Best Vitamins For Your Immune System – What You Should Be Taking
Jessica Houston, founder of Vitamin & Me, is a Johns Hopkins trained nutritional scientist and public health expert. With over 15 years of experience in nutrition, she is an award winning author of nutritional science textbooks, peer-reviewed journal articles and the creator of EatClean30. In her research, she developed risk algorithms to detect subclinical disease in chronic disease settings and for preventative health currently used in clinical diagnostics. Driven by a passion to improve the lives of women and children across the world, she launched Vitamin & Me, a service that matches you to the best vitamin on the market for your specific needs and delivers to your door. With our partners at Vitamin Angels, your purchases provide life-saving nutritional grants and prenatals to women and children in 74 countries around the world, including the United States.
With the new wave of the coronavirus sweeping the country, a healthy immune system is top priority. Everyone is searching for ways to keep our immune systems in good shape.
There are many great vitamins to improve immunity available. Knowing which specific vitamins are best for you out of all the options, though, can be difficult. The vitamin aisle is over-loaded and often confusing. So, what are the best vitamins for your immune system and which one should you choose?
Probably not the one your friend did, though let’s be honest, it’s most likely what you do.
What is the Immune System?
The immune system is a network of cells and tissues that ward off infection and protect the body from disease. The immune system is essential to life, and without it, the body would be open to attack from viruses, bacteria, parasites and more. The immune system is the body’s armor. It is constantly on the lookout for invaders and as soon as something is detected, it attacks.
The medical community considers the first layer of the immune system to be your skin and mucous membranes. They form a physical barrier against pathogens, which is any foreign invader to the body. Inside the body, the immune system is made up of lymphoid organs that create and control defense cells. Bone marrow is the primary lymphoid organ because it creates the cells that can detect foreign objects in the body. The secondary lymphatic organs-lymph nodes, spleen, tonsils and specialized tissue- are where the defense cells do their work because that is where the defense cells come into contact with pathogens. Immune cells detect pathogens, which are often bacteria, fungus, virus, toxin, and even dead or faulty cells from your own body.
Once a pathogen is detected, immune cells secrete antibodies, which lock onto antigens- like a key- and mark them as harmful. The body then rapidly begins to make specific antibodies for that pathogen- and send them out to detect and kill more of the same pathogen. Once an antigen has been created, a copy remains in the body for some time. Sometimes that copy will remain for life and sometimes a shorter period of time. That’s why we get a yearly flu shot, but we only need some vaccines one time in childhood. The more antigens the body is exposed to, the more antibodies the immune system makes.
The immune system is complex but vital for life. Many wellness practices like mindfulness, fitness, nutrition and socialization and medical interventions, like vaccines, help maintain and strengthen your immune system. This goal, especially now in the era of Covid19, should be at the center of everything implement in your wellness journey.
What Weakens the Immune System?
The immune system is constantly at work, fighting and protecting the body from potential harm. We all know that it is best to keep the immune system healthy and strong during flu and cold season, but what truly weakens the immune system? Research from the Harvard School of Public Health indicated several lifestyle factors that serve as immune system suppressors:
Lack of sleep and rest
Sleep restores the body and releases substances into cells that strengthen immunity. Without proper sleep, these substances are not created or released.
Stress causes the release of hormones that suppress inflammation and white blood cell action. Our body is supposed to use this ‘fight or flight’ response during times of stress. Having that response is normal, but it is only supposed to be initiated acutely in short intervals and represent a small percentage of our overall day or week. Our body systems are not built to withstand lasting, chronic stress. It’s like leaving your dryer running all day and night. It will eventually burn out.
Diets that are mal-nutritious do not provide the necessary nutrients needed to for a properly functioning immune system. This concept- nutrigenomics- is the primary foundation for personalized nutrition.
Food based additives, excess alcohol, some selfcare products, and smoke, ground and air toxins impair normal immune cell activity. These environmental toxins either block the lock for the healthy nutrients (keys) and prevent a normal healthy immune response or they initiate the wrong response. Both of these pathways will lead to negative outcomes.
As we age, the body’s immune system naturally weakens. Integrative physicians and holistic health coaches can help you navigate where needs arise and pinpoint your underlying need.
Obesity leads low-grade chronic inflammation. Though different mechanisms, chronic inflammation is similar to chronic stress. Inflammation is a normal part of the immune response. However, when inflammation is chronic, overtime, the immune system starts to malfunction and appropriate immune responses decline.
Chronic disease, autoimmune and immunodeficiency disorders negatively affect the immune system. However, clinicians can help reduce or slow the progression through nutrition and other lifestyle behaviors.
A strong immune system protects the body from sickness and disease development. Though there are many factors that might weaken the immune system, you can offset or mitigate negative outcomes with healthy lifestyle behaviors. A combination of fitness, mindfulness and nutrition – a healthy diet and vitamin routine- can improve immunity by fortifying you and getting you ready for potential exposure to pathogens.
How to Strengthen the Immune System
Each day we are all exposed to pathogens that can be harmful. The immune system is the body’s defense mechanism to those pathogens. Researchers have evaluated many behavioral factors that drive disease development or offer protective properties. A substantial number of quality studies have shown that wellness practices (nutrition, fitness, mindfulness, and social connectedness) are all major contributors to outcomes. Healthy practices within these pillars lead to positive changes and reduce the risk of disease.
Scientists have studied the healthiest populations across the world and found several common factors that promote healthy aging and longevity. These pillars are interconnected and weaving them together through a personalized strategy seems to be the most effective on long term outcomes.
Eating a plant-based diet with clean fruits and vegetables, some types of whole grains, and limited amounts of sustainable fish and grass-fed animal products provides the body with most of the immunity vitamins and minerals necessary to promote wellness. We believe dietary intake should be personal and nuances with this dietary pattern based on nutrigenomics principles is the ideal strategy to optimize your health.
Vitamins are a useful tool to fill the gaps of missing nutrients from your diet. Some people may even ingest the correct nutrients, but do not get the right amount or they cannot absorb them properly. Appropriate vitamins navigation through a personalized vitamin strategy can help navigate underlying need.
Substantial research has demonstrated positive effects of exercise on inflammation, immunity, brain function and longevity. 4 areas of fitness in particular have shown positive results.
- Endurance training several times a week has been shown to increase new neural formation up to 2 fold and reverse the aging process in the brain, even in midlife.
- High intensity training improves insulin resistance and protein development by 49% in those below 40 and by as much as 69% in those above.
- Resistance and Strength, specifically strength and power in the legs, is associated with greater brain volume and decreased brain aging.
- Flexibility and Stretching is associated with greater mobility and may slow or decreased tumor growth.
Findings from a large observational study of 400,000 individuals in Sweden who were followed over the course of 21 years demonstrated that higher physical activity reduced risk of developing depression by 50% compared to inactivity.
Substantial evidence indicates that exercise is important across the lifespan. An appropriate combination of all 4 methods of fitness is ideal to optimize health. Positive benefits associated with exercise include improved neural development, learning and memory retention, delayed biological aging, reduced immune system decline, reduced muscle aging, reduced stress and development of depression.
Research has shown that chronic triggering of the sympathetic- fight or flight- system can lead to negative outcomes. Focusing on external stressors for longer periods of time can set in motion a cascade of hormonal responses that have negative outcomes on physical and mental health. Research has shown that mindfulness practices like sleep, breathwork, yoga and meditation reduces time spent in the sympathetic state and the negative precipitous affects. Genetic studies have demonstrated that mindfulness practices are associated with influences on the expression of up to 500 genes. This relationship controls immune function, brain development and aging, and whole system health.
Sleep is a much overlooked but critical area of focus in mindfulness. Getting enough sleep keeps the body well rested to heal and rejuvenate itself. Sleep optimizes mood, reduces stress and improves energy. You may even get the 7-9 hours recommended, but still feel these symptoms. New technology can help you identify patterns in your sleep and the triggers that cause less than optimal sleep schedules. The Oura ring seems to be an effective tool to help improve sleep and possibly, identify when you might be getting sick a day or two before you become symptomatic. If these studies show positive result, this will a game changer in immune system health.
Other mindfulness practices that have shown positive results include sauna use and ice baths. Many studies have demonstrated improvements in cardiovascular health, brain health, and immune system response.
Research from the healthiest communities across the world- those who age well, have low association with chronic disease, and live the longest life- practice all of these techniques including social connectedness. This infrastructure in many cultures starts from birth. Moai is the Japanese term that describes a group of lifelong friends- a social support group that provides various support. Those populations who implement regular socialization practices experience less stress and live happier, healthier and longer lives.
These 4 pillars of wellness work in tandem to strengthen your immune system and improve outcomes. When implemented together, the results can be powerful.
Other Behaviors that adversely affect the immune system
Substantial research has also indicated that smoking, excessive alcohol, processed foods and air pollutants can have a major impact on your immune system and overall health. The evidence is great and the recommendation is simple. Just avoid it.
Do Vitamins Help the Immune System?
The immune system needs a variety of nutrients to do its job well and your nutrient needs change across your lifespan. These differences are most evident in periods of growth and development- childhood and pregnancy- and after menopause.
Food first is the best approach. Nutrients from your diet will boost the immune system and prime it to fight pathogens when needed. Studies show that those who are malnourished are at greater risk of developing infections and experience longer duration of symptoms and more serious complications. Eating a healthy diet will prevent deficiencies in some, but not all of these nutrients depending on what you eat, how often and the life stage you are in.
Those with limited access to affordable food, pregnant and lactating women, infants and toddlers, age-related changes and the critically ill have been identified by the Institute of Medicine as high-risk groups. They are most at risk for nutrient malnutrition and dysmetabolism. Even those with the healthiest diets do not get all 30 essential nutrients each day. In fact, over 94% of the American population is deficient in at least one essential nutrient.
Research from the Harvard School of Public Health found that deficiencies in vitamins A, B, C, D, and E and minerals like zinc can alter immune responses because they act as an immune fortifier that protect healthy cells, enhance production and productivity of immune cells, and help produce antibodies.
To truly strengthen the immune system, you should be eating a nourishing diet that includes a personalized vitamin routine, including some of the best vitamins for your immune system, to target the areas that are lacking.
Key Vitamins For Immunity
Action: Antioxidant effect that wards off infection
Foods: Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, broccoli, spinach, and leafy green vegetables
Action: B6 and B12 boosts the immune system by helping create red blood cells
Food: Dark Leafy vegetables, citrus, avocado, banana, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts, eggs, and lean meats
Action: Acts as an antioxidant that fortifies the skin and strengthens the barrier against antigens
Foods: Citrus, tomatoes, potatoes, and leafy greens
Action: Promotes calcium retention, strengthens bones, muscles and immune system by moderating immune responses. Vitamin D is a powerhouse that effects the entire body system.
Foods: Fatty fish, cheese, and egg yolks
Action: Antioxidant that fights free radicals, boost the immune system by widening blood vessels and prevents blood clots, enables cellular communication
Foods: Nuts and seeds, oils, and green leafy greens
Studies have shown that all of these are the best vitamins for your immune system because they keep it functioning smoothly. In a world full of threats to your health and wellness like Covid19, seasonal cold and flu and many other pathogens, doing everything you can to keep the immune system strong is important. Research indicates that practicing the 4 pillars of wellness, including a personalized vitamin routine, consulting with your doctor to find the best vitamins for your immune system, provides support for immunity.