One can never say too much about the health advantages of eating a balanced, nutritious diet. Most of us can keep our immunity on an even keel by simply filling our daily plates with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and nutrient-rich dairy and protein. Adding in beneficial fats from foods like nuts, fish, and oils helps, too.
Eat a variety of wholesome foods, but keep an eye out for a few nutrients that your immune system especially depends upon. Though taking supplements to get these nutrients is an option, it is always tastier to get them in food form!
Vitamin A: This antioxidant vitamin plays an integral role in maintaining our physical barriers to infection – skin, mucous membranes, intestinal linings.
Food sources: The beta-carotene abundant in colourful fruits and vegetables converts to vitamin A in your body. Look out for A in carrots, kale, chard, collard greens, cantaloupe, tomatoes, and basil, among many other produce section choices.
B vitamins: The family of B vitamins are close friends of the immune system. These nutrients are involved in cellular energy production, so they support the immune cells in general.
Food sources: The B complex of vitamins spring up in a variety of foods. Cremini mushrooms – plain white mushrooms – are a great source of several of the B's (B1, B5, B6, and folate). Almost all types of green vegetables contain plenty of B vitamins. But to fit in much B6 and B12, you'll have to venture away from the produce section and head to the meat, fish, and dairy aisles.
Vitamin C: Known as a top immune booster, good old vitamin C still does the job. It increases the production of infection-fighting white blood cells and boosts antibody levels to keep out viruses and bacteria.
Food sources: Citrus fruits are just one source of C; there are a bevy of options to suit almost any palate. Other brightly-hued fruits and vegetables also supply vitamin C: red bell peppers, broccoli, romaine lettuce, kale, cranberries, watermelon, and fennel are all excellent sources.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is sometimes called the "sunshine vitamin" because it can be produced by our body when our skin absorbs the sun's UV rays. Our bodies depend on D mostly for calcium absorption and bone strength, but it also assists our immune and inflammatory responses.
Food sources: Vitamin D can be tricky to find in the foods you eat. Two grocery-list staples – milk and eggs – are the go-to D suppliers for most people. If you like seafood, you get a good dose of D from salmon, cod, and shrimp.
Vitamin E: This antioxidant vitamin doesn't get much mention, but as we age we need its potent power to protect our arsenal of immune cells. Vitamin E also supports healthy skin, one of our immune system's largest protective barriers.
Food sources: Yet another reason to eat your greens! Vitamin E can be gobbled up in the form of mustard, turnip, collard greens, and chard, as well as eaten by the handful of sunflower seeds or almonds. Sweeter sources include papaya, kiwifruit, and blueberries.
Selenium: We need this antioxidant mineral to stay healthy – but only a very small amount of it. A modest selenium boost helps our immune system to send out quick, first-responder immune cells to areas of infection.
Food sources: To get your daily fill of selenium, you need only eat one lone Brazil nut. Any more than that and you'll have consumed more than the recommended daily amount. Another option is to vary your selenium sources: mushrooms, cod, snapper, tuna, halibut, salmon, shrimp, eggs, turkey, oats, or barley.
Zinc: Zinc supports and helps regulate the immune system by maintaining an ample supply of white blood cells to respond to pathogens. This mineral is added to many over-the-counter cold-fighting formulas, and some tout its abilities to shorten duration of colds. Research has so far been inconclusive, but that hasn't stopped cold sufferers from buying lozenges and nose sprays infused with zinc acetate.
Food sources: Beef, lamb, and calf's liver supply meaty options for zinc. If you're vegetarian or vegan you can scoop up a handful of pumpkin seeds for a zap of zinc – or sprinkle recipes with basil, thyme, or sesame seeds. Other food sources of zinc include a variety of greens as well as squash, asparagus, miso, maple syrup, and mushrooms.
Probiotics: Your gastrointestinal tract is a breeding ground for bacteria, both bad and good. Good bacteria help your immune system in the battle against micro-organisms that might cause disease. These bacteria also support healthy digestion of the vitamins and minerals you need for general health. Probiotics are good bacteria, and though they are not necessary to stay healthy, eating foods with probiotics may help to support your immune system's efforts.
Food sources: Probiotic foods include fermented items like yogurt, miso, some cheeses, kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles.
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