There are few things that go as underappreciated by many people as the human immune system. Although many people hardly ever stop to consider the fact that they have one, it is safe to say that the immune system is working overtime to prevent disease and infection in the human body. As a system, it is a complex collection of organs, tissues, cells, and even chemicals that are constantly defending the body from invading pathogens including viruses, toxins, and bacteria.
With all of the work that our immune systems do for us, it is important to make sure that they are healthy year-round– this is the key to ensuring a healthy, high energy lifestyle, because it is the first line of defense against infection and disease. There are many natural ways to boost the immune system, including getting more sleep, exercising, and consuming nutritious foods as part of a well-varied diet.
But research has also proven that supplementing one’s diet with certain vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other substances can improve immune response and potentially protect against illness. It is important to note that some supplements can interact with prescriptions and even some over the counter medications, which means you should make sure to talk with a healthcare provider before starting any supplements.
Below we’ve listed ten supplements that are known for their immune-boosting capabilities:
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient that is essential to the health and functioning of the immune system, primarily because it enhances the pathogen-fighting effects of monocytes and macrophages. These are both white blood cells that are important parts of immune defense and take up many roles including the killing of microorganisms, ingesting of foreign material, and removal of dead cells. (1, 2) Additionally, vitamin D decreases inflammation, which helps promote immune response.
Unfortunately, it is common that many people are deficient in this important vitamin, and this may indeed play a negative role in proper immune function. In fact, low vitamin D levels are associated with increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections including the flu and allergic asthma (3)
Some studies show that supplementing vitamin D may improve a person’s immune response. In fact, recent research points to it being able to protect against respiratory tract infections.
In 2019, a review of randomized control studies in 11,321 people, supplementing with vitamin D significantly decreased the risk of respiratory infections in people that were deficient in this vitamin– more notably, however, it even lowered the risk of infection in those who had adequate, healthy levels of Vitamin D. (4) This suggests that the effect of vitamin D supplementation is overall protective. Other studies have also noted that vitamin D supplements may improve response to antiviral treatments that are used in people with certain infections, including hepatitis C and HIV.
Zinc is a mineral that is commonly added to a variety of things that are meant to boost the immune system, including supplements and other healthcare products like lozenges– this is because zinc is absolutely essential for immune system function. In terms of immune health, it is needed for immune cell development and the communication relays between immune system cells. Additionally, it plays an important role in the body’s inflammatory response.
It supports over one hundred different enzyme functions within the human body– from the development of healthy tissue, to wound recovery after the everyday wear and tear that the body experiences. It assists the immune system in fighting off bacteria and viruses, and is also required by the body to create proteins and DNA.
A deficiency in zinc significantly affects the immune system’s ability to function properly, which in turn results in a significantly increased risk of infection and disease, including pneumonia. (5) Zinc deficiency is relatively widespread as far as nutritional deficiencies go, affecting around 2 billion people worldwide. In terms of demographic skew, it seems to disproportionately affect older adults– in fact, up to 30% of older adults are considered deficient in this nutrient (6).
Numerous studies reveal that zinc supplements may protect against respiratory tract infections, including the common cold. Additionally, taking zinc is also beneficial for those that are already suffering from some sort of illness or infection. In a 2019 study in 64 children with acute lower respiratory tract infections (ALRIs), taking 30 mg of zinc per day reduced the total duration of infection and the duration of the hospital day by an average of 2 days, compared with a placebo group. (7) Taking zinc in the long-term is perfectly safe for healthy adults, so long as the daily dose is under the set upper limit of 40 mg of elemental zinc. Excessive doses may interfere with the body’s ability to properly absorb copper, which could result in an increased risk of infection.
If you ask someone what they do when they get sick, you’ll more and more often find that their answer might include some sort of vitamin C supplementation. This is because VItamin C is perhaps the most popular supplement that is taken by people around the world that are worried about fortifying their immune system, because Vitamin C plays an extremely important role in immune health.
Primarily, Vitamin C supports the function of various immune cells within the system, and enhances their ability to fight and protect the body against infections and bacteria. It is also necessary for cellular death, which keeps the immune system healthy by purging it of old cells and quickly replacing them with new, healthy cells that are better able to assist in the never-ending fight against out environment.
Vitamin C functions as a powerful antioxidant. This means that it protects against the damage that is induced by a process that is known as oxidative stress, which occurs with the accumulation of reactive molecules known as free radicals. Oxidative stress is the cause of most signs of aging as people grow older, and antioxidants like vitamin C are used in neutralizing these free radicals, thereby preventing much of the damage that they can cause. Oxidative stress (8) has been found to negatively affect immune health and is linked to numerous diseases.
Additionally, supplementing with vitamin C has been shown to reduce both the duration and the severity of many upper respiratory tract infections, including the common cold. A review of 29 studies in 11,306 people demonstrated that regularly supplementing with vitamin C at an average dose of 1-2 grams per day reduced the duration of colds by 8% in adults and 14% in children (9) Interestingly enough, this review also demonstrated that regularly taking vitamin C supplements reduced the occurrence of the common cold in individuals under high amounts of physical stress, including marathon runners and soldiers, buy up to 50%.
Additionally, high-dose, concentrated intravenous vitamin C treatments have been shown to significantly improve symptoms in those with severe infections, including sepsis and acute respiratory distress syndrome, which results from viral infections. However, the results from these studies are inconclusive and still under investigation. All in all, however, it is confirmed that vitamin C supplements may significantly affect immune health, especially in those who don’t get enough of the vitamin through their diet. The upper limit for vitamin C is 2,000 mg per day, and supplemental daily doses range from 250-1,000 mg,
Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra), which has been used to treat infections for hundreds of years, is now being formally researched for its effects on immune system health. In test-tube studies, elderberry extract demonstrates potent antiviral and antibacterial potential– this means that it can help combat against bacterial pathogens that are responsible for upper respiratory tract infections, as well as strains of the influenza virus (10). Various parts of the elderberry tree have been used throughout history for both culinary and medicinal purposes– from Africa, to the Native Americans, it is even still widely used in folk remedies throughout Europe.
And, much like the other supplements listed, elderberry has also been shown to enhance the body’s immune system response, and it may even help reduce the duration and severity of colds, as well as reduce symptoms related to viral infections. Recently, a review of 4 randomized control studies in 180 people found that elderberry supplements significantly reduced upper respiratory symptoms caused by viral infections (11) An older, five-day study from 2004 demonstrated that people with the flu who supplemented with 1 tablespoon (15mL) of elderberry syrup four times a day experienced symptom relief four days earlier than those who didn’t take the syrup and were less reliant on medication (12).
Elderberry supplements can be found in both capsule and liquid form.
Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that is imperative for the health of both your digestive and immune systems. It is important to note that close to eighty percent of the immune cells in the body are located in the gut. Some research has shown that probiotics may help treat and prevent seasonal allergies. And other studies suggest that probiotics may have some benefits for immune-related diseases and viral infections.
Probiotic products differ, and the effects of each of these probiotic products depends on which bacterial strain it has– which means that not all of them will work for particular allergies, or towards immune health. Scientists have found that the probiotic combination of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium have been specifically helpful in treating hay fever symptoms and providing general support to the immune system (13).
There are many ways to take probiotics — through supplements or even foods, like yogurt and sauerkraut. Which form and dose you should take will depend on your individual needs. Be sure to discuss this with your healthcare provider.
Echinacea is another herb that has been widely used by many ancient cultures as a medicinal plant. Also known as purple coneflower, they can be found across Europe and eastern and central North America. It has been identified as having anti-infalmmatory, antioxidant, and antiviral properties and as an immune-strengthening agent. Some research shows that it may reduce the duration and severity of colds and upper respiratory infections when given as soon as symptoms are noticed (14). Much like Elderberry, it also comes in a variety of forms including syrups and capsules. Dosage varies on a case by case basis, so it is best to consult with a healthcare provider before using.
Turmeric is perhaps best known as a spice, and it has become widely popular in recent years.This popularity is medically backed, as one of the compounds that is found in turmeric– curcumin– has been related to many positive health effects. It is well-known for its anti-inflammatory effects, but medical research has been showing some traction in regards to turmeric as an immune booster. Research shows it is able to activate many types of immune cells, and a compound known as piperine in black pepper has been shown to increase turmeric absorption in the body significantly.
Turmeric is widely used in Indian cuisine, in curry sauces and dishes, but it can be enjoyed in many more ways. It mixes well in tropical smoothies, and can easily be added to soups, rice, and vegetables. And, for those who might not like the taste, it is also found in supplemental form– some brands even include piperine in them, to assist the body in its absorption processes. Consult a healthcare provider for more information.
Most people are familiar with ginger– either for its versatile use in the kitchen, or it’s well-known calming effects on the stomach, but it has benefits beyond even that. Ginger has been found to contain antioxidants, and also contains anti-inflammatory properties. Additionally, it possesses both antibacterial and antiviral properties, that may assist in the immune system’s ability to fight against disease. Ginger can be put into a smoothie or added to a wide variety of dishes, including stews and vegetables, and it can also be taken as a supplement– however, this should only be done under medical guidance and supervision.
Protein needs no introduction. It is made up of amino acids, which are coincidentally also used as fuel by the immune system. Because of this, protein plays an important role in supporting the immune function of our intestinal cells. Poor protein intake is often associated with weakened immunity and a higher risk of contracting disease. The amount of protein needed on a daily basis changes based on a variety of factors including age, body size and composition, health status, and stage of life, so it is best to contact a healthcare provider to ensure you are getting enough.
Good sources of protein in food include:
- Poultry like chicken and turkey
- Minimally processed beef and pork
- Greek and icelandic yogurts
- Beans and soy products