Most people think of reaching for an orange when they start to feel under the weather, but vitamin C isn’t the only nutrient that supports immune function. Plenty of vitamins and minerals help our bodies fight off pathogens, AKA those unwanted outsiders that can cause the common cold, a not-so-cute infection, or even COVID-19.
Below, five immunity-friendly foods that bring serious health benefits to the table. One disclaimer: putting these foods on your plate doesn’t guarantee you’ll never get sick again (if only!). But eating a well balanced diet—along with proper hand washing, regular exercise, hydration and stress reduction—can make a major difference when it comes to immune support. Let’s eat well to feel well.
While there isn’t a plethora of research on the antioxidant-rich fruit, elderberry has been used for centuries as a remedy for sinus and respiratory infections.
Studies of the ingredient have produced mixed results, with some showing that elderberry syrup can shorten the duration of flu symptoms in sick individuals and others showing no benefits from the berry at all.
Here’s what we do know: the fruit is rich in vitamin C, which is proven to support immune function. There’s also little risk to dropping some high-quality elderberry extract on your tongue or drizzling the syrup in your tea if you’re feeling less than 100%. Just don’t consume the fruit in its raw form; it can actually be toxic if it’s not cooked.
Our take? Elderberry syrup isn’t a magic bullet, but feel free to give it a try if you feel a scratchy throat or the sniffles coming on. We do want to note that there is more ongoing research on elderberry. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Complementary and Integrative Health department has found preliminary research suggesting that elderberry may relieve symptoms of flu or other upper respiratory infections.
Remember how we said most people think to reach for an orange when they think of vitamin C? While citrus is indeed a key source of the nutrient, plenty of other foods—like bell peppers—offer up even more of the water-soluble vitamin.
Just one half-cup of red bell pepper, for example, provides more than 100% of your daily value of vitamin C. Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, and strawberries are also great sources of vitamin C, which acts as an antioxidant to help drive down disease risk. Studies report that vitamin C may help prevent viral, bacterial and other infections by shortening the duration of colds and acting as a natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory. So let’s get that immunity boost anyway we can!
Microgreens are essentially baby plants. More specifically, they’re the immature greens produced from the seeds of various veggies and herbs. But don’t let their miniature size fool you. Research shows that the sprout-like plants are jam packed with nutrients.
Take broccoli microgreens, for example. A March 2017 study published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition reported that broccoli microgreens served up higher concentrations of key immune-boosting nutrients like magnesium, manganese, zinc, and copper compared to the mature vegetable.
Best of all, you can grow them right in your kitchen with a countertop kit. Microgreens, macro benefits.
When it comes to immune health, vitamin D is one of the buzziest nutrients on the map. Though the research has been mixed, a handful of recent observational studies have suggested that the lower one’s vitamin D levels, the higher their likelihood of experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms. Friendly reminder: observational studies can only show associations, not causation, so we can’t say that eating or supplementing vitamin D in non-deficient individuals willower disease risk.
That said, more than 97% of American women consume less than the estimated average requirement for vitamin D, which is pretty significant considering the nutrient is essential for bone health, cell growth and—you guessed it—immune function.
How can you get your dose of vitamin D? Ten to 15 minutes of direct exposure to sunlight (sans sunscreen) a few days a week is option number one, though the optimal amount of time will depend on your skin tone. Supplementation is also an option. Talk to your doctor before supplementing and also before going out in the sun especially if you’re at risk or have a history of skin cancer.
When it comes to putting vitamin D on your plate, opt for oily fish like salmon, which is also high in anti-inflammatory omega-3s. Sardines, mackerel, egg yolks, and fortified milk and cereals are also great sources of vitamin D.
Kimchi lovers, rejoice! The fermented cabbage that’s a staple in Korean cuisine could support your immune system. Why? Kimchi is rich in probiotics, the beneficial bacteria that add diversity to the gut microbiome, which, along with gut-associated lymphoid tissue (or GALT), is said to house some 70% of our immune cells. Cabbage is also loaded with vitamin C. Throw some kimchi on top of your go-to grain bowl for a flavor kick and immune-friendly nutrients.
Anthea Levi, MS, RD, is a Brooklyn-based registered dietitian and health reporter. She currently works in private practice at Culina Health and contributes to various media outlets, including Livestrong.com and Nutritious Life.
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