Essential Vitamins & Minerals for a Healthy Immune System
Besides wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and social distancing, keeping our bodies healthy is just as important in a pandemic. We cannot deny that a healthy diet is key to a strong immune system.
The immune system not only defends the body from pathogens, but is also responsible for removing damaged and dead cells. It also functions as surveillance by recognizing abnormal cells, such as those infected by viruses. ¹ Making healthy lifestyle choices by consuming nutritious foods and ensuring adequate sleep & exercise are essential ways to bolster our immune systems. The top vitamins & minerals that encourage a healthy immune system are vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B6, vitamin D, zinc, iron, and selenium.
Antioxidants are substances that help protect your cells against free radicals, which may play a role in heart disease, cancer, and other infections. We can find antioxidants in foods such as colorful fruits and vegetables, especially those with purple, blue, red, orange, and yellow hues. Nutrients that serve as antioxidants are vitamins C & E, zinc, and selenium. Additionally, beta-carotene (vitamin A) also serves as another major antioxidant that can be found in most fruit and vegetables. Therefore, increasing fruit and vegetable intake in our diet is particularly important. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories and fat, as well as rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.
Vitamin C is one of the biggest immune system boosters.³ Fruits that are high in vitamin C include citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, lemons, limes), apples, pears, and berries. Red bell peppers are also packed with vitamin C, along with vitamin K, vitamin E, vitamin A, folate, and potassium. Dark leafy greens, especially spinach, is also an excellent source of vitamin C, and also includes iron and vitamin K.
Like vitamin C, vitamin E can be a powerful antioxidant that helps your body fight off infections. This important vitamin — part of nearly 200 biochemical reactions in your body — is critical to how your immune system functions.² To get your vitamin E, think high-fat plant foods such as almonds, peanuts, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, or oils such as sunflower, safflower, and soybean oil.
Vitamin B6 is vital to supporting biochemical reactions in the immune system. ³ Vitamin B6-rich foods include chicken and cold-water fish such as salmon and tuna. Vitamin B6 is also found in green vegetables and in chickpeas, which is the main ingredient in hummus.
Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin. It is one of the most important and powerful nutrients for supporting the immune system. ² Food sources are limited, but include salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, and Vitamin D-fortified milk, orange juice and cereals.
Iron helps our body carry oxygen to cells, playing a part in many of the immune system processes. ² Iron comes in different forms. Our bodies can more easily absorb heme iron (iron from animal products), which is abundant in red meat, chicken, turkey, and canned light tuna. However, iron also can be found in plants such as beans, broccoli, kale, other dark leafy greens and Iron-fortified cereals. Adding citrus to plant-based iron sources can help improve iron absorption.
Selenium seems to have a powerful effect on the immune system by preventing infections. ² Animal foods are the best sources of selenium, with the exception of Brazil nuts, which offer a whopping greater than 100% daily value in one nut. However, too much selenium can be a problem, so keep to no more than one to two Brazil nuts in a day. Look for selenium in tuna, meat, liver, poultry, cottage cheese, fortified breads, and other grain products.
Zinc is needed for the production of new immune system cells.² It is found primarily in animal foods, but can also be found in oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, seafood, whole grains, and some fortified cereals and dairy products.
Let's do our immune systems a favor by increasing our fruit and vegetable intake – a great source of antioxidants! Obtaining vitamins & minerals from food is preferred compared to supplements. Foods have different nutrients and fiber, which all work together. Supplements do not have this synergy and can also interact with prescription or over-the-counter medications. Some supplements may not be appropriate for people with certain health conditions. Be sure to talk with a registered dietitian or your healthcare provider before starting any supplements.
Nahikian-Nelms M. Nutrition Therapy and Patho physiology. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Cengage; 2014.
Team W. 8 vitamins for an immune System boost. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/eat-these-foods-to-boost-your-immune-system/. Published August 3, 2021. Accessed August 3, 2021.
Team Hand V. 3 vitamins that are best for boosting your immunity. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/3-vitamins-best-boosting-immunity/. Published February 1, 2021. Accessed August 3, 2021.
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