Good Health Articles

Nutrition for Immune Health

By Tavis Piattoly, MS, RD, LDN for Taylor Hooton Foundation | Contributor

When I hear the term “Boost Your Immune System” used by supplement makers, I typically cringe as this is a marketing tool to get you to buy their products. Research has demonstrated there’s nothing we can eat or take that’s going to boost our immune system as it’s a system and not a single entity on its own. Furthermore, boosting our immune system is more complicated than we think as there are so many cells in the immune system that respond to so many different microbes. It’s not that simple to know which cells to boost and to what number as that is still unknown to research scientists.  At the same time, are there dietary or lifestyle practices that we can implement to improve our immune system and fight off an infection, virus, or disease? Keep reading and let’s find out.

Research has demonstrated there’s nothing we can eat or take that’s going to boost our immune system as it’s a system and not a single entity on its own.

What is the Immune System?

The immune system consists of various organs, tissues, and cells located throughout the body. They usually make up the tonsils, lymph nodes, thymus, spleen, lymph vessels, and bone marrow. Our White Blood Cells (WBCs) make up the core nucleus of the cells of the immune system that are made inside our bone marrow and travel through the body’s lymph vessels which are in close contact with the blood stream.

What are the functions of our Immune System?

The immune system provides three levels of defense against disease-causing organisms:

  1. Barriers – The skin and mucus membranes act as barriers along with our stomach acid and digestive enzymes that work together to prevent the entry of infections, viruses, and specific diseases into our body.
  2. Innate Immunity – WBCs such as neutrophils and macrophages act as a general defense that consume and destroy outside invaders and damaged cells.
  3. Acquired Immunity – WBCs such as T lymphocytes (T cells) target and destroy infected or cancerous cells. The B lymphocytes (B cells) produce antibodies that target and destroy infected or cancerous cells.

As you can see, our immune system is quite versatile and acts like a Swiss Army knife to protect us against a variety of illnesses such as cancer, viruses, and infections.

What Habits/Factors Weaken Our Immune System?

  • Smoking, tobacco use
  • Regular or excessive alcohol consumption
  • Lack of exercise or prolonged sitting
  • Poor diet (lack of fruits and vegetables)
  • Lack of sleep (less than 7 hours a day)
  • Poor Hygiene (i.e. lack of handwashing)
  • Low Vitamin D levels
  • Age (becomes reduced as we age)

While there may be some supplements that are of benefit to improve immune system function, our dietary habits are going to play the biggest role as you can’t out supplement a poor diet.

What Nutrients Improve Immune Function

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the dietary supplement market for immune system products has reached $28 million dollars. While there may be some supplements that are of benefit to improve immune system function, our dietary habits are going to play the biggest role as you can’t out supplement a poor diet. The following nutrients play a key role in supporting a healthy immune system:

Nutrient Function Good Sources
Vitamin A Supports vision, healthy skin and mucous membrane, immune system health Eggs, carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, fortified milk, dark green vegetables
Vitamin C Antioxidant; important for immune system health; aids in iron absorption Oranges, sweet red pepper, kiwi, strawberries, orange juice
Vitamin D Improves Immune Health,

Reduces risk for upper respiratory tract infection, bone support

Cod Liver Oil, trout, mushrooms, fortified milk, salmon, egg yolk, dairy, sunshine
Vitamin E Antioxidant that protects cell walls Almonds, avocado, plant based oils (corn, safflower), leafy green vegetables, wheat germ, whole grains, egg yolks, nuts
Folate Part of an enzyme needed for making DNA and new cells (i.e. red blood cells) Leafy green vegetables, legumes, orange juice, and sunflower seeds
Vitamin B12 Part of an enzyme needed for making new cells; nerve function Meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, milk and milk products
Vitamin B6 Part of an enzyme needed for protein metabolism; helps make red blood cells Chickpeas, tuna, salmon, beef liver, chicken breast, breakfast cereals, potatoes with skin, banana
Zinc Improves immune system health, fetal development, needed for making protein, wound healing, and normal growth. Oysters, beef, yogurt, whole grains
Iron Molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body; needed for energy metabolism Red meat, organ meats, fish, poultry, shellfish (clams), egg yolks, legumes, dried fruits, dark, leafy greens, iron enriched and fortified cereals
Copper Immune system function, defense against oxidative damage, healthy human plasma Beef, liver, oysters, dark chocolate, cashews
Selenium Antioxidant that plays critical roles in reproduction, DNA synthesis, and protection from oxidative damage Brazil nuts, yellowfin tuna, halibut, ham, shrimp, macaroni, turkey, cottage cheese
Omega 3 (EPA + DHA) Reduces inflammation

 

Salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts

As you can see a diet comprised of a wide variety of foods from lean protein, fatty fish, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and whole grains provide essential nutrients needed to improve our immune system due to the various functions each vitamin or mineral provides. While you may feel there’s a magic pill that can solve your problems, making a few adjustments to your daily habits can significantly improve your immune system and most importantly, your overall health.

ABOUT TAVIS PIATTOLY, MS, RD, LDN:

Tavis Piattoly, MS, RD, LDN is the Education Program Manager and Sports Dietitian for the Taylor Hooton Foundation where he speaks to athletes, coaches, parents, and healthcare professionals on the dangers on Appearance and Performance Enhancing Substances, Dietary Supplements and Supplement Safety, and Sports Nutrition.

He currently serves as the Sports Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant for Fairchild Sports Performance in Houston.  He is also an adjunct faculty for Concordia University of Chicago’s Exercise Science department where he teaches graduate courses in Vitamins/Minerals, Sports Nutrition, and Exercise and Nutrition for Weight Management.

He was the Sports Dietitian for the New Orleans Saints from 2006-2013 and New Orleans Pelicans from 2008-2013. He also served as the Sports Dietitian for the Tulane Athletics from 2002-2014 and the Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine’s NFL Players Association Brain and Body program from 2013-2016.

ABOUT THE TAYLOR HOOTON FOUNDATION:

The Taylor Hooton Foundation (THF) was formed in 2004 in memory of Taylor E. Hooton, a 17-year old high school student from Plano, TX. Taylor took his own life on July 15, 2003 as a result of using anabolic steroids.

Today, the THF is the leader in educating youth and adult influencers on the dangers of anabolic steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), dietary supplements, and other Appearance and Performance Enhancing Substances. For more information or to donate, go to https://taylorhooton.org/.

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