January 12, 2021 10 min read
Your immune system is the most important line of defense when it comes to both maintaining your health and combating sickness, so it’s imperative that it’s kept in fighting condition.
But the immune system is often misunderstood and even less often taken care of. As the name suggests, it’s a system. That means a lot of moving parts and a lot of mechanisms that interact with one another, making it sometimes difficult to know how to boost it.
And while the best way to maintain a strong immune system is to lead a healthy lifestyle, there are various vitamins and supplements one can take to give them that extra edge—some of which we’ll be looking at down below.
The term “immune system” gets thrown around a lot, but what actually is it?
It consists of a complex collection of processes, chemicals, and cells that work best when they’re in a proper balance. If things are well taken care of and strong, it helps your body fight off illnesses.
By far the best way to keep your immune system strong is to live a healthy lifestyle. This includes exercising regularly, staying hydrated, getting enough quality sleep, and eating whole, healthy foods. It’s this last aspect—eating healthy—that’s the major focus.
Food contains the nutrients we need to power our bodies, and it’s no different for the immune system’s needs. The vitamins and minerals that food gives us are what keeps our immune function in tip-top shape—and for most of us, we don’t need anything more.
However, ensuring that you’re getting the proper vitamins and supplements is also a good idea—one that we’ll be looking at down below. Just remember that it’s the fundamentals that need to be tackled before the extras.
This is the big one. Acting as a support for the function of several immune cells, it both enhances their ability and acts as a powerful antioxidant.
Part of the way it helps your immune system function is that vitamin C aids in the clearing out of old, dead cells and replacing them with new ones. When it comes to its antioxidant properties, vitamin C protects against oxidative stress—something that occurs when there’s an abundance of “free radicals” inside of your body.
Furthermore, vitamin C supplements have been shown to reduce the severity of upper respiratory tract infections—including the common cold. Even those with more severe infections (such as sepsis) have been shown to improve when vitamin C is dosed intravenously.
Vitamin C is clearly a contender for one of the better vitamins you can regularly use, especially around flu season.
Some of the best sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons, bell peppers, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. While it’s recommended to maintain an upper limit of 2,000 mg of vitamin C per day, supplement doses usually range from 250 to 1,000 mg.
Zinc is a mineral that’s also very useful when it comes to strengthening your immune system. And while enough vitamin C is usually easy to get, there are an estimated 2 billion people worldwide that have a zinc deficiency.
This is especially true for older adults but can affect anybody. A zinc deficiency runs the risk of increasing your chances of catching infections and diseases.
As with vitamin C, zinc has also been shown to help against catching upper respiratory tract infections such as the common cold. Furthermore, some research has also shown that zinc may help when it comes to improving the wellbeing of those who are already sick.
Therefore, if you’re not already doing it, it might be a good idea to begin supplementing with this useful mineral.
However, with zinc, it’s important to keep underneath the upper bound of what’s recommended. This upper bound is set at 40mg of elemental zinc per day. If one goes over this bound, there’s a chance that the zinc will begin interfering with the absorption of copper in your body.
So, while supplementing will probably help you out, this is not a case of the more, the better.
Another heavy hitter in the immune system department, vitamin D helps your pathogen-fighting monocytes and macrophages (white blood cells) do a better job of defending your body. Additionally, vitamin D will also help to decrease inflammation—an aspect that’s beneficial for promoting immune responses.
This is another nutrient which many people are deficient in, which results in higher chances of getting upper respiratory tract infections—including the flu. So if you want to avoid these infections, it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re getting enough of this vitamin.
Some studies have even shown that supplementing with vitamin D can even improve people’s responses to antiviral treatments when it comes to those with infections including HIV and hepatitis C.
Vitamin d also regulates the amount of calcium in the body, which helps to keep your bones, muscles, and teeth healthy. A severe lack of vitamin D can cause serious issues within all of these areas.
The amount one should be taking each day depends on their blood levels, but this range is in the ballpark of 1,000 to 4,000 IU of supplemental vitamin D. It’s also known as the sunshine vitamin since the sun is a good source of it. Furthermore, vitamin D levels can be maintained by eating fatty fish, seafood, mushrooms, egg yolks, and most multivitamins.
Vitamins of the B family are water-soluble, meaning that your body cannot produce its own store of them. That’s why it’s necessary to either take them in through the foods you eat or through supplementing.
While a B vitamin complex pill will include all of the variations of B vitamins, the most important for immune function are B6 and B12. Furthermore, many adults are deficient when it comes to B vitamins.
Vitamin B6, for example, is involved with amino acid metabolism and red blood cell production. Foods that you want to be eating include salmon, potatoes, and chickpeas. On the other hand, vitamin B12 (probably the most well-known B vitamin) is necessary for proper neurological function, DNA production, and red blood cell development as well.
While each B vitamin differs with the amount you’re meant to take and the benefits it bestows, some general benefits include a reduction in stress levels, boosting your mood, and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
If you’ve ever heard that eating carrots will give you supervision, vitamin A is the reason why. And while supervision might be an exaggeration, the vitamin is crucial for the variety of your body’s needs.
In terms of vision, vitamin A helps your vision adjust to dimmer conditions, while also helping to maintain bone health and the lining of your body’s interior surfaces. And what we’re most interested in, the vitamin regulates cell growth and the production and activity of white blood cells.
Specifically, vitamin A is necessary for the proper function of our lymphocytes, which are involved with antibody responses to intruders.
As we mentioned, vitamin A is found in carrots, but can also be found in squash in the form of carotenoids. Carotenoids are an antioxidant that can also help to fight inflammation—good news for our immune system.
While vitamin E efficiency is rather rare, it still plays an important role in our body’s immune function.
Vitamin E is actually a group of vitamins that all have antioxidant effects, helping to fight against free radicals in your body. Free radicals are loose electrons within the body that can damage cells, potentially contributing to things such as vision loss, cancer, and artery-clogging. However, studies still remain mixed about the usefulness of vitamin E.
Nevertheless, the vitamin is also a good way to boost immune function and prevent clotting in the arteries.
Elderberries have long been used to fight off infections, but we’re now learning that might have positive effects on immune health as well.
Certain studies have shown that elderberry seems to have antibacterial and antiviral properties against some bacterial pathogens—specifically those that are responsible for upper respiratory tract infections.
It’s also worth noting that some studies have shown that those taking elderberry supplements reduced their upper respiratory symptoms caused by infections, and some even were relieved earlier than those not taking the supplement.
Medicinal mushrooms have been used for a long time over several different cultures, especially when it comes to preventing and treating infections and diseases.
At the moment, there are over 270 species of mushroom that are recognized to have some type of immune boosting properties—this includes lion’s mane, maitake, reishi, and cordyceps.
With the variety of medicinal mushrooms, there’s a variety of ways they help to enhance your immune system. Some have even been shown to reduce the symptoms of specific conditions, like lung infections or asthma. Additionally, the turkey tail mushroom has been argued to significantly enhance the body’s immune response, even in people with certain cancers.
Because of the variety of mushrooms, it’s best to do one’s research before leaning too heavily on this supplement. However, they often come in the form of pills you can take, teas, or tinctures.
In terms of eating a balanced diet for proper immune system functioning, probiotics are one of the key aspects to include. This includes foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, or kimchi—anything that has an active culture of good bacteria.
Your immune system and digestive systems are interconnected in many ways, and gut bacteria are important for an overall healthy functioning body. Making sure that your digestive tract is healthy and has a balanced microbiome is one of the key parts of maintaining your health.
Furthermore, you can also take prebiotics which are a form of fiber that act as an energy source for probiotics. When looking to buy yogurt, for example, making sure it's plain and not packed with flavorings and sweeteners—you want the stuff with an active culture and nothing overly processed, to get maximum benefits.
This is an herb that’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, and it’s been touted as significantly improving immune-related responses in the body.
Its purported properties include strengthening the immune system, anti-inflammatory benefits, and even anti-aging. It’s believed to prolong one’s lifespan, while also combatting fatigue, allergies, and upper respiratory tract infections. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s also been claimed to fight heart disease and diabetes.
The medicine comes from the root of the plant, which is made into liquid extracts, powders, teas, and pills. While the research is still limited, it’s worth a try if you’ve got a good astragalus plug.
This is a trace mineral that’s very important for several of your body’s functions. This includes things such as proper cognitive function, fertility, and you guessed it—a healthy and strong immune system.
More specifically, this mineral can help protect against oxidative damage and infection. Furthermore, it can possibly protect against cardiovascular diseases, cognitive decline, and thyroid disorders.
Certain animal trials have also found that selenium can enhance antiviral defenses against the flu, including strains such as H1N1.
Selenium deficiencies are usually rare, and they tend to happen in areas of the world where there is a low supply of selenium in the soil (since it enters fruits and vegetables this way). The recommended daily value is 55 micrograms for adults.
If you’ve been looking for an excuse to eat more garlic bread, this is it.
Garlic has been used as an antifungal, antibacterial, and antiseptic—which is a lot of antis, without even including the obvious anti-vampiric.
But while there are a lot of claims that surround garlic, not many of them have been substantiated properly. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be side effects from consuming too much. Some of these claims include treating sore throats, upper respiratory infections, intestinal worms, chronic earaches, yeast infections, and chronic bronchitis.
Fresh is always better (so garlic bread is probably not the best way to get more garlic into you), but garlic capsules exist as well if you want to try this option.
Echinacea, also known as coneflower, is an extremely popular herb all over the world (often available as over-the-counter medication). There’s an impressive array of compounds that the coneflower boasts, some of which help to combat inflammation, improve your immunity, and lower blood sugar levels.
For starters, this herb is very high in antioxidants, which we already know is helpful for strengthening the immune system. Along with its anti-inflammatory properties, it can also potentially lower feelings of anxiety and help to treat certain skin concerns (such as acne).
While there are no official dosage recommendations for the herb, it is best to follow the instructions on products from trusted brands. There are the options of extract tinctures, powdered extracts, and even lozenges
Propolis is a cousin of honey, being created by bees along with the sticky substance.
It’s what happens when bees combine the sap from evergreens with their own discharges and beeswax, using it to coat their hives. But while it might sound strange, it’s got quite the track record in terms of usage.
For example, the Greeks used it to treat abscesses, while the Assyrians used it to fight infections and help healing processes. While the research has been spotty so far, there is evidence that propolis has antifungal, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties.
One of the most nutritious berries on the planet, the acai berry has taken the health food world by storm in recent years.
When it comes to its effects on the immune system, its strength lies in boosting the production of our gamma delta T cells, which are a key part of a properly functioning immune system.
Another herb used for a very long time in traditional Chinese medicine, it’s also known as the “Indian echinacea”. While it boasts a lot of benefits for the human body, the ones we’re interested in concern the immune system.
While it’s both antiviral and anti-inflammatory, a lot of its benefit comes from the antioxidant properties it possesses.
This is one of the oldest herbal remedies, so it's worth a try (whether or not you’re a fan of black licorice). For example, it was used by Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Greek medicine practitioners to soothe upset stomachs and help against inflammation.
These days, it’s often used as a way to treat heartburn, acid reflux, coughs, and bacterial and viral infections.
Another medicinal herb, it’s used frequently for upper respiratory tract infections (such as the common cold)—however, its usefulness is still not understood very well by research.
It’s also claimed to have a positive effect on human immune cell functions—but once again, the jury is still out on that.
This is the main active compound found in turmeric, and it’s also been used for a long time.
Its main claim to fame rests on its analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties—being able to fight both inflammation while also helping the body’s immune response to potential attackers.
Known as NAC, it’s considered a semi-essential amino acid because your body can only produce it from other amino acids. Therefore, it’s “essential-ness” only becomes a factor when your other amino acid intake is low—which it shouldn’t be, especially if you’re trying to build some muscle.
And just like muscle building ingredients, you’ll find this amino acid mostly in foods such as chicken, turkey, eggs, legumes, and cheese—but it’s also available for supplementation.
If you’re looking to get that extra edge both with your immune system and in the gym, it might just be the supplement for you.