It’s no secret that the Barbados is in an unsettling state right now. With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating, health is at the top of everyone’s minds, particularly immune health. The immune system supports our bodies in not only fighting off disease but protecting it from getting ill in the first place.
While things like a pandemic may remind us of immune health, it’s really of utmost importance all year long. The good news is that even though there are some things that are out of your control, there is still much that you can control, specifically what you eat, what supplements you take, and how you treat your body.
The importance of eating a nutritious diet and limiting sugar
What we eat plays a large role in how well our bodies are able to protect us against disease and fight it off. Some of the best nutrition advice, which will never go away, is to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, ideally from a variety of colors. Eating a variety of foods from other food groups will also help ensure your body receives the right mixture of nutrients, since different foods contain different nutrients.
Because eating a diet high in sugar can suppress the immune system and lead to inflammation in the body, sugar should be limited, primarily from added sugar sources. Pairing a healthy diet with other factors including stress management, adequate sleep, and exercise is the best way to support the immune system and an overall healthy lifestyle. You can read more about tips for boosting the immune system here.
Below, we’ll highlight 10 popular foods and supplements you should know that can help keep your immune system healthy and strong.
1) Antioxidant-rich foods
Antioxidants are substances that your body makes or are found in foods that help fight damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that can damage your body tissues, and they come from normal metabolism but also from exposure to things like pollution and other toxins. A buildup of free radicals in the body can lead to oxidative stress, which is thought to be linked to disease.
Consuming high amounts of antioxidants in the diet can protect and support the immune response of people exposed to environmental sources of free radicals. Antioxidants that you can find from foods include vitamins C, E, and A, and certain plant compounds. Antioxidants come from plant-based foods.
Good food sources include:
- Red grapes
- Red cabbage
- Dark chocolate
- Leafy greens
- Sweet potatoes
- Certain beans
Protein is made up of amino acids, and amino acids are used as fuel for the immune system. They play an important role in supporting immune functions of our intestinal cells. Not getting enough protein is associated with weakened immunity and a higher risk of developing disease. How much protein you need will depend on your age, body size, health status, and stage of life, so it is best to reach out to a healthcare provider to help you determine how much you need each day.
Good food sources include:
- Poultry like chicken and turkey
- Minimally processed beef and pork
- Greek and icelandic yogurts
- Beans and soy products
3) Vitamin D
While vitamin D is perhaps best known for its role in bone health, it has an important function on the immune response as well. Deficiency in vitamin D is associated with autoimmunity and an increased risk of getting infections, including flu. Vitamin D was even used to treat infections like tuberculosis before the invention of antibiotics. Vitamin D can help to both treat and prevent infections by playing an important role in protective immunity.
We get vitamin D in two forms: vitamin D2 from foods and vitamin D3 from the sun and animal products. Unlike with other vitamins, there are very few natural food sources for vitamin D, which can include:
- Fish like tuna, trout, and salmon
- Cod liver oil
- Portabella mushrooms that have been exposed to light
Common foods which are fortified with vitamin D (i.e., have vitamin D added) include:
- Plant-based milks like almond, soy, and rice milk
- Orange juice
- Some cereals
In addition, your body can convert vitamin D3 from sunlight into usable vitamin D. However, many factors can influence how much we can absorb, including:
- Time of day
- How much clothing you’re wearing
- How much skin pigment you have
- Use of sunscreen
Many people do not get as much vitamin D from the sun as they may believe. It is estimated half of all people worldwide have insufficient vitamin D status and 1 billion people have vitamin D deficiency. Therefore, supplementation with vitamin D is warranted. Research has shown that supplementing with vitamin D3 may be more effective at raising blood vitamin D levels compared to vitamin D2.
How much to take varies greatly so it is best to reach out to a trusted healthcare practitioner for guidance.
4) Vitamin C
Vitamin C is an important vitamin and a powerful antioxidant. Vitamin C supports barriers that keep germs like viruses and bacteria from entering the body, helps kill bacteria that do get in, and supports immune cells so they can do their job properly.
Good food sources of vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes
- Tropical fruits like kiwi, mango, and papaya
- Bell peppers
- Leafy greens
Note that while vitamin C can and should be obtained from food in the diet, dietary sources usually aren’t enough to fully reap the benefits for immune health. While the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C is only 75 mg a day for adult women and 90 mg a day for adult men, how much is needed for a therapeutic effect may be much higher than this. Studies have shown that vitamin C doses of 1,000 mg per day were needed to have an effect on the common cold.
Zinc is an important mineral that we get from our food, and it helps our bodies produce immune cells. Research shows that zinc plays an important role in reducing the risk, severity, and duration of infectious disease, and it also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Even mild zinc deficiency may cause immune dysfunction.
Good food sources of zinc include:
- Whole grains like oats and bran products
Zinc is also available in supplement form, including pills and lozenges. Short-term use of oral zinc has been shown to shorten the length of viral colds in adults when about 75 mg is taken within the first 24 hours of symptoms.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that are crucial for both gut and immune health. It’s worth pointing out that about 80% of the immune cells are located in the gut! Some research has shown that probiotics may help treat and prevent seasonal allergies. And other studies suggest that probiotics may have some benefits for immune-related diseases and viral infections.
The effects of each probiotic product depends on what bacterial strains it has, so not all will work for allergies or the immune system. Scientists have found that the probiotic combination of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium have been specifically helpful in treating hay fever symptoms and providing general support to the immune system.
There are many ways to take probiotics — through supplements or even foods, like yogurt and sauerkraut. Which form and dose you should take will depend on your individual needs. Be sure to discuss this with your provider.
This powerful plant has historically been used for a variety of medicinal uses and health benefits, specifically for its antiviral properties and role in helping to activate the immune system. One study of 60 adults with flu symptoms who took 15 mL of elderberry syrup 4 times a day experienced improved symptoms 4 days sooner than those who didn’t take elderberry.
Elderberry is most commonly taken in syrup form but can also be found in lozenges and tinctures. At Phillips Pharmacy one of our most popular products is the Nature;s Truth Black Elderberry Gummies with Zinc. Tastes great! And it works!
Echinacea is another herb that was widely used as a medicinal plant in many ancient cultures, and some people still use today. Some research shows that short-term use of echinacea may shorten the duration and severity of colds and upper respiratory infections when given as soon as symptoms begin.
Like elderberry, echinacea also comes in many forms including syrups, capsules, and lozenges. Dosing will vary based on need, so it’s best to consult with an herbalist or other healthcare professional before using.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin with several forms, but alpha-tocopherol is the only one used by the human body. Its main role is to act as an antioxidant, scavenging loose electrons—so-called “free radicals”—that can damage cells. It also enhances immune function and prevents clots from forming in heart arteries. . Vitamin E has the ability to protect cells from free radical damage as well as reduce the production of free radicals in certain situations.
This spice has become widely popular in recent years — and for good reason. Its many positive health effects come from the compound curcumin, which is found in turmeric. Turmeric is well known for its anti-inflammatory effects, but it has been more recently shown to support the immune system by activating many types of immune cells. A compound known as piperine in black pepper has been shown to help increase the absorption and availability of turmeric in the body by up to 2000%. Eating a source of healthy fat may also aid its absorption.
Turmeric is perhaps most widely used in curry sauces and dishes, but it can be enjoyed in much more ways than that. Turmeric powder mixes well in tropical smoothies and can also be easily added to soups, rice, and vegetables. It also pairs well with red meat, fish, and poultry. Turmeric lattes have also become popular in recent years. Just add about half a teaspoon of dried turmeric and a pinch of black pepper to a cup of almond or other milk, and enjoy.
Turmeric is also a popular supplement, so if you prefer that form, be sure to find a quality brand Like Phillips Pharmacy's Nature's Truth Turmeric Curcumin that includes piperine.
A variety of foods and supplements can play important roles in supporting immunity. Keep in mind that not all of the foods and supplements above need to be taken. But you can pick and choose based on what you like, what is realistic for you, and what your healthcare provider recommends. While pandemics and seasons will come and go, immune health should be a priority at all times of the year.
BETTER HEALTH & BEYOND Editorial Team
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