Whether you feel like you’re battling a new virus every other week or trying to proactively fend off those sick days, you may wonder if there are things you can do (or foods you can eat) to keep your immune system at its best. While some aspects are inherent at birth, there are also some things you can do to help strengthen your immunity. Among these things is being mindful of what you put on your plate. To help you navigate this tricky topic, we’ve put together a list of ways to easily hack your diet to power your immune system.
Polyphenols for long-term health
Want to lower your risk of disease by about 30%? Add plant foods to your diet. Plants contain polyphenols, which are compounds that keep inflammation in check, protect cells from damage and can potentially lower your risk of diseases. Polyphenols also have anti-viral qualities and may help your body fight infections, but more research is needed.
There are lots of different types (more than 8000!) of polyphenols: you might be familiar with resveratrol in your nightly glass of red wine, or quercetin in your summer blueberries. Each polyphenol works a little differently in your body so the key is to eat a variety to reap the most benefits. What are some good sources of polyphenols? Anything that comes from a plant! Think spices like cloves, herbs like green tea and vegetables like artichokes.
Takeaway: Polyphenols are beneficial compounds found it plants that can reduce your risk of disease by 30%, according to some studies. Get your polyphenols by eating a variety of plant foods including spice, herbs, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Short Chain Fatty Acids (SFCA’s) to feed your gut
What does gut health have to do with your immune system? Well, not only is your digestive tract a swanky hangout for the trillions of bacteria that make up your microbiome. The lining of your intestines is also an entry point for less favorable house guests, like infectious bacteria. The best way to keep those unwanted bacteria from weaseling their way into your blood stream, is to keep the good bacteria in your gut happy. And what is a beneficial bacteria’s favorite treat? Fiber! When fiber is broken down, short chain fatty acids (SCFA) are produced. Those SCFA have been shown to keep your inflammation at a healthy level, therefore reducing your risk of certain diseases and infections.
Takeaway: Your gut is an essential part of your immune system. You can keep your gut (and therefore your immune system) healthy by eating foods high in fiber such as popcorn, quinoa, broccoli, apples and other fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Vitamins and minerals for optimal immunity
No, we are not sponsored by big veggie. But yes, we desperately want you to eat your fruits and vegetables. We already know they have immune promoting polyphenols and fiber. But they also have important vitamins and minerals that your immune system needs to function.
Vitamin D, selenium and zinc are particularly important since some people (like those with digestive disorders, pregnant or elderly) are at risk of not getting enough. Not convinced? Check out this study that found a link between low zinc levels and greater rates of infection and longer illness. Or this study that noted how vitamin D deficiency can increase your risk for getting sick. Though sunlight is the best source of vitamin D, you can get your fill of selenium, zinc and other important nutrients by eating a diet rich in nuts, fruits, veggies and lean meats.
Takeaway: Certain vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin D, zinc and selenium, are crucial for your immune system and maintaining optimal levels can help keep you healthy. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean meats and nuts to cover your bases.
Allie has a master’s in nutrition science from Framingham State University. She has worked as a Health Educator and Personal Trainer, and has a passion for helping people lead happier, healthier lives.