How Nutrition Can Help Support a Healthy Immune System
by Nestlé Health Science
Your immune system helps protect your body from illness and infection, which is why it’s important to remember that there are steps you can take each and every day to support your immune health. This includes getting adequate sleep, practicing good hygiene, managing stress, getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy diet.
Knowing that proper nutrition and other healthy habits contribute to your immune health, it’s important to get the right nutrition and consume specific nutrients to help support the normal functioning of your immune system, as well as maintain your overall health and well-being.
What you can do to promote a healthy immune system
Your immune system needs a regular supply of nutrients to run smoothly, and a balanced diet will provide you with essential vitamins and minerals your body needs. However, many adults often fall short of getting an adequate amount of key nutrients from their diet alone.
This may be especially true for older adults who are often at increased risk for deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals, which can affect immune function and leave your body more susceptible to certain illnesses.1
Aging is also associated with a decline in immune response, which can increase vulnerability to infection and other health conditions. While many factors, such as exercise and medical history, can influence immune response as you age, nutrient deficiencies may be one reason why some older adults experience more severe symptoms from certain infections.1,2
Support your immune system with a diet that includes key nutrients for immune health
Eating a well-balanced diet, full of nutrient-rich foods, provides your body with important vitamins, minerals and other nutrients needed to help your immune system stay strong. Keep reading to learn more about specific nutrients that play a role in keeping your immune system in good working order.
TIP: For each vitamin and mineral, the Daily Value (DV) is listed as a guide for how much of that nutrient to consume each day. Check the Nutrition Facts label on your food for the % DV to see how certain foods contribute to your daily needs for each nutrient.
(DV = 900 micrograms; mcg)
Vitamin A supports the maintenance of cells in the skin and respiratory tract, which act as physical barriers to provide a first line of defense. Vitamin A is also important for the normal function of immune cells.3
Food Sources: Colorful fruits and veggies, including sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, red bell peppers, spinach and broccoli, as well as fortified foods like milk and breakfast cereal4
(DV = 90 milligrams; mg)
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals and helps protect against oxidative damage. It also supports tissues like the skin, which provides protection by acting as a physical barrier. Making sure you have optimal levels of vitamin C can support your body’s natural immune response by promoting the normal function of your immune cells.5
Food Sources: Fruits and vegetables, including oranges, grapefruit, kiwifruit, strawberries, red bell peppers, Brussels sprouts and broccoli4
(DV = 20 mcg or 800 international units [IU])
Vitamin D plays a crucial role in many aspects of your health, including modulating immune cell function.6 A deficiency of vitamin D is often associated with increased susceptibility to infection and illness,7 and many adults fall short of meeting recommendations for vitamin D intake from a regular diet alone. Thankfully, fortified foods and supplements can help fill in the nutritional gap of Vitamin D for immune support.
Food Sources: Fortified foods (milk, cereal, orange juice), fatty fish (salmon, sardines, tuna) and eggs4
(DV = 15 mg)
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that helps protect cell membranes from damage caused by free radicals. To protect against damage, immune cells require high levels of vitamin E due to increased exposure to oxidative stress and a high content of fatty acids susceptible to free radical damage.6
Food Sources: Nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts), seeds, vegetable oils and leafy green vegetables (such as spinach and broccoli)4
(DV = 11 mg)
Zinc is an essential mineral important for the development and activity of immune cells, including a type of white blood cells called T-cells (the function of T-cells is to find and destroy infected cells in the body). Zinc is also required for the pathways that immune cells use to communicate.8
Food Sources: Beef, poultry, oysters, beans, nuts (cashews, almonds) and dairy products4
(DV = 18 mg)
Iron is a key mineral important for the growth and development of immune cells, including white blood cells, which act as the frontline defense of the immune system.9 Your body needs the right balance of iron (not too much or too little) for your immune system to function properly.10
Food Sources: Lean meat, seafood, nuts, beans, fortified grain products (bread, cereal, rice), spinach and tofu4
(DV = 55 mcg)
Selenium is an antioxidant that supports your body’s immune response and helps counteract the damaging effects of oxidative stress. Like zinc, selenium also supports the activity of T-cells, as well as other cells of the immune system.3,9
Food Sources: Seafood (tuna, halibut, shrimp), whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat bread), meat, poultry, eggs and dairy4
(Recommended intake = around 1/2 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day)
Protein provides amino acids the body uses to build and repair tissue, as well as to form antibodies, which play an important role in the immune response. Protein is also important for recovery after illness. Experts recommend increased protein intake for adults over the age of 65.11-13
Food Sources: Milk, yogurt, eggs, chicken, lean beef, fish, soy products and legumes4
Consuming a well-balanced diet, which includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein sources, can help you get the nutrients your body needs to support your immune system. However, if you are not able to get adequate amounts of nutrients important for immune health from your regular diet alone, oral nutritional supplements, such as BOOST® Nutritional Drinks, can be a practical (and delicious) way to help fill in your nutritional gaps.
BOOST® Balanced Nutritional Drinks contain protein and essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, C, D and E, zinc, iron and selenium to help meet your nutritional needs.
More healthy habits for good health
Looking for more lifestyle changes that can benefit your overall health and immune system? Here are a few tips:
- Getting enough sleep to help your body rest and renew itself. A lack of sleep can impair your body’s ability to fight off illness.
- Staying hydrated; nearly every system in your body depends on water to work properly.
- Taking time to relax and de-stress so your body can focus on keeping you healthy.
- Making sure to exercise to help further support your immune system, strengthen your body and reduce stress.
- Aiello A et al. Front Immunol. 2019;10:2247.
- Calder PC et al. Nutrients. 2020;12:1181.
- Maggini S et al. Nutrients. 2018;10:1531.
- USDA, ARS. FoodData Central, 2019.
- Carr AC et al. Nutrients 2017;9(11):1211
- Wu D et al. Front Immunol. 2019;9(3):3160.
- McAuliffe S et al. BMJ Nutrition Prevention Health. 2020;0
- Wessels I et al. Nutrients. 2017;9:1286.
- Gombart AF et al. Nutrients. 2020;12:236.
- Nairz M et al. Front Pharmacol. 2014;5:152.
- Li P et al. Br J Nutr 2007;98(2):237-52.
- Bauer J et al. JAMDA 2013;14(8):542-59.
- Deutz NE et al. Clin Nutr. 2014;33(6):929-936.
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