vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and the foods to build up your immune system
There’s many factors that form the immunity puzzle; regular physical activity and gentle exercise, fresh air and sunshine, stress management and decreased cortisol levels, and good sleep hygiene. These lifestyle factors influence the way your immune system functions and its ability to fight off disease, particularly the common cold. Another piece to the puzzle is the influence your nutrition and diet has on your body's defence mechanisms, creating the building blocks that support the proper functioning of your immune cells and their communication pathways.
Regardless of whether you find yourself at the start of cold and flu season or not, keeping your immunity levels high and taking care of your immune system through dietary choices is a year-round must. Particularly as nurturing your body’s immune function has a great impact on your overall wellbeing.
As Skye Swaney, Accredited Dietitian, Nutrition Consultant and Recipe Developer from Shift Nutrition, explains “Our immune cells need plenty of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to function optimally. The best way to ensure you’re giving your immune system what it needs is through eating a nutritious diet.”
Your first line of defence
How often do you notice the signs that your body is feeling under the weather (think sniffly nose, head and body aches, change in body temperature, coughing, depleted energy levels)? “If you’re sick only occasionally and recover quickly, you’re sleeping well and have plenty of energy, you can probably rest assured that your immune system is in good shape,” says Skye. In contrast, frequent signs of sickness and taking longer to recover from these symptoms could be a sign that your immune system isn’t functioning to its full potential.
And while the visible signs of the common cold or feeling run-down are what first spring to mind, Skye notes that it’s also important to think about your gut health when it comes to immunity. “A healthy gut is the first step to a healthy immune system, as over 70% of our immune cells originate in the gut.” To keep your gut and, in turn, your immune system fighting fit, Skye recommends eating “A wide variety of plant foods and plenty of high-fibre foods, such as fruit and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.” A simple toasted muesli is an easy addition to your day to promote good gut health.
How to increase immunity
“A diet that has plenty of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants is good for the immune system,” says Skye, who singles out vitamin C for playing multiple important roles in immune function. “It encourages the production of white blood cells that help protect your body against infection, helps these cells function more effectively and protects them from free radical damage.” Try integrating more into your diet with rosehip tea, a natural source of vitamin C.
Skye also suggests enriching your diet with other “Antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamins A and E to reduce oxidative stress, which causes inflammation in the body. Zinc and iron are also necessary for the proper functioning of your immune cells.”
The best way you can boost your immunity is by incorporating a wide variety of foods from the food groups outlined by The Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care, in addition to healthy fats, herbs and spices, and drinking plenty of water. Important food groups to include in your diet are:
- Vegetables and legumes
- Grain foods, such as wheat, oat, corn and rice
- Protein foods, such as lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds, legumes and beans
- Dairy products or alternatives, such as milk, yoghurt and cheese.*
“In particular, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables,” says Skye, who suggests “Dark leafy greens, like kale and spinach, berries, and red and orange fruit and vegetables, such as sweet potato and tomatoes. They are excellent sources of antioxidants including vitamin C and beta-carotene.” And in order to reap the rewards of these nutrients, Skye suggests eating “Two servings of fruit and five servings of vegetables each day.”
Easy, effective ways to eat immune-rich foods
In order to incorporate more servings of fruits and vegetables into your diet, look to adopting healthy habits, which Skye suggests doing by “Eating a piece of fruit after a meal or making sure that half of your dinner plate is made up of vegetables.”
As well as soups or falafel and roasted vegetable bowls loaded with nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich vegetables for lunch or dinner, Skye also praises Khichari as an immune-boosting meal. “Khichari is a traditional Indian dish renowned for its nourishing and healing properties, and it has long been given to people who are sick,” she explains.
Her other go-to is a fruit and vegetable based smoothie every morning. “You can’t go past a smoothie for a quick antioxidant boost. Throw some fruit and vegetables, such as banana, apple, pear, kiwi fruit, berries, spinach, kale, carrot or beetroot, in a blender with a little water and blend.”