Eating for Immunity

You are most likely familiar with the phrase ‘You are what you eat,’ and nowhere is this more true than with regard to protecting your body’s immune defences this winter season. When you eat healthily and consistently you give your body the basic building blocks it needs for renewal, repair and defence against illness.


Food is used to make every part of your immune system, so its strength will depend on the quality of your food. If you’re eating a healthy diet you’ll already be eating foods packed with these immune boosting nutrients but to make sure you really are eating for immunity here are the key nutrients which help to build immunity and protect you against disease and allergies.


  • Antioxidants:

An antioxidant is a nutrient that protects the cells from oxidative damage. Oxidation occurs when a substance reacts with oxygen, for example when an apple is cut and exposed to air it turns brown. An antioxidant can prevent or slow down this process. Your cells use oxygen all the time for the process of combustion: to burn food for energy production, and to get rid of germs and foreign chemicals such as pesticides. During this process substances called free radicals are formed which can cause cellular damage and trigger disease.


Free radicals are produced by all kinds of combustion. Environmental pollution, smoking, radiation, fried foods (high levels of heat damages the oil) but fortunately nature supplies us with rich sources of antioxidant nutrients to disarm the free radicals and come to our rescue.


Your diet needs to be rich in the following antioxidants: vitamin A including beta carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc and selenium. Vitamin C is the king of immune boosting nutrients. It is antibacterial as well as antiviral and is a natural antihistamine which helps with the body’s response to allergens. Vitamin A is a powerful antiviral vitamin because its inclusion in cells walls makes them stronger and more resistant to attack. It is also important for areas with high risk of infection as it is involved in maintaining the mucous membranes of the respiratory, urinary and digestive systems. Vitamin E and selenium are needed for antibody response to infection. Zinc promotes the growth of white blood cells, especially the lymphocytes.


    • Food sources of antioxidants
      • Vitamin A: eggs, fish oil, dairy products
      • Beta carotene: pumpkin, melon, carrot, sweet potatoes, apricots, green leafy vegetables
      • Vitamin C: broccoli, parsley, kiwi fruit, citrus fruit, berries, peepers, blackcurrants, papaya, mangos
      • Vitamin E: avocados, nuts, seeds, unrefined oils, oatmeal
      • Zinc: fish, pulses, seeds, nuts, whole grains
      • Selenium: nuts, seeds, whole grains, seafood.

Preparing foods that are rich in natural colours red, orange, green, yellow, purple and blue will ensure a good supply of antioxidants. Enjoy a rainbow of fruit and vegetables every day for an optimal mix of beneficial antioxidants, including carotenoids – found in red, orange and green fruit and vegetables such as carrots, mango, watercress, broccoli and peppers. Carotenoids protect and support immune system cells.

  • B complex: The B vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12 and folic acid work together and are important for immune health. B6 and B3 help essential fats convert into prostaglandins. B6 and B5 are required for antibody production as well as making sure the immune army of white cells do their job properly. Good food sources include whole grains. 
  •  Vitamin D:

Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones.  The immune system suffers if bones are unhealthy as you cannot move freely and therefore cannot push lymph around the body as effectively. Vitamin D is also required to deactivate the immune system after an infection which is important. In the summer months we get plenty of vitamin D from sunlight but in the winter it might be a good idea to make sure you eat foods rich in vitamin D such as eggs and oily fish.

  • Iron:

Iron is needed for the production of white blood cells and antibodies and without sufficient iron you are more likely to suffer from frequent colds and infection. Eating vitamin C foods at the same time as iron rich foods will boost absorption of the iron. Good food sources include: eggs, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, lentils, nuts and seeds.

  • Calcium:

Although best known for its effect on bones and teeth, calcium is also important for efficient functioning of the immune system. Good food sources include: dairy products, seeds, tinned fish with bones and dark green vegetables like broccoli and kale.

  • Magnesium:

Magnesium is required for antibody body production and low levels increase the risk of allergic reactions. This is because a deficiency of magnesium can cause histamine levels to rise. Good food sources include nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, root vegetables, egg yolks, whole grains and dried fruit.

  • Immune system super foods:
    • Avocado provides vitamins E and B6, which both contribute to the production of antibodies and also to the responsiveness of specialist white blood cells. This delicious fruit also provides lots of skin-enhancing antioxidants, including vitamin C. Slice some and slip it into salads and sandwiches to top up your nutritional intake.
    • Blackcurrants and blue berries are rich in vitamin C and help to strengthen the immune system.
    • Broccoli is packed with antioxidant power as well as being a rich source of fatigue beating iron, indoles and chlorophyll which are powerful anti-cancer compounds.
    • Chillis contain vitamin C and other antioxidants. The heat of chilli is thanks to a phytochemical called ‘capsicain’, which amongst other things can make your nose run. But this can actually help relieve nasal congestion by thinning down mucus in the sinuses.
    • Cinnamon: This culinary spice has wonderful antibacterial and antifungal properties. It warms the whole system and acts as a tonic, combating weakness during viral infections. To make a warm toddy fill a mug with hot water and 2 teaspoons of honey, the juice of a lemon and a quarter of cinnamon stick. Allow to seep for ten minutes, then remove the cinnamon stick and enjoy.
    • Citrus fruits: All citrus fruits are great providers of vitamin C, and other beneficial antioxidants. Low vitamin C levels are linked to reduced immunity. Vitamin C also promotes wound healing and helps to keep the skin healthy, so supporting a vital first-line defence against infections.
    • Fish and shellfish provide zinc and vitamin B6 which are needed for efficient infection-fighting white blood cells. Seafood is also a good source of selenium, which is an antioxidant, and aids the effective function of many parts of the immune system.
    • Garlic has been used for centuries as a natural antibiotic, antifungal and anti-viral remedy. Its pungent sulphur compounds are thought to be what makes it so beneficial. Garlic also contains antioxidants. Crush it into sauces and stews, roast it with soya and mash it with avocado and lemon juice to make a mean, immune system-friendly guacamole.
    • Nuts and seeds pack in protein, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, magnesium and essential fats. Also pumpkin seeds are an especially good source of zinc (needed for healthy skin, and proper function of the thymus and white blood cells), and Brazil nuts are a particularly good source of selenium. Almonds, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds are best for vitamin E. Flax seeds are great for omega 3 and sunflower seeds for omega 6, protein and B vitamins.
    • Parsley is rich in antioxidant vitamins A and C as well as iron, magnesium and cancer fighting chlorophyll. It is a must for every healthy fridge, back garden or window box.
    • Seaweed: A wealth of natural trace minerals, vitamins and amino acids can be found in seaweeds. There are many different types the most popular being nori. Try adding a little to your soups or mix with mashed sweet potato.
    • Shiitake mushrooms are superb immune boosters that posses antibacterial, antiviral and anti-parasitic properties and are a natural source of interferon which provides protection against viruses. They are also a good source of germanium an element that enhances immunity. Shiitake mushroom are great in stews, soups and stir fries.

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