Updated: Aug 31, 2020
Emerson Experts | By Emerson Ecologics | Apr 13, 2020
A healthy immune system is the best line of defense against chronic disease, the common cold and everything in between. it’s important that we do whatever we can to support it. On one level, that means simply taking care of yourself: avoiding smoking, refraining from alcohol, and staying active. However, there are other things you can do to support your immune system naturally.
Here are a few ways to support your immune system according to a handful of medical professionals we interviewed.
Supporting Immunity Through Food
Dr. Jen Haley, MD FAAD has a compelling way of looking at supporting immunity through food. She says that “everything you put in your mouth should be considered medicine or poison.” It’s through that vantage point that you should examine how you’re fueling your immune system — regardless of if you’re fighting off an illness, or just hoping to avoid one.
Generally speaking, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins are good rules of thumb here. But there are some specific foods and herbs that have demonstrated the ability to support the immune system in specific ways.
Highly Pigmented Fruits and Vegetables
Similar to Dr. Haley, Nurse Practitioner Cynthia Thurlow likes to say that “everything starts with food.” What we eat has a direct impact on how our bodies function. If we put nutrient-poor foods into our bodies, they won’t work as well as they would if we ate nutrient-dense foods, and one of the major markers for nutrients is the color of the food.
Thurlow recommends highly pigmented fruits and vegetables, such as kale, spinach, multi-colored peppers (which contain more vitamin C than an orange!) and pomegranates. All of these healthy options are packed with nutrients that your body needs.
Dr. Christian Gonzalez, Naturopathic Doctor, Non-Toxic Living Expert frequently recommends blueberries as a great way to support immunity through food. “Blueberries contain a type of flavonoid called anthocyanin, which has antioxidant properties that can help boost a person’s immune system. Researchers found that people who ate foods rich in flavonoids were less likely to get an upper respiratory tract infection, or common cold, than those who did not.”
Dr. Kellyann Petrucci, MS, ND is a fan of medicinal mushrooms as a means of immune support. This doesn’t mean the regular cremini mushrooms you’ll find in the produce aisle at the grocery store — you’ll probably have to look in a health food store, or order some online. Medicinal mushrooms are specialized and have been linked to immune support in a very specific way.
A 2014 study focused on five different species of mushrooms (Agaricus blazei, Cordyceps sinensis, Grifola frondosa, Ganoderma lucidum, and Trametes versicolor) in relation to how they affected cancer patients.
Researchers in the study believe that one of the major benefits of these species of mushrooms is that they stimulate production of cytokines, which are crucial to immune system performance.
Lisa Murray, RDN, and Emerson Ecologics’ Medical Education Manager, is also a big proponent of mushrooms for immune support. “Mushrooms are the number one food for immune support and modulation. Mushroom extracts, capsules and powders are an important part of every immune support program. Extensive research has demonstrated their important and diverse health benefits, especially when used daily. Furthermore, they support the microbiome, which supports immune response.”
Both Dr. Petrucci and Nurse Thurlow are big advocates for bone broth (in fact, Dr. Petrucci literally formulated a diet around it). “Bone broth is packed with proteins (glycine and proline) that are well-known for nourishing the lining of your gut,” says Petrucci. Research confirms that strengthening the health of your gut will support your immune system.
You can buy bone broth in stores, but most people who are familiar with it recommend the homemade variety. It’s not difficult — it’s just a matter of simmering bones and water (and a crock pot works great!). However, doing it yourself is not entirely necessary. There are plenty of excellent brands to choose from if you don’t have the time or motivation to do so.
Dr. Petrucci is also a proponent of fermented vegetables, which she says “are an excellent source of nutrients as well as good bacteria.” If this sounds weird, remember that sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles are fermented vegetables, and you probably eat those occasionally already.
The great news about fermented veggies is that you can make them yourself with very little effort. There are tons of recipes online — but don’t be confused by the term “lacto-fermented vegetables,” which may come up in your search. Contrary to what the name would lead you to believe, there’s no dairy involved.
Here’s a good recipe to get you started. Remember that one size does not necessarily fit all with fermented veggies — when they taste right to you, they’re done, no matter how long you let them ferment.
The research demonstrating the positive effects of garlic on the body is overwhelming. Studies have shown that garlic stimulates the immune system and increases white blood cell counts. Dr. Petrucci points out that “most of the immune benefits of garlic come from the sulfurous compounds which give it its pungent odor and flavor.”
Murray highly recommends garlic as a daily supplement. “Garlic is the number one herb for supporting immune health and response to immune challenges and it's included in many immune formulas. Plus, it has many other general health benefits, including support for cardiovascular health.”
Don’t be afraid to throw a clove or two of garlic into your dinner. Four grams (one or two cloves) is considered safe and beneficial for adults daily. For those who hate the taste or smell of garlic, supplements are available, and the recommended maximum there is 600-1,200 milligrams daily.
Staying hydrated is something we’re always told to do, but very easy to forget about. In fact, there’s an entire market dedicated to devices and apps designed to remind you to drink water throughout the day (i.e. the little lights you can attach to your water bottle to remind you to drink every 20 minutes or so).
Drinking water (or other hydrating liquids) not only helps flush toxins out of the body, but it helps cells and organs function to their best of their abilities. If you’re dehydrated, the body will automatically kick into survival mode, rather than trying to thrive.
Eight 8-ounce glasses of liquid per day is the most common recommendation for how much you should drink. For some reason, many people have come to believe that all of that liquid must be plain water. As you probably know, that’s not the case. Coconut water, bone broth, water, or tea can all count toward your daily hydration totals.
The only exception to this would be caffeinated beverages, because caffeine increases fluid loss. And of course, sugary beverages are not recommended.
Using elderberry as a means of immune support had a resurgence in 2019. That’s not surprising, as some studies have shown that it’s effective in “stimulating immune response” in mice, and that it may potentially help reduce the time someone experiences flu symptoms by up to four days.
DeVille, Haley, and Thurlow all recommend elderberry to support the immune system. Elderberry is most popular as a syrup, but it's also available in capsules and as concentrated liquid extracts.
Vitamins and Supplements
Vitamin C is probably the vitamin that is most commonly associated with immune support — oranges, specifically. However, there is also a lot of vitamin C in red and yellow peppers, kale, kiwi, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and strawberries.
For immune support, Haley typically recommends 1,000 milligrams per day, taken three times throughout the day — so in total, you’d be taking 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C each day.
According to data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), nearly 42% of their sample size (of 4,495 people) were found to be vitamin D deficient. Other studies state a higher number than that, but the general consensus among researchers is that more people are lacking in vitamin D than in previous generations.
Reasons for this increase aside, vitamin D has been studied in many different capacities over the past few decades because of the links researchers have found between the “sunshine vitamin” and so many ailments.
For immune support, the recommended daily dosage of vitamin D is 5,000 IU (125 mcg) per day.
Based on decades of research, zinc is believed to play a vital role in immune health. According to the researchers who conducted one such study, “Zinc is crucial for normal development and function of cells mediating nonspecific immunity such as neutrophils and natural killer cells.”
Dr. DeVille says that zinc is “incredibly ubiquitous” and “necessary for development of the immune system’s T-cells.” (She also recommends that you take it with food, because it tends to upset people’s stomachs.)
As such, zinc has become commonly added to liquids and lozenges to reduce symptoms. If using these products, be sure to follow the recommendations on the box, as adverse side effects can occur.
For immune support, the recommended daily dosage of zinc is 25-30 milligrams per day. However, DeVille cautions against taking too much without also taking a copper supplement. Be sure to check with your primary care physician if you’re concerned about zinc or copper deficiency.
Other vitamins and supplements our experts recommended were:
Magnesium (at night)
Of course, be sure to check with your healthcare practitioner before starting a supplement regimen. They may have dosage recommendations based upon your unique health history and will check for interactions with any of your medications..
As a general rule, the medical community recommends at least “150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week,” or some combination of the two. Furthermore, strength training that works on every major muscle group is recommended at least two times per week.
Aiming for about 30 minutes of physical activity per day is a good starting point. Even if you can’t do a 30-minute chunk, breaking it up into three 10-minute chunks is fine. Every little bit helps.
Remember that you should always consult with your doctor about any kind of exercise regimen — especially if you’re just starting to exercise for the very first time. Your personal health history is likely to impact the advice your primary care physician would provide.
For example, those with heart disease or a previous heart attack may be advised to get 30 minutes of low-impact cardiovascular exercise per day, such as walking or riding a stationary bike.
It may seem like an overused recommendation, but our bodies need sleep. If you’re not getting enough sleep, your body cannot function the way it’s supposed to and you’ll be more susceptible to colds, flus, and any other little bug that is going around your workplace or your child’s school.
One of the very best ways to naturally support your immune system is to get sufficient sleep. While the necessary amount may vary according to age and individual, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night.
The Best Immune Support
When searching for the best way to support your own unique immune system, remember that every body is different. What helps one person may not necessarily do much for another person. Exercise and a healthy, balanced diet is typically the first line of defense, but while some people are able to let that slide, others need to adhere to a strict diet in order to stay healthy.
Vitamins and supplements can be good additions to a healthy lifestyle, and can help fill in the gaps where your particular medications or health concerns may be causing vitamin or mineral depletion. As always, be sure to discuss changes in activity level or diet with your doctor beforehand.
Are you interested in learning more about immune support? Check out these articles with additional pro tips:
VKNOX is a holistic nutrition wellness practitioner, behavior change specialist, fitness nutrition educator, lifestyle transformation coach and author. She is the creator of the R.A.W. Lifestyle System.