Is it possible to improve the immune system? This can seem like an impossible feat, especially if you regularly get sick. The immune system does an excellent job at fighting off harmful bacteria, viruses, and microorganisms, but it fails on occasion. While there isn’t a magic supplement that makes sickness go away, there are things you can do and foods you can eat to help optimize immune function.
What Is The Immune System?
The immune system is a protective network of organs, proteins, and white blood cells that help protect the body from foreign substances. Upon coming in contact with substances like viruses, bacteria, pathogens, or fungi, the immune system works to neutralize and remove them from the body. The immune system works nonstop to protect the body, even if you don’t notice it. You only notice when the immune system is compromised because you fall ill. If the immune system is under-active, you may be at a higher risk for developing severe infections and tumors of immunodeficiency. An overactive immune system can result in allergic reactions and autoimmune diseases.
We want to clarify that you cannot boost immune function overnight. The goal is to strengthen your immune system’s response with various lifestyle changes and through the use of immune-boosting foods, herbs, and supplements, which we detail below.
Astragalus is in the bean and legume family and has a long history of use in herbal medicine. People have used it to help fight diseases and improve immune function. Astragalus root has been used as an adaptogen in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. A recent review found that astragalus-based treatment significantly improved toxicity induced by drugs, including cancer therapies and immunosuppressants. The extract of the root may also protect the body from gastrointestinal inflammation.
Before recorded history, Ayurveda practitioners relied heavily on ginger’s immune boosting abilities. The belief is that ginger breaks down accumulated toxins in the body’s organs because it has a warming effect. Ginger root exhibits potent anti-inflammatory properties that help the immune system fend off bacteria and viruses. It may even treat inflammatory disorders caused by infectious agents like viruses, pathogens, and bacteria.
Both the berries and flowers of the elderberry plant have been used for thousands of years in herbal remedies. Even Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine,” understood that elderberry was necessary for optimal immune function. He used elderberry because it helped fight off colds, flu symptoms, allergies, and inflammation. Elderberries are naturally rich in vitamin C, flavonols, and anthocyanins, all of which exhibit antiviral, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. One study found that elderberry extract was able to reduce the duration of the flu in people who consumed it within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.
This bright, yellowish orange spice is a key ingredient in many cuisines around the world. It also has a place in alternative remedies, exhibiting powerful anti-inflammatory and potential anti-cancer properties. Consuming turmeric may help reduce chronic inflammation, which increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Recent studies found that turmeric boosts immune activity in human cells. Consume turmeric with a little black pepper because the piperine in black pepper increases the bioavailability of turmeric.
The gut can influence immune function, so optimizing gut health can benefit the immune system. Probiotics are healthy bacteria that help the body digest nutrients that encourage the detoxification of the colon. Research indicates that probiotic organisms may induce different cytokine responses in the body. Supplementing with probiotics in infancy may help prevent immune-related diseases in childhood because probiotics improve gut mucosal immune system.
This mineral exists in a variety of different foods (learn more about them here), but you can also consume it in the form of a supplement. Zinc encourages the body to produce more immune cells and may help reduce the severity and duration of infections. In fact, short-term use of zinc supplements has been shown to reduce the duration of viral colds in adults. Researchers identified that mild zinc deficiency may lower immune activity, but taking too much zinc can also weaken immune function. For that reason, consult with your doctor if you choose to take a zinc supplement.
Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with an increased risk of autoimmune disorders and susceptibility to infection. Research indicates that vitamin D works to promote protective immunity and maintain immune tolerance. One study that involved 19,000 participants showed that people with lower vitamin D levels were more likely to report upper respiratory tract infection than people with sufficient levels. The body can produce vitamin D via UVB spectrum sunlight absorption, but you can also find it in a minimal amount of food sources and supplements.
Several studies evaluated the green tea’s antioxidant profile and whether or not it has immunomodulatory properties. Green tea works as an antifungal and antiviral agent, so it may be beneficial for immunocompromised patients. Green tea also contains Epigallocatechin (EGCG), which is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from damage. Not only does this catechin work to enhance immune function, but it may also regulate blood sugar and encourage weight loss.