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The nutrients your immune system needs - and how to make sure you're getting them

Whether your main concern is the common cold or a chronic condition, we all aspire to be as healthy as possible. While you can’t control your immune response to every sniffle, you can take steps to boost your immune system.

You’ll probably be surprised by the simple, affordable ways you can improve your body’s resistance to disease. To improve your immune system with vitamins and supplements, read up on the relevant scientific research, as well as which nutrients are right for your unique needs. It is also important to take a long-term approach, as creating the foundation of a healthy lifestyle is the best defense against illness.

Immunity is a complex system of specialized cells and biological responses integrated into the entire body, from digestion in your gut to your brain chemistry and everywhere in between. There are many fascinating aspects of the immune system that scientists are still exploring. However, there is also a large body of proven research that can benefit everyone. To keep it simple, we focused on proven vitamins and minerals that support your immune system.

The 8 best vitamins and minerals for immune system support

A lack of adequate nutrition is one of the primary contributors to a weak immune system. In a 2007 study published by the British Journal of Nutrition, micronutrients support the body’s immune system at three separate levels: physical barriers (e.g. skin and mucous), cellular immunity, and antibody production. Vitamins C, E and zinc assist the physical barriers. Vitamins B6, B12, C, D, E, folic acid, zinc, and selenium all support immunity at a cellular level. Finally, all these micronutrients, with the exceptions of vitamin C and iron, are essential for antibody production.

Unfortunately, inadequate nutrition disproportionately affects people who lack access to nourishing food due to economic factors or rely too heavily on overly-processed foods. Either of these circumstances could lead to a deficiency in one or more of the vitamins and minerals required for a healthy immune system. If your diet does not provide adequate levels of any the following vitamins and minerals, you may be more susceptible to illnesses:

  • Vitamin B
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Folic acid
  • Iron
  • Selenium
  • Zinc

The simplest way to obtain large amounts of these vitamins and minerals, with the exception of vitamin D, is to eat a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables. According to the USDA nutritional recommendations, most adults should consume no less than 2½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day. However, depending on factors including your age, size, sex and activity levels, the suggested amount could be even greater.

While the USDA also advises against consuming excessive amounts of solid fats and added sugars, they do not specifically advise against fruit juices. However, a study by the Harvard School of Public Health did find that a greater consumption of fruit juice is linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Interestingly, in the same study, consuming additional whole fruit actually decreased the likelihood of type 2 diabetes. It is believed that the high fiber content of whole fruit plays a role in this key difference.

To ensure you’re getting enough vitamin D, make sure you’re getting regular exposure to sunlight or eating foods rich in vitamin D like fish, eggs, dairy, or fortified foods. If you think you may not be getting the necessary levels, you can fill the gap by taking vitamin D in tablet form. Just make sure to look for vitamin D3, rather than D2. A 2012 study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, indicates that vitamin D3 is more effective at raising the blood levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D3 has become more popular in pill form, but many foods are still fortified with vitamin D2.

Zinc and vitamin C may reduce the length & symptoms of a cold

Wondering if supplements can help after you’ve already become sick? The short answer: maybe. If you become sick because of a particular vitamin or mineral deficiency, then supplementing with that nutrient could quickly lead to improvements. There is also some evidence that suggests zinc and vitamin C can shorten colds or reduce symptoms, if used in specific cases.

According to the National Institute of Health's Fact Sheet on zinc, zinc lozenges may reduce the duration and severity of the common cold, especially if taken soon after the onset of illness. However, it is important to note that zinc nasal sprays should be avoided due to the serious side effects.

Although vitamin C is commonly-known as a cold remedy, the results of clinical trials are inconsistent. The use of vitamin C after the onset of cold symptoms has not been shown to be effectively reduce the length or symptoms of the common cold. However, the National Institute of Health's Fact Sheet on vitamin C states that regular vitamin C intake of 250 mg/day to 1 g/day can be extremely helpful in people undergoing intense physical exercise or cold environments. In these cases, the incidence of cold was reduced by 50%.

Generally, vitamin and mineral supplements are most effective as a preemptive defense against becoming sick. If you do become ill, medical wisdom recommends that you drink plenty of fluids, get plenty of rest, and visit a doctor if your symptoms do not improve within a few days.

Healthy habits are the foundation of long-term wellness

When selecting the right vitamins and supplements for your individual needs, it is important to remember their proper role within a balanced lifestyle. Vitamins and supplements can certainly give your immunity a boost, but they can’t make up for an unhealthy lifestyle. If you find yourself regularly fighting illness, consider the following areas of your life, in addition to pursuing vitamins and supplements:

1. Eat healthily

Make sure your diet is varied and well-balanced. The goal is to consume lots of vitamins and minerals without too many calories from sugar and fat. Many people eat excessive amounts of calories from sugar and fat without meeting the body’s needs for essential vitamins and minerals. Foods that have high ratios of nutrients to calories are known as “nutritionally dense.” Focus on these types of foods to raise your immunity.

2. Exercise regularly

Exercise often, especially if you are sedentary at work. A daily workout is ideal, but don’t rush into it. If you are beginning a new workout routine, be sure to ease yourself into it to avoid injury and any unnecessary stress. Overworking yourself can actually lead to a decreased immune function. Another tip: choosing an activity you enjoy will help you stay committed to your routine. Social activities like hiking in the woods, going for a swim, walking your dog, or playing sports can also provide the added benefits of elevating your mood and forming close bonds.

3. Prioritize quality sleep

Experts recommend that adults sleep 7-9 hours per night to maintain optimum health. If falling asleep is an issue for you, try setting a simple, calming routine before bed. You should also try to avoid the bright light emitted from computer screens for two to threes hours before bed.

A lack of adequate sleep can impact mood, decrease immunity, and even cause overeating. Getting to bed early can also help you wake up early, to enjoy more sunlight and provide the body with crucial vitamin D.

4. Avoid cigarette smoke and excessive alcohol

“Toxin” has become a buzzword in the world of natural health, but there are some habits that are clearly unhealthy. Cigarette smoking and drinking alcohol in excess both pose serious risks to the immune system. While some alcohol in moderation can actually have health benefits, overdoing it weakens the immune system.

Staying healthy is fundamental to being a happy, productive individual. Unfortunately, science is still on the hunt for the “cure for the common cold.” Common sense can help out, while we’re waiting. Get the basic nutrients your immune system needs - whether from a healthy diet or from supplements, and always remember that a balanced diet, exercise, and adequate sleep are key to keeping your immune system in check.