starch-containing foods like grains, legumes, and root vegetables for energy and protein; they store well and are easy to prepare with cooking or soaking. But it’s the fresh produce that adds the vitality to your diet and your body – so, that really should be a priority when it comes to procuring your food and planning your meals.”
Michael Klaper, M.D., Physician, Speaker, Educator
A good salad really is greater than the sum of its parts. You can put a variety of immune boosting foods into one big salad to enhance your overall immune function. Let’s take a look at some of the leafy greens and other salad components that can help keep your immune system healthy.
One of the main components of a leafy green salad is, of course, the leafy greens! Spinach is one of the best and most beneficial leafy greens you can put on your salad.
This is because it has high amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber, folate, magnesium, and iron. These are nutrients that can boost immune function. Spinach is at its most beneficial when it’s raw, so it’s an ideal immune booster for your salad.
Broccoli is another one of those foods that’s so much better when it’s in its raw form. The nutrients are more potent and you’ll reap more immune health benefits.
Broccoli is my absolute favourite immune-boosting food. It’s high in fiber and contains sulfur compounds and antioxidants which support liver detoxification. It’s also rich in vitamin C, which supports immune function. Not to mention, it’s delicious! I have added broccoli to many of my recipes in the JSHealth App since it’s such a nutritional powerhouse, and it’s great for immunity. I’ve been making a few of my favourite broccoli recipes a lot recently – especially the Cleansing Green Juice and the Satay Broccolini! I definitely recommend incorporating broccoli into your diet daily for that extra boost to your immune system – particularly in the current climate!
Jessica Sepel, Holistic Expert Nutritionist, Founder of JS Health Vitamins
Broccoli can be an excellent addition to any salad – and it is full of vitamins that can help keep your immune system in check. A cup of broccoli provides your body with as much vitamin C as an orange (we’ll get to those a little bit later!). In addition to vitamin C, broccoli is full of B vitamins – B1, B2, B3, and B6 – that provide immune system benefits.
It’s such a nutritious vegetable, that it only makes sense to try to work it into your diet. Whether you put broccoli on a salad, in a casserole, or steam some as a side dish, you’ll be able to reap the many health benefits of this superfood.
Olive oil isn’t just for the saute pan! You can also use it to add additional immune-boosting nutrients to your salad.
No good salad is complete without a tasty salad dressing. You can add both flavor and immune health benefits by incorporating olive oil into your salad dressing. Whether you choose to create an olive oil lemon juice dressing or go with a simple oil and vinegar combination, you can enhance your salad and your immune system at the same time. Olive oil is high in polyunsaturated fatty acids that act as anti-inflammatory agents in your body.
Garlic is mostly thought of as a flavor additive to many dishes, but it has some unique immune health benefits of its own.
“If I had to narrow it down to just one food, I’d have to say my favorite immune-boosting go-to is garlic. Beyond the fact that garlic is inexpensive and accessible, this herb helps protect our heart and blood vessels in ways that very few other foods can. Some research has shown that garlic may also have an anti-cancer effect, too. But certainly, for me, the reason I love garlic the most is that it’s antibacterial – especially through our gut.
It’s a really fantastic food! How many other foods can you think of that help protect our body from heart disease while clearing the way in our gut to make room for healthy, beneficial bacteria that has the potential to improve digestion, boost energy, and improve overall wellness?”
Traci D Mitchell, Author, Nutrition Expert, and Weight Loss Coach
Garlic is a delicious addition to almost any dish, but it’s also one of the healthiest things you can eat to keep your immune system healthy. It has antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties that can help keep your immune system functioning at the right level.
Specifically, garlic bulbs contain antioxidants that help to ward off free radicals that play a role in various diseases like heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.
“My favorite immune-boosting food is organic garlic since it has antibacterial and antifungal agents, as well as an antiseptic. Best to crush the cloves to release its antibiotic power and may assist the body resist or destroy viruses. Garlic boosts the immune system. Enjoy it raw wrapped around a kale leaf, a slice of turkey, chicken, roast beef, on some gluten-free bread or cashew tortilla, or in some hot water or chicken broth. Get creative with it.”
Nancy Guberti, Functional Medicine Specialist & Speaker
Since garlic is such a versatile food, it’s not difficult to work it into your diet to reap its many health benefits. Garlic includes a portion of your daily recommended value of manganese, vitamin B6, vitamin C, selenium, and fiber. It also contains a fair amount of calcium, copper, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamin B1.
“In my family, garlic has always been one of the predominant go-to immune-boosting foods. From a young age, I remember my mother making us her strain of garlic tea, a highly concentrated brew that burned my mouth with its spiciness, every time we got a bad cold. Her familial and cultural wisdom is not without biologic basis. Studies have shown that garlic may enhance certain immune cells such as lymphocytes and help produce immunoglobulins. Although most research to date has been done in animals and there isn’t enough research yet to confirm these benefits in humans, it appears to be a promising candidate for helping us maintain a healthy immune system. Which is great news, since it makes food delicious.”
Diana Montoya-Williams, MD, Neonatologist and Co-founder Of Baby Doctor Mamas
The experts we spoke with really could not stop singing the praises of garlic as an immune boosting food!
“A very important immune booster is garlic. It has sulfur-containing compounds, such as allicin in it which is a powerful antibiotic that fights infection and bacteria. All you need is a few garlic cloves in a day, not whole bulbs. Here are a couple of recipes to help you add garlic. Leeks and Carrots with Ginger and Garlic is So Delicious, Simple Garlic Zucchini”
Bone broth is becoming increasingly popular these days for its gut health benefits. It’s also an easy addition to your diet in an effort to aid immune function.
“Bone broth is my favorite food to support your immune system. It’s full of amino acids and peptides that help support a balanced and normal inflammatory response as well as maintain and promote optimal gut health. This is so critical because your gut is home to 80% of your immune system! Whether you make it yourself at home or choose my Collagen Bone Broth, sourced from organic pasture-raised chickens, bone broth is rich in the collagen that’s the most critical structural protein in your body. Not only is it great for a healthy gut, but it also supports your muscles, joints, bones, and connective tissue, as well as healthy insulin production and pancreatic function. It’s a nutritional powerhouse!”
Amy Myers, MD, New York Times bestselling author of The Autoimmune Solution and The Thyroid Connection
- Myers M.D., Amy (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 400 Pages - 05/02/2017 (Publication Date) - HarperOne (Publisher)
Generally speaking, bone broth is a nutritious addition to your diet. Animal bones are rich in a variety of minerals like calcium, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus – and these are the minerals that are needed to strengthen and build your own bones. Bone broth made from fish bones contains iodine, essential for both healthy thyroid function and metabolism.
Bone broth is an easy and effective way to get some of the vitamins and minerals that may be missing from your daily diet. Marrow provides your body with vitamin A, vitamin K2, and minerals like zinc, iron, manganese, boron, and selenium. It also has omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. As the marrow simmers during the process of making the broth, the nutrients within are released into the water – in a form that is easy for your body to absorb.
Other immune boosting foods
Of course, the above are just some of the foods that can help your immune function. There are many other foods that contain beneficial vitamins and minerals that can keep your immune system working properly.
One the best foods to prevent you from getting sick and help you recover if you do, are foods high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds found in foods that help prevent or reduce oxidative damage to our cells that can lead to the development of disease. You can find antioxidants in many fruits and vegetables, especially carrots, lemons, garlic, broccoli, apples, peppers, berries, green tea and onions. There are several antioxidant compounds found in food and one of best antioxidants for fighting and preventing illness right now is Vitamin C. Fortunately, Vitamin C is readily available in many fruits. We know that vitamin C can reduce the inflammatory response and may prevent and shorten the duration of the common cold. One of the best fruit to be reaching for right now are berries- blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, goji berries, açai berries, and cranberries. Not only are berries high in Vitamin C and other antioxidants, they’re also low on the glycemic index, available in fresh or frozen formats, easily integrated into a variety of recipes including smoothies or in salads and absolutely delicious.
Trish Allan, Clinical Nutritionist, Educator and founder of Healthy Vibrant Living Nutrition.
Here are a few other foods you can consider to help your overall immune response.
- Citrus fruits – Rich in vitamin C, which is helpful in preventing common diseases
- Bell peppers – Also packed with vitamin C
- Green tea – Contains flavonoids, an antioxidant that can boost immunity
- Sweet potatoes – Rich in vitamin A and vitamin C
- Chicken soup – Ingredients halt the movement of white blood cells and reduce mucus
- Ginger root – Contains antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties
- Sunflower seeds – Rich in vitamin E and magnesium, and a good source of protein
- Pumpkin seeds – High in antioxidants
- Lentils – Rich in essential nutrients
“Lentils. They are packed with iron, zinc, calcium, B vitamins, Folate, and a host of antioxidant polyphenols and fiber to feed a healthy gut. Combine them with a vitamin C rich, fresh salad and you have an awesome immune-boosting meal.”
Stephan Esser, MD, Founder of Esser Health
Variety is the spice of life – and immune health
Eating just one of the aforementioned foods won’t necessarily keep your immune system functioning the way that you need it to. Immune health – and your overall health – is all about balance and a well-rounded approach.
Variety is the spice of life, and it turns out variety is the spice of life for your immune system too. I’ve always preferred the word super fuel rather than superfood to highlight the fact that it is your overall diet that counts rather than single food choices. Fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, and seeds each contain unique phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals, so mix it up. Foods rich in probiotics can help your digestive health, which has a strong connection to our overall immunity. Also, don’t forget protein since it is an essential component of the building blocks of your immune system.”
Andrea Holwegner RD, Founder of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting
A well-balanced approach can help your immune system do its job in protecting your body. Many of the foods we’ve already discussed help your immune system generate the inflammatory response necessary to ward off illness and disease. That response can be specific to a certain area – when you have an infection – or more generalized, like when you have a fever. Either way, your immune system needs support in order to keep your body healthy.
“I don’t recommend one single food, or type of food, as an immune booster. Instead, what really matters is our holistic, whole-body approach to wellness. Limiting things that we know are inflammatory and detrimental to our immune system, including sugar, processed, refined carbohydrates, deep-fried food, and alcohol.
Emphasizing the things that we know are beneficial: Probiotic-rich foods to support the immune system, like Greek yogurt and kombucha. A mix + match of colors when it comes to vegetables and fruits, keeping in mind that frozen can be just as nutritious as fresh (just steer clear of added sauces, sugars, and salty seasonings).
Being diligent with stress management techniques, as stress is one of the worst things for our immune system: Limiting our exposure to the news. Ideally, 7+ hours of sleep a night. Incorporating daily movement, whether it’s an online workout video, walk in the neighborhood, anything to get our bodies moving and blood flowing.”
Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD, Registered Dietitian with Ochsner Health in New Orleans, Founder of Ochsner’s Eat Fit
You give your health and your immune system the best chance to function properly if you maintain an overall healthy lifestyle. You can’t always control your exposure to the diseases and dangers that may lurk in the outside world, but you can make choices in your lifestyle and diet that can give the disease-fighting cells in your immune system the support they need.
Improve your overall immune health
A healthy diet is your first step in improving your overall immune health. But remember that well-rounded approach, too. We’d like to sincerely thank the contributing experts for their dietary and medical advice regarding their favorite foods for immune health.
If you want to give your immune system a boost, consider adding some well-balanced and nutrient-rich foods to your diet. Your immune system will thank you.