Your immune system helps keep you healthy by fighting off viruses, bacteria and pathogens that can cause infection or disease. This means that doing what you can to look after your immune system and ensure it’s strong can reduce your chances of getting ill.
One way you can give your immune system a boost is by eating foods that strengthen it. This should be done as part of a balanced diet to improve your immune system and benefit your overall health.
So what foods could be good for your immune system?
Turmeric is traditionally used as a spice but it could also be beneficial for your immune system as it’s high in curcumin. This compound is only found in turmeric and research has discovered that it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It can be enjoyed in food, taken in tablet form or mixed into drinks.
Eating oranges or taking vitamin C supplements is a common home remedy for a cold. There is some scientific backing to this as vitamin C is thought to increase white blood cell production. White blood cells are important when it comes to fighting infection and so increasing your intake of vitamin C could boost your ability to fight off colds.
Most citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, so you don’t have to stick with oranges. Eating grapefruit, clementines, limes, lemons or tangerines will help increase your vitamin C levels. Ideally, you should consume vitamin C-rich food every day as your body doesn’t produce or store it.
Garlic has been used to fight infections for hundreds if not thousands of years. Used in food around the world, garlic is rich in sulphur-containing compounds, which can help boost the immune system.
On top of being good for your immune system, garlic is also thought to help slow down the hardening of your arteries, making it beneficial for cardiovascular health.
As well as being a great source of vitamin C, spinach is also full of beta-carotene and antioxidants. These can help strengthen your immune system and increase its ability to fight infection.
To get the most out of spinach, you should cook it as little as possible, as this will help it retain its nutrients. While you can eat it raw, cooking it lightly helps your body to absorb the vitamin C within it and also releases other nutrients.
Another supergreen, broccoli is loaded with vitamins A, C and E and a great dose of antioxidants. This makes broccoli one of the healthiest vegetables.
As with spinach, it’s best to cook broccoli lightly to get as much goodness out of it as possible.
Although black and green teas are both rich in flavonoids, which is a type of antioxidant, green tea is a slightly better option. This is because it also contains an antioxidant called epigallocatechin gallate, which has been found to improve your immune function.
Green tea is also rich in L-theanine, an amino acid that is thought to help your white blood cells produce germ-fighting compounds.
As well as being a good source of protein, shellfish are rich in zinc, which your body needs so its immune cells can function properly. Shellfish that are particularly high in zinc include oysters, lobster, mussels and crab.
However, too much zinc can do more harm than good as excessively high levels can weaken your immune system. Men shouldn’t have more than 11mg a day and women shouldn’t have more than 8mg. In food terms, 100g of raw ground beef contains around 4.8mg of zinc and a single oyster contains around 5.3mg.
Poultry, such as chicken and turkey, is high in vitamin B6, which is needed for a lot of chemical reactions in your body. When it comes to the immune system, vitamin B6 is needed for the formation of healthy red blood cells.
As well as eating poultry, you can make broth or stock from the bones, which will also provide you with many nutrients.
Ginger is often used in food and drinks when people are feeling sick, as it is thought to reduce inflammation. When you’re ill, this can help symptoms such as sore throats. It also has antioxidant properties and has been linked to reducing nausea.
Sunflower seeds may be small but they are packed with nutrients that can help your health and immune system. They are a good source of vitamin E, which is key in the regulation and maintenance of the immune system.
These seeds are also high in selenium, which several studies have linked to the ability to combat viral infections.
While the food you eat can have an impact on your immune system, there’s more you can do to help it function at its best so you can better fight off illnesses and infections.
One of the best things you can do is maintain a healthy lifestyle, as this will help keep your immune system working properly. Healthy choices that will benefit your immune system include:
On top of these tips, there are a few other important steps you should take.
Exercise is important for a healthy immune system as it strengthens the immune response. Regular gentle exercise, such as walking, swimming, cycling or jogging, or more intense exercise, such as circuit training and running, help to boost your immune system while also looking after your heart health.
This reduces your chances of developing illnesses such as colds while also reducing your risk of diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Ideally, you should get 150 minutes of gentle exercise or 75 minutes of more intense exercise each week.
Get enough sleep
Sleep is vital for the immune system as too little sleep or poor quality sleep can reduce your immune response. This means you’re at greater risk of illness or infection — it’s why people tend to get ill more often when they are feeling tired and rundown.
Ideally, you should be getting seven to nine hours of good quality sleep every night. Creating a routine that helps improve your quality of sleep is, therefore, important for your immune system.
Long-term stress increases the production of cortisol, which negatively affects your immune system. This is different to the short burst of cortisol you get during a fight or flight response. Long-term stress keeps your cortisol levels elevated, which increases your risk of high blood pressure, headaches, weight gain, slowed healing and fatigue.
Avoiding situations that cause you a lot of stress isn’t always easy but it will help keep you healthy. You should also take up activities that you enjoy and will reduce your stress levels, help your mental health and consequently protect your immune system.
If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.
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Over the last five years Cahoot Care Marketing has built an experienced team of writers and editors, with broad and deep expertise on a range of care topics. They provide a responsive, efficient and comprehensive service, ensuring content is on brand and in line with relevant medical guidelines.
Their writers and editors include care sector workers, healthcare copywriting specialists and NHS trainers, who thoroughly research all topics using reputable sources including the NHS, NICE, relevant Royal Colleges and medical associations.
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Lux Fatimathas, Editor and Project Manager
Lux has a BSc(Hons) in Neuroscience from UCL, a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and experience as a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology. She has a clear and extensive understanding of the biological and medical sciences. Having worked in scientific publishing for BioMed Central and as a writer for the UK’s Medical Research Council and the National University of Singapore, she is able to clearly communicate complex concepts.
Catriona Shaw, Lead Editor
Catriona has an English degree from the University of Southampton and more than 12 years’ experience copy editing across a range of complex topics. She works with a diverse team of writers to create clear and compelling copy to educate and inform.
Alfie Jones, Director — Cahoot Care Marketing
Alfie has a creative writing degree from UCF and initially worked as a carer before supporting his family’s care training business with copywriting and general marketing. He has worked in content marketing and the care sector for over 10 years and overseen a diverse range of care content projects, building a strong team of specialist writers and marketing creatives after founding Cahoot in 2016.