Super-Charging Your Immune System: The Six Nutrients You Should Be Taking

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What is the Immune System?

Many of us understand the immune system and its purpose in fighting off diseases and infections to keep our body functioning properly, but what exactly is the immune system? How does it work to build immunity? What can I do to promote immune health? For many people, a number of questions understandably arise once you dive beyond a surface understanding of this complex body system.

The immune system is an intricate organization of various organs, proteins, and cells that efficiently work together to fight off foreign invaders, or pathogens, that cause disease, illness, and infection. The immune system is not isolated to any single organ or tissue; rather, it exists throughout the body because various cells possess the ability to detect the presence of a pathogen. Once detected, they may call upon other agents of the immune system to begin defending the body. The most important parts of the immune system include white blood cells, the lymphatic system, the spleen, the thymus, and bone marrow. 

The Innate and Acquired Immune Systems

The immune system is divided into two main parts: the innate and acquired pathways. 

The innate immune system is what many imagine for the body's primary defense mechanisms. It is made up of the skin, stomach acid, macrophages, and other protective barriers and environments that work to simply block pathogens from entering and causing damage to cells. Inside immune system cells called phagocytes, the pathogen is basically engulfed by the cell and destroyed with digestive enzymes. 

The adaptive immune system is what makes the immune system so unique and important to protect and maintain. This feature uses information provided by the innate immune system following antigen detection to produce special proteins called antibodies. Made by B lymphocyte cells, these proteins stay in your body for very long periods of time and function as a quick and effective defense mechanism whenever that pathogen is encountered again. Keeping your immune system healthy and stable is incredibly important to fight off diseases and infections and protect the body from becoming sick. Without healthy immunity, it is difficult to live free from illness. Developing a healthy diet characterized by proper nutrient intake is one key lifestyle modification an individual can make to establish and maintain strong immunity. 

Six Important Dietary Nutrients for Supporting the Immune System 

  • Iron is fundamental for proper function of the immune system. It is a mineral and micronutrient that has the ability to increase immunity because of its antiviral properties. Iron plays significant roles in the proliferation, differentiation, and regulation of T cells. In the innate immune system pathway, iron controls the activities of transcription factors and enzymes, and thus influences the function of myeloid cells. In the adaptive immune system pathway, iron acts as a growth factor. This mineral is essential for modulating immune functions and preventive measures against disease and infections. Without it, much of the immune systems’ biochemical processes would be compromised and the body would not be able to withstand the presence of foreign pathogens.  
  • Zinc is a mineral that has a significant effect on the innate immune system. It fortifies the body’s barriers to make a more physically-resistant body and helps prevent pathogens from entering by strengthening skin cells and the cells lining organs. It also keeps the areas responsible for producing immune cells (the thymus and bone marrow) functioning healthily and properly. In general, zinc also works to control the varied activity of immune cells in the blood, such as monocytes, B cells, and T cells. Some foods with high levels of zinc are oysters, red meat, whole grains, and milk products.  
  • Vitamin A is one vitamin that works to increase the activity levels of various immune system cells, thus encouraging overall system efficiency. Immune cells such as T cells and macrophages must differentiate and mature in order to be of assistance in immune responses. Vitamin A promotes and regulates such developmental functions of cells. Concentrations of Vitamin A are highest in liver and fish oils. Vitamin A can also be found in eggs and dairy products, like cheese, milk, and yogurt. 
  • Vitamin D has anti-inflammatory effects and promotes the generation of new immune cells. As a result, Vitamin D is important for both the innate and adaptive immune systems. Since immune cells in autoimmune diseases are so responsive to the ameliorative effects of Vitamin D, an individual with a Vitamin D deficiency will most likely experience an increased susceptibility to infection and increased autoimmunity. Some great sources of Vitamin D include oily fish, red meat, egg yolks, and other fortified foods.  
  • Vitamin C boosts the production of common white blood cells (lymphocytes and phagocytes) so the body has more support when preparing to fight off an infection. It also assists many of the biochemical processes that occur in the adaptive immune system. Additionally, Vitamin C keeps your skin barrier healthy and strong. Fortunately, this vitamin is very easy to find and most individuals consume a sufficient amount on a daily basis without going out of their way to do so; however, Vitamin C is present in high levels in bell peppers, cruciferous vegetables, and citrus fruits such as oranges and kiwi.  
  • Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that can help fight off infections and inflammation. The vitamin also supports T cell growth and reduces oxidative stress experienced by tissues by protecting them from superoxide radicals. Some foods containing high levels of Vitamin E include sunflower seeds, various nuts, avocados, and mangoes. 

Our immune system is incredibly important for keeping the body protected from foreign invaders, infection, and inflammation. Maintaining a steady and high intake of the aforementioned nutrients for the immune system with the resources necessary for it to work more efficiently. 

Written By: Sudheshna Thirunahari 

Edited By: Camden Rowe

* All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.