Everyone is bound to get sick here or there, but we’d all probably prefer to feel under the weather a bit less often (and use our precious PTO for something actually fun). A strong immune system is key for fighting off bacteria and viruses that make us ill, so giving your immune system a boost in any way we can is the best bet for better health. Fortunately, in the fight against invaders, your diet can play a role!
Although science still has a long way to go to determine the exact interplay between diet and the immune system—and no single food will keep you from getting sick—there is evidence that the nutrients in certain foods can support the body’s ability to ward off illness. A diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals (and low in inflammatory foods like sugar, alcohol, and fried items) is an important route to staying well. Include the following foods to keep boost your immune system, and for some healthy meal inspiration, check out our list of the 100 Easiest Recipes You Can Make.
We’ll give it to you straight: despite folk wisdom, oranges and their juice aren’t a magic elixir for the common cold.
That said, the vitamin C they contain does appear to have a positive overall effect on the immune system because it supports your cells’ barrier against pathogens and reduces damage from free radicals. A single orange contains 68 milligrams of vitamin C (105% of the RDA for women and 91% for men)—so you can feel good about peeling open this zesty fruit a breakfast, lunch, or snack time.
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Garlic breath won’t just keep your friends at a distance—it might also keep pathogens away. According to a study in the Journal of Immunology Research, the piquant bulbs appear to enhance immune function by stimulating cells like macrophages and lymphocytes–soldiers on the front lines of your immune system. So go ahead and load up on pesto or a garlicky stir-fry. (Just remember to brush your teeth afterward!)
Ginger has long been known for its anti-nausea effects, but it may also be a friend to your immune system. Though ginger doesn’t launch a direct assault on viruses or bacteria, research shows that, because of its antioxidant properties, it helps reduce systemic inflammation. When the body has less inflammation to contend with, the immune system can do a better job of fighting off harmful external assaults.
Citrus fruits aren’t the only vitamin C powerhouse out there. In fact, red bell peppers outdo oranges to the tune of 108 extra milligrams of vitamin C per cup. To put things in perspective, a whole day’s Recommended Daily Allowance for this nutrient is just 75 milligrams.
Get crunching on red peppers’ immune-boosting benefits with a side of hummus or a homemade ranch dressing.
For food-as-medicine, you can’t go wrong with uber-healthy kale. This leafy green not only contains plenty of vitamin C, but also boasts significant amounts of vitamins A and E. According to 2018 research in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, Vitamin A helps regulate the cellular immune response. Kale salad, anyone?
Ready for another unsung vitamin C hero? Tomatoes are a surprising source of this immune-boosting nutrient, with 25 milligrams per cup. They’re also rich in vitamin A and lycopene, an antioxidant that reduces inflammation (and—bonus!—may even have a role to play in the prevention of several cancers). Intriguingly, it’s easier for the body to absorb lycopene from cooked tomatoes—so don’t discount that can of diced ‘maters or spaghetti sauce hanging around your pantry.
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