Are you finding yourself repeatedly falling victim to colds, coughs, the flu, and other unpleasant illnesses? If so, this can be a sign that your immune system is not working as hard as it should be.
While you should always have yourself checked by a doctor if you suspect anything is wrong with your immune system—sometimes, regular infections can be warning signs of a serious immunodeficiency—you can often correct your immune system woes by eating immune-boosting foods.
Certain foods can help kick your immune system into high gear. From the unique chemical makeup of garlic to the antioxidants found in green tea, the following is a broad list of 20 delicious foods that you can eat to improve your health—and develop a kick-ass immune system—today.
For a strong immune system, you need a healthy gut. A healthy digestive system is created by filling it with lots of healthy bacteria, or probiotics. Roughly 80% of your immune system is located within your GI tract, so eating probiotic-rich foods can help impact your immune system.
Yogurt is generally the most common source of probiotics. While it is a household staple and can be found just about anywhere in the world, it is a go-to choice for many individuals seeking to improve their immune systems. However, as a result of the pasteurization process, most yogurt brands contain fewer probiotics than other sources (and many types of yogurts also contain high amounts of processed sugar and artificial sweeteners, which aren’t good for your immune system, either).
Alternatives to yogurt include other foods like kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Kefir is similar to yogurt but has been cultured with special grains. It contains a wider variety of healthy strains of bacteria than yogurt does. These bacteria are also more powerful, and last in your GI tract longer than those found in yogurt. Furthermore, these strains of bacteria can colonize the intestinal tract and make a long-term difference in your gut and overall health. Sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha are also good sources of probiotics, and are dairy-free, providing an extra benefit to those who are lactose intolerant.
Garlic is an ingredient used by just about every culture around the world, and it brings with it some incredible health benefits. In fact, many organic farmers feed livestock raw or chopped garlic to help repel certain parasites and strains of bacteria.
This miracle vegetable Is high in a compound called allin, which is released when garlic is crushed or chewed. This compound is responsible for garlic’s distinct smell and flavour, and provides enormous health benefits when ingested. Garlic increases the number of T-cells in your bloodstream. These are crucial cells that fight viruses, such as the flu. Having a large amount of these can help your body defend itself against just about any disease. Garlic can also help reduce the severity of your symptoms if you’ve already fallen ill.
Garlic can even adjust the way your adrenal glands respond to stress. Cortisol, also known ubiquitously as the major stress hormone, can wreak havoc on your immune system, as your body misinterprets mental stress as bodily stress and tries—in vain, of course—to fight it off. Garlic can help reduce levels of cortisol in your body and improve overall immune functioning, so make sure you incorporate it into your diet.
Turmeric has been in the spotlight quite a bit lately, and this is largely the result of the increasing amount of recent research that has surfaced regarding turmeric’s amazing health benefits.
The root of the turmeric plant is the real magic-maker. Also known as curcumin, this root has astonishingly high levels of antioxidants that help protect the body from viruses, cancerous growth, and even tumours.
Turmeric can be found in the spice aisle at the grocery store, but the best turmeric powders are ones that have been produced by a grower that tests specifically for curcumin levels.
Turmeric can be used raw as a spice for food, either before or after cooking. Mixing the spice with black pepper and oil is the best way to use it, as it increases the bioavailability of the curcumin and maximizes its potential effects.
The body contains a specific gene responsible for fighting germs. Cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide, or CAMP, produces certain proteins that help the immune system fight bacterial infections. Scientists have conducted extensive research to see how naturally-derived compounds affect this gene, looking at 447 different compounds in particular. Of these, pterostilbene was known to have the most positive effect on the activity levels of the CAMP gene.
Pterostilbene is found most predominantly in blueberries. When combined with vitamin D3, the compound’s effects are increased. Combining blueberries with a source of vitamin D3-such as the sun, milk, egg yolk, or beef liver—can seriously boost your immunity.
Many people think of oregano only as a flavoring for pizza sauce, but this aromatic herb does so much more for the body, including to help boost the immune system. Oregano has some of the highest antioxidants activity ratings, about 24 times higher than that of apples.
Oregano contains the following immune boosting antioxidants:
- Rosmarinic Acid – a natural antihistamine that also prevents free radical damage
- Thymol – boosts the immune system while protecting the body from toxins, and speeding up healing
- Carvacrol – helps the immune system to protect against a range of bacterial infections
- Terpenes – contains powerful antibacterial properties that support the immune system
Although oregano supports the immune system as a whole, it is particularly effective in protecting against certain infections, such as urinary tract infections, parasitic infections, and even food-borne illnesses, by killing bacteria and reducing the symptoms of food poisoning.
The herb in both fresh and dried form will have these effects. For the most potent form of oregano, try making your own oregano oil. This can be used in cooking and even household cleaning!
#6. Bone Broth
Just like turmeric, bone broth is another food that has been in the spotlight. While many may think of it as just a fad, this “fad” has actually been an immunity-boosting staple for thousands of years.
As we already mentioned, 80% of the immune system is located in the gut, and bone broth is a food that supports and strengthens gut health. The gelatin found in the bone broth repairs the intestinal lining and reduces inflammation in the gut.
The amino acids found in bone broth have also been linked to an improved immune system, as has the compound glutathione. This compound plays an important role in the creation of new cells and proteins within the body.
There are many different bone broth recipes out there, and it is worth experimenting with a few until you develop one that suits your own personal tastes.
Almonds are a fantastic source of immune-boosting nutrients, such as vitamin E, but it is almond skins that have the greatest effect.
Almond skins contain a range of natural chemicals that have been found to improve how the immune system responds to infections. Almonds increase the ability of white blood cells are able to recognize viruses (including the common cold or the flu) and also help to prevent these viruses from spreading through the body.
Even after the almonds have been digested by the body, these effects were still present, making almonds an extremely effective immune-boosting food.
For these effects to be most potent, you need to eat almonds regularly—and make sure they still have their skins. Almond butter is another roption, but again, the butter should be made from almonds that still had skin.
#8. Green Tea
Green tea contains an antioxidant called catechin, which supports the immune system’s fight against cancerous cells in a couple of different ways. It prevents the growth of cancerous tumours, and also prevents immune system dysfunction when cancer is detected.
In addition to this, the other antioxidants within green tea strengthen the overall immune system, protecting it from damage and keeping it functioning at its optimal levels.
The anti-inflammatory properties of green tea can also trigger a deep shift within the immune system, which then helps to manage and treat autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
While the immune system generally knows what it is doing, there are times when it ends up kicking into overdrive, leading to conditions such as allergies and asthma.
This is known as the Th2-mediated immune response, and ginger is able to regulate this, preventing it from over-reacting to certain foreign substances like pollen.
Ginger also helps to activate T-cells, which, again, are the cells in the immune system that are responsible for fighting germs.
#10. Shiitake Mushrooms
The second most commonly cultivated edible mushroom, shiitake mushrooms have more than ten times the flavor of white button mushrooms. This is largely the reason for their popularity, but not the only one—did you know that shiitake mushrooms contain several immune-boosting nutrients?
All mushrooms provide health benefits, but shiitake mushrooms contain high amounts of copper (65% of RDA), pantothenic acid (52% of RDA), and selenium (51% of RDA). They also contain many other compounds that help to support the immune system , reducing inflammation to destroying harmful viruses.
Research that has been carried out on shiitake mushrooms support the theory that they boost the immune system. There is evidence that mushrooms improve the way that germ-fighting T-cells function, as well as to reduce inflammatory problems in the body.
A supposed aphrodisiac, oysters are packed with different nutrients, with one of these being zinc. In fact, just one standard-sized oyster contains about 9 milligrams of zinc, meaning that it would only take two oysters to obtain your recommended daily amount.
When it comes to the immune system, zinc plays an important role. Zinc stimulates the production of white blood cells, increasing the rate at which they reproduce. Since these white blood cells are what destroy germs, zinc can really help to keep infections and illnesses away.
Oysters also contain selenium, which is another mineral that boosts the immune system, thanks to its antioxidant properties.
Vitamin C is crucial for the immune system, and this vitamin can be found in just about every fruit out there. However, the fruit that contains it in the highest concentration is the pineapple, with a single serving providing you with over 130% of your RDA for vitamin C.
The juice and stem of pineapples are also rich in an enzyme called bromelain, which has been used for its immune-boosting properties since ancient times. It helps in a few different ways:
- Reduces inflammation
- Prevents the immune system from over-reacting to pollen, therefore reducing hay fever symptoms
- Controls the growth of tumours
- Packed with fiber to help with digestion, and therefore improve gut health
One cup of pineapple contains just 77 calories, but does also contain more than 16 grams of sugar as well. Although pineapple is incredibly beneficial to your immune system functioning, definitely avoid eating an entire pineapple in one sitting—and try to avoid other sugars for the rest of the day.
#13. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Olive oil consumption has dramatically increased in recent years, and this is largely due to the fact that more people are now recognizing the many health benefits that olive oil, especially the extra virgin kind, can bring.
Olive oil contains a compound known as oleocanthal, which has strong anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, four teaspoons of olive oil a day, when taken for twelve weeks, is an alternative to conventional anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Ibuprofen, for reducing pain. However, while Ibuprofen can cause gastrointestinal damage and bleeding, olive oil has no negative side effects. Olive oil has even been linked in numerous studies to a decrease in tumors, especially those in the colon, breast and prostate.
Keep in mind that olive oil is a delicate ingredient, and its nutritional levels can easily be affected by heat, light and air. For this reason, make sure that you store your olive oil in a dark environment, at about room temperature. This will help to preserve its nutrients, as well as its taste.
#14. Pumpkin and Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkins, as well as their seeds, contain a number of different nutrients that feed and strengthen the immune system.
To begin with, just one cup of pumpkin contains almost eight times your RDA of vitamin A, which, along with vitamin D, has been scientifically proven to support the immune system.
The fiber that pumpkins contain, which account for 25% of your RDA, stimulate your immune system to help it fight infections. The folate found in pumpkins is also essential, as foliate deficiencies have been linked to a weaker immune system.
Manganese is another important nutrient for the immune system, as it helps the body build cells called superoxide dimutase, which fight free radicals. A cup of pumpkin contains 18% of your RDA of this.
Cloves are native to Indonesia, but are grown in countries around the world. They have been used for centuries for a range of medicinal purposes.
While cloves contain a variety of different minerals and vitamins, it is a substance called eugenol that is so beneficial when it comes to the immune system. Eugenol is what gives cloves their distinct smell. It has also been proven to be effective in the fight against many strains of bacteria and virus by increasing the number of white cells in the bloodstream.
#16. Leafy Greens
It has always been understood that eating your greens is a direct pathway to good health, but science now backs up the fact that leafy greens can boost the immune system.
Leafy greens contain specific chemical compounds that trigger activity in immune cells in the gut and the skin, not only ensuring that they are functioning properly, but also boosting the way in which they work.
While you may not enjoy the taste of leafy greens, those grown at home or purchased from farmer’s markets will taste far superior to grocery store versions. They will also likely be more nutritious, so try sourcing your vegetables from locally grown sources.
Eggs contain everything needed to grow a chick, meaning that they are filled with such a wide range of micronutrients.
As mentioned above, vitamin D can significantly boost the immune system, and eggs are one of the few foods that contain this vitamin.
You will also find DHA in eggs, which are one of the omega-3 fatty acids. This fatty acid reduces inflammation while supporting skin health.
As if that weren’t enough, eggs are also rich in selenium, vitamin B12, vitamin A, folate, biotin, pantothenic acid, phosphorous, iodine and vitamin B2, all of which help to support the immune system.
#18. Red Bell Peppers
Just like pineapples, red bell peppers are packed with vitamin C, with twice as much of this vitamin as the majority of citrus fruits. In addition to containing high amounts of vitamin C, red bell peppers are also a good source of beta carotene.
Both of these nutrients not only boost the immune system, but are also extremely beneficial to the skin. With your skin being the largest organ in the body, as well as home to some immune cells, its health can directly impact your overall immune system, and vice-versa.
#19. Wild Salmon and Other Fatty Fish
Just like eggs, salmon, as well as other types of fatty fish, is a great source of vitamin D.
They are also packed with omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids are able to enhance the way in which immune cells function, thereby boosting the immune system.
Wild salmon in particular is a fantastic source of zinc, which, as mentioned above, can do so much for the immune system.
The ginseng root is another food that has been used for centuries for so many different medicinal purposes, and is actually still one of the most popular herbal supplements today.
Ginseng is known as an adaptogen, meaning that it enables the tissues within the body to better adapt to stress and challenges. This means that the cells within these tissues are able to communicate with each other much more effectively, and can establish a much stronger defense system when a threat is present.
Unlike many of the other foods on this list, ginseng does not necessarily need to taken regularly, and can instead be saved for whenever you need an immune boost. The best way to consume ginseng is as a tea, although it does also add a beautiful flavor to soups and broths. Try adding it to some bone broth for a double immune boost!
Do you find yourself suffering from coughs, colds or other types of infections on a regular basis?
If your answer is yes, then it is highly likely that your immune system could do with a bit of a boost, so try to eat more of these immune-boosting foods. There are so many delicious dishes and recipes out there that make use of these ingredients, from chicken and shiitake mushroom soup to poached eggs and wild salmon– but some inspiration never goes amiss!
Please share your favorite immune-boosting dishes with us in the comments section below.
Alina was a born and bred city girl, until she moved to the Scottish countryside in 2013 to live the self-sufficient life. Thrown in at the deep end, she spent all her time learning as much about homesteading as she could, putting theory into practice each and every day. T
oday, Alina grows large amounts of food in her garden, greenhouse and polytunnel, and also has a number of different animals that call her little farm “home”.