Medically reviewed by
Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
7 min read
The immune system is a complex network comprising cells, tissues, and organs. The white blood cells and organs of the lymph system protect your body from harmful microorganisms and toxins. Specific vitamins and minerals – called micronutrients – help support immune system health. These micronutrients may help improve immune response, allowing us to feel our best. Many of these nutrients can’t be produced by the body itself. That’s why supplements can be a convenient way to help boost the immune system, providing the essential nutrients that might be lacking in our diets.
There’s a lot of confusing advice about boosting the immune system with the help of vitamins and supplements. Misinformation about how the immune system works can add to the confusion. For instance, symptoms are typically the result of the body’s defense system fighting off an intruder. Too much of an immune response can be a bad thing .
Rather than taking steps to make your immune system even stronger, it’s best to aim for a balanced immune system. Supplements can help provide the nutrients that the body may be lacking and not receiving from a highly processed food diet. In this way, supplements can support a healthy immune system.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, not only helps build blood vessels, cartilage, and muscle, but it’s also a potent antioxidant. That means it can help protect the body from oxidative stress by fighting off free radicals, which come from everything from the foods we eat to the chemicals we breathe in the environment. Free radicals can contribute to an increased risk of various health issues.
Vitamin C cannot be made by the body, but luckily this water-soluble essential is found in many foods, such as strawberries, kiwi fruit, citrus fruits, broccoli. Vitamin C supplements can also help provide this powerful antioxidant. It’s important to look for vitamin C supplements made from food-based extracts, which are more easily absorbed by the body. Bioflavonoids, the pigment that makes fruits and flowers have their vibrant colors, can help with absorption as well.
By supporting cellular functions, vitamin C plays an important role in helping to keep the immune system functioning properly. Since vitamin C is a powerful ally in boosting the immune system, it can be tempting to think more is better. But taking too much vitamin C can result in side effects, such as heartburn, stomach pain, and diarrhea. Doses of vitamin C supplements should always remain under 2,000 milligrams a day.
Zinc is a trace mineral, meaning it’s only needed in very small amounts. Like vitamin C, zinc has strong antioxidant-like properties and helps promote a healthy immune system. In addition, this mineral plays a critical role in creating DNA, healing damaged tissues, building proteins, aiding cell development, and preventing foreign invaders from harming the body.
A zinc deficiency can impair the formation and maturation of lymphocytes and disrupt immune system functioning. Taking zinc supplements, particularly with copper, can help maintain balanced minerals in the body. When taking zinc supplements, it’s beneficial to look for a bisglycinate version, because this is more easily absorbed by the body in comparison to other forms.
Vitamin D requires the rays of the sun to be processed effectively by the body. Today, vitamin D deficiencies are on the rise, as people spend more time indoors and make efforts to minimize the harmful effects of the sun’s UV rays, now a greater concern because of diminished ozone. While vitamin D is known for its bone-building properties, it also enhances the immune system. In one study, participants who were given 50 mcg (2,000 IU) of vitamin D saw a higher concentration of the immune cells responsible for strengthening our body’s natural defense system.
Studies show that vitamin D3 can modulate the immune system, promoting initial immune response. Vitamin D supplements should be taken with a meal that contains fat for optimal absorption. It can also be helpful to have short periods of time in the sun without sunblock to allow the skin to absorb rays that can be used to process vitamin D.
The B Vitamins comprise eight vitamins, including thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate/folic acid (B9), and cobalamin (B12). But when it comes to a healthy immune response, vitamin B6 is the one to focus on. Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, is critical to supporting biochemical reactions, aiding in producing white blood cells and T cells, and transporting oxygen.
Digestive issues can disrupt nutrient absorption and can lead to B6 deficiency. However, most healthy people can benefit from adding more vitamin B6 to their routine. Low levels of vitamin B6 may negatively impact the immune system, including the possibility of reduced interleukin-2 and hemoglobin production. Interleukin 2 is pivotal for the regulation and generation of the immune system.
Vitamin E is a potent and crucial antioxidant that protects the body from oxidative stress. The lipid-soluble vitamin is in comparatively higher concentration in immune cells, thus making it an effective nutrient to help you feel your best and maintain a healthy immune system.
Moreover, the vitamin may help protect your cells from oxidative damage by fighting off free radicals in lipids. Because of its immune benefits, some clinical trials have shown a need for increasing the recommended doses of Vitamin E for older adults.
Probiotics are good bacteria that help the body with numerous tasks, including supporting the immune system. Strains such as B. lactis, L. rhamnosus, and L. acidophilus can help support immune function. Probiotics are typically associated with the digestive system, the “good gut bacteria,” and not as well known for their impact on the immune system. But did you know that 70% of the immune system originates in the digestive tract? That’s one reason why a healthy gut promotes healthy immune function.
While dietary supplements can help with maintaining a healthy immune system, eating a balanced diet full of vitamin-rich foods can also provide an immune boost. Fresh, whole foods like garlic, citrus fruits, and vegetables, such as bell peppers and broccoli, are loaded with vitamin C. But there are some less common foods that shouldn’t be overlooked. Elderberry, for instance (often used in herbal teas), can be a great source of antioxidants due to its high concentration of anthocyanins and flavonoids.
Mushrooms may also be a rich source of nutrients that support the immune system. Adaptogenic mushrooms are fungi that have properties that help the body stave off physical, biological, and chemical stress. These mushrooms have long been used in traditional medicine and include varieties such as Reishi, Shiitake, and Maitake. These mushrooms contain beta glucans which can support T cells, a key to achieving a healthy immune system.
Lifestyle choices can have a significant impact on the immune system. There are numerous habits and activities that can weaken or cause the immune system to not be supported or balanced. These unfavorable activities include:
But, the good news is, there are plenty of lifestyle choices that we can make that support the immune system, giving us a better sense of wellbeing. To better support the immune system, try:
Taking the right amount of vitamins through supplements and natural sources can help strengthen your immune system. However, a healthy lifestyle, consistent sleep habits, and ample rest are crucial to building a balanced immune system.