Imagine having an immune system so strong that you can be around those who are sick, but not get their sickness. Wouldn’t that be amazing? You wouldn’t have to miss work or lie in bed all day, but you could power through the common cold and flu season untouched. The key to this is a strong immune system. How can you boost your immune system when you’re sick? Better yet, how can you boost your immune system naturally?
The first thing you need to know is that the immune system is complex. It’s composed of molecules, cells, and organisms that all work together in an organized system to create the body’s defense system—aka, immunity!
Think of your immune system as a paint palette. Different color paints combined together create new colors that you need to paint specific elements in your picture. That’s how the immune system works. Your immune system combines different proteins to create antibodies that fight off infection. It’s not a simple system, but a complex one that is constantly changing and evolving to create what is needed for protection. Your body is extremely smart and resilient. It knows how to take care of itself! However, your immune system needs your help to stay strong and resilient.
One of the ways you can help your immune system is with what you eat. Many foods and herbs have properties that boost your body’s natural immune response. Here are 10 foods that improve the immune system and keep it functioning like a well-oiled machine!
1. Bone Broth
Bone broth is exactly what it sounds like—broth made from bones. Whether it’s chicken, turkey, or beef, the bones are simmered for a long time to extract nutrients. From the bones being simmered, the broth is created. It’s nutrient-dense and powerful for the immune system. The reason it’s powerful for the immune system is because of the amino acids it contains.
Bone broth contains the amino acid arginine, which has been shown to be helpful for regulating the immune response and controlling inflammation. Another amino acid in bone broth, glycine, has been shown to be helpful with controlling inflammation in the Achilles tendon by restructuring collagen molecules faster to heal the tendon. Amino acids, like glycine mentioned above, improve immunity by helping the body to rebuild proteins faster and lower the inflammatory response.
How to use: Bone broth can be used in a few different ways. It can be used as the base for soups, it can be used in cooking instead of oil, or it can be drunk like a cup of tea!
Garlic has a long-time reputation for keeping vampires away, but did you know that it’s also powerful for your immune system? The cool thing about garlic is that it boosts your body’s natural immune function. It does this by stimulating the cells in your immune system, including your natural killer cells and other white blood cells. Natural killer cells are a type of white blood cell in your body, known as lymphocytes, that are responsible for your body’s initial immune response of killing off a virus or pathogen. The body is more susceptible to illness and disease when immune function is low, so consuming garlic is a food-based way to keep the body’s immune system strong.
How to use: Raw garlic has the most potent immune-boosting properties, but cooked packs a lot of power, too! Garlic can be used in many different recipes. It adds lots of flavor to cooked dishes and even salad dressings. You can also eat raw garlic cloves or crush them up in water as a way to quickly consume them. But garlic is so flavorful when it’s cooked that you may enjoy it more in your cooking!
3. Raw Honey
Raw honey is not only sweet and tasty but it’s medicinal. Honey has high levels of antioxidants. This is important because free radicals contribute to illness, disease, and aging in the body. The antioxidants in raw honey help fight the free radicals that harm the immune system. One study compared corn syrup with honey as a sweetener. This study showed that honey increases the antioxidant activity in blood plasma in healthy adults. The study concluded that replacing corn syrup with honey combats oxidative stress and has a positive effect on the immune system.
Honey has also been reported to have high levels of antibacterial properties, which was shown to be an alternative therapy for urinary tract infections in pregnant women.
How to use: The good thing about honey is it tastes delicious! You can add it to hot tea, drizzle it over a bowl of berries, use it in salad dressings, or even just have a spoonful a day! Be sure to buy raw honey and if you can find raw honey that is local to your area, that’s even better.
Ginger has natural anti-inflammatory properties due to its raw constituents gingerol, shogoal, and paradol. These give ginger the benefit of inhibiting pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body. These cytokines are responsible for creating more inflammation in the body. Since ginger can reduce these cytokines, inflammation will naturally decrease. Ginger has also been shown to be effective as an antibacterial in clinical application. Since ginger can kill bacteria in the body, that will naturally protect the immune system!
How to use: You can use ginger in the raw root form by grating it or you can also se ground ginger. There are ginger capsules and also ginger tea! The more ways you can incorporate ginger, the better.
5. Coconut Water
Hydration is one of the most important things for the body. The lymphatic system, which is responsible for producing, storing, and transporting white blood cells, regulates the immune system by detoxing and removing waste matter. Staying hydrated keeps the lymphatic system flushing itself to continuously detoxify. Coconut water is hydration on a powerful level. In contrast with plain water, coconut water contains electrolytes that help your cells absorb the water. Electrolytes are the key to hydration, which is why coconut water is so helpful. Staying hydrated keeps the lymphatic system from becoming stagnant so the immune system can function at an optimal level. Research also strongly suggests that coconut water has anti-inflammatory properties!
How to use: This one is easy! Drink it up or use as a base for your smoothie.
6. Leafy Greens
There’s no question that dark leafy greens are healthy, but they aren’t just healthy in an overall sense, they are powerful for the immune system specifically. Leafy greens like Swiss chard, kale, and spinach contain immune-boosting vitamins, such as vitamin C. Vitamin C supports the immune system by having antioxidant properties and protecting against oxidative stress. It fights pathogens and promotes cellular functions of the immune system as well. Leafy greens also contain fiber, which is helpful for keeping the digestive system regular. Toxins are eliminated through the digestive tract, so the more often you can eliminate toxins, the less work your immune system has to do! Greens also contain important vitamins and minerals like immune-boosting folate, blood-building iron, and vitamin E.
How to use: Leafy greens can be eaten in a salad, sauteed with garlic (for extra immune power), added to a sandwich, used in smoothies, and tossed in stir-frys. They are a versatile ingredient and there are many varieties to choose from.
Berries pack a nutritious punch! They are known for their high antioxidant levels that combat oxidative stress and, in turn, boost the immune system. But berries also contain important phytochemicals and vitamins like vitamin C, which have been shown to help with immune-related illnesses. Not only that, but berries are also beneficial for the digestive system, which is important because a large part of the immune system resides in the gut! Berries have been shown to have positive effects on the gut microbiome, which naturally increases immunity because 80 percent of your immune system resides in the gut. The different colors of berries represent different antioxidants and phytochemicals, so eat as many different varieties as possible!
How to use: Snack on berries in their raw form, add to smoothies, in salads, or blend them up with a frozen banana to make berry “ice cream”!
Turmeric and anti-inflammatory properties go hand in hand. The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric come from the fact that curcumin ( a component of turmeric) has the potential to block molecules that play a role in increasing inflammation. Specifically, curcumin inhibits transcription factor NF-kB, which is associated with promoting acute inflammatory conditions. Since curcumin has the potential to disrupt harmful processes in the body, it’s very beneficial for immunity.
How to use: Turmeric is a spice that can be added to nearly any recipe. Fresh turmeric root can be made into a juice shot or a warm tea. But note that you should consume turmeric with black pepper because it research shows that the piperine in black pepper increases the absorption of curcumin by 2,000 percent.
Elderberries, specifically black elderberry extract, has been shown to be helpful against the flu virus because it contains antiviral properties. Researchers found it to be effective against 10 different influenza strains, and to reduce the flu symptoms in three to four days. These tiny dark berries are not only beneficial because of the antiviral properties they contain, but also because they naturally stimulate the immune response to fight against pathogens.
How to use: Consume elderberries in the form of elderberry syrup or elderberry extract. You can buy the berries dried and make the syrup yourself, or find it in the immunity section at your local health food store.
Additional Ways to Boost Your Immune System
With the nine immunity-boosting foods listed above, you can protect your immune system in a lot of ways. But there are ways besides food to boost your immune system and provide your body with the health benefits it needs.
- Sleep: You can feel how your body reacts when you don’t get enough sleep at night. You’re tired, irritable, and it even seems that your brain slows down doesn’t it? So if that’s how you feel on a physical level, imagine what’s happening physiologically inside your body. Sleep is important for regenerating the body. Think of it as your body’s way of recharging itself. Getting good quality and plenty of sleep each night is helpful for the body as a whole—including the immune system.
- Minimize stress: Stress creates inflammation and inflammation is at the root of many diseases. It’s as simple as that! Find ways to relax each day and focus on what brings you joy. Thoughts are powerful!
- Sweat: The skin is the body’s largest organ. And detoxification is how the body eliminates toxins. So if you think about how to eliminate the most toxins, it would only make sense to do it through the skin right? Sweating is essential for the body so get moving or get in a sauna as often as you can!
There are so many ways to help the immune system besides relying on pharmaceutical drugs or over-the-counter medications . The key with the immune system is to keep it strong before you get sick. Preventive measures are the best way to keep the body healthy. There are many foods that naturally keep the immune system strong, as well as lifestyle habits you can build that will also benefit the immune system. Your health is in your hands!
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.