Top 5 Nutrients and Vitamins for the Immune System‡
Learn about vitamins for your immune system health‡
Knowing the top 5 nutrients and vitamins for the immune system is essential to your overall health and wellness. Your immune system health is the foundation that supports your health and wellness journey.‡
While the phrase wellness means something different for each person, at its core, being well is about nourishing and supporting your body so you can thrive at all stages of life. Immune system health and wellness matter whether you’re 25, 55, 75, or 95.
Your immune system is constantly working to keep you feeling and looking healthy and well. Lifestyle habits, age, genetics, environment, and your pace of life all affect your immune system. One of the top lifestyle factors you can control is your nutrition. You are what you eat and when it comes to your immune system, nutrition has an important role in how well it functions.1
In this blog we shine the spotlight on the top 5 nutrients and vitamins for the immune system. Keep reading to learn which vitamins have a direct impact on your immune system and the best sources for these essential vitamins and nutrients.‡
Before making changes to your diet, nutrition, and exercise routine, consult your healthcare practitioner. Always discuss any vitamin and mineral supplements you are taking or plan to take, since these may interact differently with medications and health conditions.
As always, feel free to contact us with your questions about our vitamins, minerals, supplements, and other products.
How Does the Immune System Work?
The immune system is constantly working to keep you protected from bacteria, viruses, pathogens, microbes, and a range of health conditions.1
To do this, your immune system relies on innate and adaptive immunity:2
- Innate Immune System
- Adaptive Immune System The adaptive immune system activates when it recognizes specific threats and responds with targeted antibodies.4 When a foreign substance enters your body, cells and organs including the spleen, bone marrow, lymph nodes, and thymus create antibodies and white blood cells specific to the dangerous substance.1
The innate immune system acts as a first responder to protect you against perceived threats like viruses, bacteria, or toxins.3 This first-line of defense is made up of protective barriers including your skin, mucus, stomach acid, enzymes in your sweat, and immune system cells that block foreign cells from entering your body.1
If the same foreign substance enters your body again, your adaptive immune system remembers the earlier attack and can respond quickly and efficiently.1
To function optimally, both branches of your immune system depend on proper nutrition, especially micronutrients. Research reveals that a less-than-optimal nutrition status can lead to a compromised immune system.5
Top 5 Nutrients and Vitamins for the Immune System
These 5 nutrients and vitamins stand out for their benefits to your immune system health.‡
- Shellfish including oysters, Alaskan crab, shrimp, and mussels
- Meat including beef, lamb, and pork
- Legumes including lentils, chickpeas, and beans
- Nuts and seeds including cashews, hemp seeds, and flax seeds
- Leafy greens
- Cruciferous vegetables including cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage
- Bell pepper
- Herring and sardines
- Cod liver oil
- Canned tuna
- Whole eggs
- Fortified foods including milk and milk alternatives, orange juice, and cereal and instant oatmeal
- Chicken and turkey
- Yogurt and cheese
- Sunflower seeds
- Organ meats
- Brazil nuts
- Seafood and fish
- Grains and bread
- Meat and poultry
Zinc is a mineral that’s essential for maintaining a well-functioning and responsive immune system.6,7 It also acts as a critical cofactor for hundreds of enzymatic reactions, many related to immunity.8 ‡
Your body doesn’t store zinc or make it, so you need to make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of zinc in your daily diet. Eating a varied and balanced diet should provide you with enough zinc to meet your daily needs. Women require 8 mg of zinc per day and men require 11 mg. Pregnant women need 11 mg of zinc per day and if you’re breastfeeding, you need 12 mg.9
The following foods are rich sources of zinc:9
2. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is the first vitamin most people think of when it comes to keeping the immune system healthy. It’s an essential water-soluble vitamin (meaning the body doesn’t store it and excretes excess in urine) that acts as an important antioxidant in the body.10 ‡
Antioxidants are specific molecules that support the immune system. Vitamin C is a well-studied antioxidant that may help maintain your body’s immune system response.11 ‡
Vitamin C is an essential vitamin (meaning that your body does not produce it) so you need to make sure you get adequate amounts through your diet and if necessary, with supplements. The good news is this vitamin is found in a wide range of vegetables and fruits.11 ‡
Some evidence suggests that supplemental vitamin C may work on a short-term basis. However, it’s best to take it on a continuous basis to help your immune system function efficiently.13 ‡
The following foods are good sources of Vitamin C:14
3. Vitamin D
Nicknamed the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is essential nutrient for many aspects of health from bone formation to immune system support. There are two types of vitamin D – vitamin D2 and vitamin D3.15 ‡
These two types of vitamin D are produced by your body when you’re exposed to the sun. However, many of us do not get enough sunshine exposure or live in climates with limited sunshine. Because of this, it’s important to eat foods fortified with vitamin D or to take a vitamin D supplement.15 ‡
Receptors for vitamin D are found in your immune cells, suggesting that vitamin D may positively influence their responsiveness.16 Studies on vitamin D show significant support for immune health with supplementation, especially for those with lower vitamin D status.17 ‡
An easy way to get enough vitamin D is through exposure to sunlight, where the interaction with UV light converts the hormone in your skin to the active vitamin. But with so many factors influencing your ability to properly make and absorb it (including the color of your skin, sunscreen use, time of year, and geographical location), supplemental vitamin D may be necessary.18 ‡
The following foods are a good source of vitamin D:19
Many people cannot get enough vitamin D even with a balanced diet and getting daily sun exposure. In this case, a vitamin D supplement may help. Before taking a vitamin D supplement, discuss this with your healthcare practitioner.15
4. N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine (NAC)
NAC is an amino acid that acts as a precursor to glutathione, your body’s master antioxidant.20 Antioxidants help protect the body against free radical damage while supporting a healthy immune response. NAC has antioxidant and immunomodulatory activities that allow it to maintain healthy natural defenses.21,22 ‡
NAC is the supplemental form of cysteine, a semi-essential amino acid. Because the human body can produce this amino acid in small amounts, there are no dietary recommendations for cysteine or NAC.21
However, your body does require vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folate to make cysteine. These essential micronutrients are found in beans, lentils, bananas, salmon, spinach, and tuna.21 ‡
The following foods contain cysteine:21
A NAC supplement may complement any dietary gaps and help you get adequate amounts of this essential amino acid. Discuss this supplement with your healthcare practitioner to ensure it does not conflict with other medications.21
Selenium is a critical nutrient for your immune system that acts as an antioxidant.23 It may also aid in turning on immune cells so they can get to work. This is particularly the case for macrophages, a type of cell that is critical for innate immunity.24 ‡
People with optimal amounts of dietary selenium are more likely to have healthy immune responses. Research suggests that optimal levels of selenium may provide other health benefits by modulating the production of certain chemical messengers.25 ‡
The following foods are rich sources of selenium:26, 27
If you eat a plant-based diet, you may want to discuss the benefits of selenium supplements with your healthcare practitioner. There are risks with selenium toxicity, so do not take this supplement without advice from your healthcare practitioner.28
The Takeaway: Nutrients and Vitamins for the Immune System
Your immune system health is linked directly to your lifestyle, diet, age, genetics, and environment. And your immune system health is the foundation of feeling healthy and well.
The good news is you can do so much for your immune system when you focus on eating a balanced diet rich in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, protein sources, whole grains, legumes, and fat.
If your diet is restricted due to food intolerances, lifestyle factors, underlying health conditions, or other reasons, supplementation may fill in any nutrient gaps. Discuss supplementation with your healthcare practitioner.
Use our Purely For You personalized supplement plan to provide you with tailored wellness recommendations to meet your specific nutritional needs.
Remember, we are here to support you in achieving optimal personal wellness. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date with the latest news, promotions, and nutritional/lifestyle content Purely For You.
- 1. Nutrition and Immunity: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Accessed September 27, 2021) https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/nutrition-and-immunity/
2. “Features of an Immune Response | NIH: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.” Accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.niaid.nih.gov/research/immune-response-features.
3. Biron, Christine A. “Chapter 4 - Innate Immunity: Recognizing and Responding to Foreign Invaders—No Training Needed.” In Viral Pathogenesis (Third Edition), edited by Michael G. Katze, Marcus J. Korth, G. Lynn Law, and Neal Nathanson, 41–55. Boston: Academic Press, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-800964-2.00004-5.
4. Moticka, Edward J. “Chapter 2 - Hallmarks of the Adaptive Immune Responses.” In A Historical Perspective on Evidence-Based Immunology, edited by Edward J. Moticka, 9–19. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-398381-7.00002-2.
5. Maggini, Silvia, Adeline Pierre, and Philip C. Calder. “Immune Function and Micronutrient Requirements Change over the Life Course.” Nutrients 10, no. 10 (October 17, 2018). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10101531.
6. Hemilä, Harri., JRSM Open 8, no. 5 (May 2017): 2054270417694291. https://doi.org/10.1177/2054270417694291.
7. Jafari, Alireza, Zeinab Noormohammadi, Mohammadreza Askari, and Elnaz Daneshzad. “Zinc Supplementation and Immune Factors in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, December 24, 2020, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2020.1862048.
8. Kuźmicka, Weronika, Aneta Manda-Handzlik, Adrianna Cieloch, Agnieszka Mroczek, Urszula Demkow, Małgorzata Wachowska, and Olga Ciepiela. “Zinc Supplementation Modulates NETs Release and Neutrophils’ Degranulation.” Nutrients 13, no. 1 (December 26, 2020). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13010051.
9. The 10 Best Foods That Are High in Zinc: Healthline.org (Accessed September 28, 2021) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/best-foods-high-in-zinc
10. Health, National Research Council (US) Committee on Diet and. National Academies Press (US), 1989. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK218756/.
11. 7 Impressive Ways Vitamin C Benefits Your Body: Healthline.org (Accessed September 28, 2021) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-c-benefits
12. Ran, Li, Wenli Zhao, Jingxia Wang, Hongwu Wang, Ye Zhao, Yiider Tseng, and Huaien Bu. BioMed Research International 2018 (July 5, 2018). https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/1837634.
13. Douglas, R. M., H. Hemilä, E. Chalker, and B. Treacy. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 3 (July 18, 2007): CD000980. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub3.
14. “FoodData Central.” Accessed March 19, 2021. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/?component=1162.
15. Vitamin D: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (Accessed September 28, 2021) https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-d/
16. Aranow, Cynthia. “Vitamin D and the Immune System.” Journal of Investigative Medicine : The Official Publication of the American Federation for Clinical Research 59, no. 6 (August 2011): 881–86. https://doi.org/10.231/JIM.0b013e31821b8755.
17. Zisi, Dimitra, Anna Challa, and Alexandros Makis. Hormones (Athens, Greece) 18, no. 4 (December 2019): 353–63. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42000-019-00155-z.
18. Holick, Michael F., Neil C. Binkley, Heike A. Bischoff-Ferrari, Catherine M. Gordon, David A. Hanley, Robert P. Heaney, M. Hassan Murad, Connie M. Weaver, and Endocrine Society. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 96, no. 7 (July 2011): 1911–30. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2011-0385.
19. 7 Healthy Foods That Are High in Vitamin D: Healthline.org (Accessed September 28, 2021) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/9-foods-high-in-vitamin-d
20. Aldini, Giancarlo, Alessandra Altomare, Giovanna Baron, Giulio Vistoli, Marina Carini, Luisa Borsani, and Francesco Sergio. “N-Acetylcysteine as an Antioxidant and Disulphide Breaking Agent: The Reasons Why.” Free Radical Research 52, no. 7 (July 3, 2018): 751–62. https://doi.org/10.1080/10715762.2018.1468564.
21. Top 9 Benefits of NAC (N-Acetyl Cysteine): Healthline.org (Accessed September 28, 2021) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/nac-benefits
22. Dludla, Phiwayinkosi V., Sithandiwe E. Mazibuko-Mbeje, Tawanda M. Nyambuya, Vuyolwethu Mxinwa, Luca Tiano, Fabio Marcheggiani, Ilenia Cirilli, Johan Louw, and Bongani B. Nkambule. Pharmacological Research 146 (August 1, 2019): 104332.
23. Hoffmann, Peter R., and Marla J. Berry. “The Influence of Selenium on Immune Responses.” Molecular Nutrition & Food Research 52, no. 11 (November 2008): 1273–80. https://doi.org/10.1002/mnfr.200700330.
24. Aribi, Mourad, Warda Meziane, Salim Habi, Yasser Boulatika, Hélène Marchandin, and Jean-Luc Aymeric. PLOS ONE 10, no. 9 (September 4, 2015): e0135515. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0135515.
25. Avery, Joseph C., and Peter R. Hoffmann. “Selenium, Selenoproteins, and Immunity.” Nutrients 10, no. 9 (September 1, 2018). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10091203.
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27. Selenium: National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (Accessed September 28, 2021) https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Selenium-HealthProfessional/
28. Selenium: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (Accessed September 28, 2021) https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/selenium/
29. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.