It is imperative to understand which vitamins boost the immune system. After all, our world is not sterile. Every day we are exposed to a myriad of harmful microbes that are constantly evolving to better infect us.
Knowing the risks, we often try to do everything in our power to protect ourselves against disease. We could put on a jacket, drink some hot tea, and head to a pharmacy for some backup. But do we know which vitamins strengthen the immune system? And is it even possible to beat a cold with certain nutrients, or is it just a marketing gimmick?
It’s hard to underestimate the role nutrition plays in maintaining our health and well-being. Studies (opens in a new tab) have shown that a diet composed mainly of whole foods and providing a sufficient quantity of good quality protein (our guide to best protein powder can help if you have trouble sticking to your intake) is the key to longevity and improved quality of life. However, our immune system is arguably the most complex part of the human body outside of the brain, and it may require more than a few specific nutrients to keep it in peak condition.
Here we will see if vitamins can really boost the immune system and which of these nutrients are important to help you stay healthy.
Can vitamins boost your immune system?
Your immune system works tirelessly to fight off harmful bacteria and viruses that you come into contact with. It is one of the most complex and interconnected systems in the human body, with many different factors shaping your immune response. These include your genetic makeup, age, health status and stress level.
Diet is one of the biggest contributors to a healthy immune system. A growing body of proof (opens in a new tab) suggests that the modern Western diet – high in sugar, salt and fat – may be behind a sharp rise in chronic disease worldwide.
Your body needs an array of different nutrients to bolster your defenses and stay immune to disease. But while some nutrients do a good job of supporting the immune system, it’s not as simple as just popping a multivitamin pill every morning. If you really want to improve your immunity, you may need to make lasting and profound changes to your eating habits.
Still, addressing vitamin and mineral deficiencies could be a good start. Micronutrients contribute to the body’s natural defenses by strengthening its physical barriers (such as the skin or mucous membranes), increasing the production of antibodies and improving “communication” between cells. Some vitamins tend to support your immune system better than others.
Vitamins ideal for boosting your immune system
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid as it’s also called, is a common ingredient you’ll find in many over-the-counter cold and flu medications. Vitamin C deficiency has long been linked to poor immune function and increased susceptibility to infections.
Studies also show that when your body is struggling with an infection, vitamin C supplementation can help you recover faster (opens in a new tab)even if you are already eating your recommended daily allowance of 75-90 mg of ascorbic acid per day.
Vitamin C supports the immune system on many levels. Among other functions, it fortifies white blood cells, maintains a strong skin barrier and protects against oxidative stress.
“Getting adequate vitamin C intake can help reduce lung inflammation, which can help you fight Covid-19 and other respiratory problems,” says Hussain Abdeh, clinical director and superintendent pharmacist at Direct Medicine (opens in a new tab).
Many people believe that citrus fruits have the highest concentration of ascorbic acid. They’re not wrong: a medium-sized orange contains almost 70 mg of vitamin C. However, certain vegetables can also be excellent sources. A pepper, for example, contains nearly 65 mg, while 100 g of broccoli provide more than 89 mg.
B vitamins are essential for the existence of all forms of life on our planet, from bacteria to humans. There are eight different types of B vitamins, each responsible for a wide range of metabolic and regulatory processes. To put it simply, without B vitamins we would not be able to move, think or build and repair our body tissues.
There are also important proof (opens in a new tab) that these nutrients play an important role in strengthening our immune system. Folic acid (opens in a new tab) (B9) and B12 deficiencies (opens in a new tab) can dramatically alter immune responses by affecting the production and activity of white blood cells. They can also lead to a condition called hyperhomocysteinemia, which increases systemic inflammation and triggers many other diseases. A study 2017 (opens in a new tab) also found that decreasing vitamin B6 levels negatively affects our immune system.
Fortunately, you can get B vitamins from most whole foods. As long as you stick to a healthy diet rich in whole grains, meat, eggs, legumes, seeds, nuts, fruits, and dark leafy vegetables, you should easily meet the recommended daily intake.
“Vitamin D was unknowingly used in the treatment of tuberculosis before the introduction of antibiotics,” says Abdeh. “Cod liver oil and sun exposure have been used to treat tuberculosis – both of these treatments are rich in vitamin D.”
Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with an increased risk of developing several autoimmune diseases, including psoriasis, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, this micronutrient helps activate and proliferate white blood cells, thus strengthening our defenses against various diseases.
Red meat, liver, egg yolks, and fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel, tend to contain the highest amounts of vitamin D. animal origin, don’t worry. Many countries add vitamin D to foods such as breakfast cereals, plant milks or mushrooms to prevent deficiencies in the general population.
Zinc, although technically not a vitamin, is one of the most important nutrients for our health. It is essential for our growth, development and the functioning of our nervous and reproductive systems. Without zinc, our immune system will also suffer.
To research (opens in a new tab) suggests that zinc has a direct effect on white blood cell production and function. It can also act as an immunostimulant – a component capable of increasing the efficiency of immune system responses. Besides, many studies (opens in a new tab) have shown that zinc can exert anticancer properties, primarily by protecting and repairing DNA strands.
You can find zinc in many common staple foods, such as whole grains, dairy products, meat, lentils, or nuts. Many foods, especially breakfast cereals, also tend to be fortified with this nutrient.
How to incorporate vitamins into your daily diet
Although vitamin supplements may seem like an easy fix, the best way to ensure adequate intake of essential nutrients is to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. Your body tends to better absorb and use vitamins from food, while supplements can be of different quality.
However, it is not always possible to have a balanced diet and it is possible to still be deficient in a nutrient even if you eat healthy. In this case, vitamin supplements can be helpful.
And while nutrition will certainly play an important role in building a strong immune system, if you want to maximize your chances of avoiding an infection, you may also need to address other aspects of your lifestyle.
“Rather than thinking about boosting the immune system, it is better to think about keeping it healthy and balanced,” explains Jenny Tschiesche, nutritionist and consultant for Nutriburst (opens in a new tab). “Ideally, this balance will be created through nutrition and lifestyle interventions. Not only do you need to eat and drink well, but there are other important aspects of your health and well-being that need to be taken into account for balance. Sleep welldigest well, reduce long-term stress, stay in touch with friends and eat mindfully.”