If there is a better way to be healthy, it's news to many of us that get by on chugging orange juice, stockpiling Airborne, and trying out herbal teas when we sense a summer cold or allergy kicking in. As it turns out, there's a more effective way to keep your immune system in check. Below, two nutritionists from Compass Nutrition—Nikita Kapur, MS, RDN, CDN, CLT and Jennifer Calo, MS, RDN, CDN, CDE—sound off on the best ways to stave off sickness and strengthen your immune system through eating and healthy living.
On foods that strengthen your immune system...
Kapur recommends opting for foods that are high in vitamins, antioxidants, plus infection-fighting and gut-boosting ingredients. Below, she suggests eight to add to your grocery list along with her reasonings for why they're so good for your immune system.
1. Bell Peppers: "They're high in vitamin C and beta carotene, which are strong antioxidants that helps the body generate anti-inflammatory compounds."
2. Yogurt: "Your gut is your biggest immune system and there are trillions of live bacteria that need to be kept healthy. Yogurt is fermented and rich in lactobacteria, which makes it an excellent probiotic that helps strengthen the gut flora. Probiotic-rich foods provide for those live bacteria and prebiotic foods (onions/garlic/artichokes) serve as their nutrition. It's important to have a mix of probiotic and prebiotic rich foods to help maintain a healthy gut microbiome."
3. Sauerkraut/Kimchi: "These are also fermented foods that help with immunity for the same reason."
4. Cruciferous Vegetables: "Examples of these include broccoli/cabbage/kale/brussel sprouts/collards/watercress etc., which provide us with isothiocyanates"(AKA plant chemicals that protect our cells from infection).
5. Garlic: "It contains allicin, a compound known for protecting cells from infection in addition to being a powerful antiseptic."
6. Spinach: "It's rich in beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A which in an important vitamin to improve the immune system. Spinach also contains zinc, an essential mineral that improves immunity."
7. Onions: "It's rich in anthocyanin and quercetin which is a powerful antioxidant and helps protect against oxidative damage."
8. Apples: "Apples are also rich in quercetin which is a powerful antioxidant."
On zinc supplements...
Although zinc plays a vital role in producing white blood cells and speeding up healing, Calo recommends obtaining zinc from natural food sources rich in zinc—such as beef, oysters, lamb, beef, and chicken—rather than loading up on supplements or Cold-Eeze lozenges. For vegetarians and vegans, don't fret. She says that nuts, seeds, wheat germ, and leafy green vegetables are also natural sources (although people absorb less zinc from nuts and plants than meat).
She also cautions against exceeding the RDA (recommended dietary allowance) for women, which is 8 mg daily. "Excessive zinc may lead to copper deficiency, gastrointestinal side affects (e.g. nausea and vomiting), or anemia."
Despite the Internet misconception that dairy causes a buildup of mucus when you're sick, Calo says there's no evidence to support it. In fact, she notes that one of the best ways to boost the immune system is with probiotics, since 70 percent of our immune system is in the gut. Besides fermented foods, she recommends dairy products such as yogurt, kefir, and fermented cheeses as a good source of probiotics.
On healthy lifestyle habits...
Because so many of her patients complain of soaring stress levels and sleep deprivation, Calo always encourages them to aim for at least seven hours of sleep every night, and to find some healthy coping mechanisms for stress, like guided meditation or exercise. "30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day (walking, dancing, swimming) will help boost immune system," she says.
Vitamin D3 is another source of strength for sun-deprived office drones and Calo recommends taking 2000 IU daily.