The benefits of a balanced, nutritious diet can never be overstated. Almost all of us can maintain the right balance of our immune defences simply by filling our plates daily with a generous portion of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, dairy products and nutrient-rich proteins. Adding beneficial fats from foods like nuts, fish, and oils also helps.
Consume a wide variety of healthy foods, but don't lose sight of a few essential nutrients for your immune system. You can obtain these nutrients in supplement form, but they're always tastier in food form.
Vitamin A: this antioxidant is indispensable in maintaining the physical barriers we present to infection - skin, mucous membranes, and intestinal walls.
Food sources: beta-carotene is abundant in brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables and converts to vitamin A in your body. Look for vitamin A in carrots, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, cantaloupes, tomatoes and basil, among many other fruits and vegetables offered in the produce section.
B vitamins: members of the B vitamin family are close friends of the immune system. This group of nutrients is involved in cellular energy production, thus supporting immune cells in general.
Food sources: vitamin B is found in a variety of foods. Button mushrooms and almost all green vegetables contain plenty of vitamin B. But if you want to stock up on vitamins B6 and B12, you'll have to leave the produce section and head for meat, fish and dairy products.
Vitamin C: with its renowned stimulating action on the immune system, good old vitamin C is still as effective as ever. It increases the production of infection-fighting white blood cells and stimulates the secretion of antibodies that attack viruses and bacteria.
Food sources: citrus fruits are just one source of vitamin C, but they come in many options to suit all tastes. Other brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables also provide vitamin C: red peppers, broccoli, romaine lettuce, kale, cranberries, watermelon, and fennel are excellent sources.
Vitamin D is sometimes called the "sunshine vitamin" because our bodies can produce it when our skin absorbs the sun's ultraviolet rays. Our bodies depend on vitamin D above all for the absorption of calcium and its binding to bones, but it is also involved in our immune and anti-inflammatory responses.
Food sources: vitamin D is not always easy to find in food. For this reason, 2 essential foods should be on your grocery list: milk and eggs! If you like seafood, you'll get a good dose of vitamin D from salmon, cod and shrimp.
Vitamin E: not much is said about this antioxidant vitamin, but as we age, we need the effective protection it provides for our entire arsenal of immune cells. Vitamin E also plays an important role in the health of our skin, one of our immune systems' most significant protective barriers.
Food sources: another good reason to eat green vegetables! You can load up on vitamin E by eating mustard greens, kale and Swiss chard, turnips, sunflower seeds, or almonds.
Probiotics: your gastrointestinal tract is fertile ground for good and bad bacteria. Good bacteria help your immune system fight off micro-organisms that can trigger illness. They also help you digest the vitamins and minerals you need for your overall health. Probiotics are good bacteria. While you don't need them to maintain your health, eating foods containing probiotics can help support your immune system's efforts.
Food sources: probiotics include fermented foods such as yogurt, miso, cheeses, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles.
That's it! The next time you're at the grocery store, remember all these foods that will boost your immune system to enjoy a winter free of colds and other ailments. Cheers!