Nutrients to Boost Your Immune System

Busy work schedules, family responsibilities and an unhealthy diet can compromise your immune system, which can lead to illness.

E. Catalina Portillo, registered dietitian and certified culinarian at Keck Medicine of USC, suggests adding the following nutrients — preferably from food rather than supplements — to your regular diet.

1. Zinc

Zinc stimulates the immune system by increasing the effectiveness of T cells. Only 15-25 milligrams per day is recommended (an excess of zinc can actually decrease functioning of your immune system), so it is better to rely on food sources instead of a supplement. Good sources of zinc are oysters, red meat, poultry, fish, beans, nuts, pumpkin seeds, lentils, quinoa, whole grains and mushrooms.

2. Vitamin C

Vitamin C boosts the immune system by supporting antibody production. Specifically, when you have a cold, vitamin C reduces congestion and the constriction of bronchi that leads to asthmatic symptoms. Vitamin C can also help you feel calmer by reducing the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. While consuming large amounts of a supplement doesn’t prevent the onset of a cold, a deficiency may increase susceptibility to illness. Research shows adequate intake may help reduce the severity of cold symptoms in some cases, although this remains a debated topic. Foods rich in vitamin C include: oranges, brussels sprouts, green peppers and berries.

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3. Vitamin A

Vitamin A maintains the integrity of the mucosa lining of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract to reduce the incidence of infection. Vitamin A rich foods include: sweet potatoes, eggs, carrots, kale, bell peppers, apricots, spinach and other leafy greens.

4. Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 enhances the maturation and differentiation of lymphocytes into infection fighting B and T cells. Sunflower seeds, pistachios and some meats are recommended food sources.

5. Vitamin D

Vitamin D activates and increases antibody response to a range of pathogens. Deficiency can occur during the winter months due to reduced sun exposure, but vitamin D rich foods such as fatty fish, fortified milk, juice, cereal, liver and egg yolks can compensate for the body’s reduced vitamin D levels.

6. Probiotics

Probiotics increase the “good” bacteria in your digestive system to fight off infection in the gastrointestinal tract. Choose a yogurt that contains live and active cultures to increase the number of infection fighting T cells in the body.

Stress also takes a toll on the immune system and is a major factor for increased incidence of illness.

Luckily, there are foods that can help reduce the effects of stress.

  • Complex carbohydrates, such as bread, rice and pasta, increase the production of serotonin, which promotes a relaxed state of mind.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids reduce stress hormone fluctuations, mild depression and PMS. Its anti-inflammatory effects also protect against heart disease. Good food sources include fatty fish, nuts and seeds.
  • Magnesium rich foods have been shown to improve sleep quality and relieve mood changes and muscle cramps. Studies show that magnesium reduces depression and irritability by modulating the stress response. Good sources of magnesium are whole grains, leafy greens, nuts and beans.
  • Green tea contains polyphenols that can reduce mental fatigue as well as oxidative stress. Sipping on hot green tea with meals can also aid digestion.
  • Chamomile tea induces a mild sedative effect, which can reduce insomnia and anxiety. Chamomile is also known to promote muscle relaxation.

If you are making these changes and are still under the weather, you may need the help of a primary care physician to figure out an action plan to get you back on track.

If you’re in the Southern California area and are in search of a primary care physician, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment to schedule an appointment.

by Cortney Montgomery