In our modern and increasingly health-conscious world, the discussion around how to boost your immune system has exploded. But is it wrong to use the term ‘boost’ when it comes to our immunity? Let’s find out!
Can you really boost immunity?
First of all, here’s an overview of the human immune system and all the things it does for us.
What is immunity?
Immunity is the ability of an organism to defend you from foreign substances or toxins.
For us humans, that means that our immune system is constantly on high alert for any germs or other dangerous foreign substances. Upon detecting these potential dangers, the immune system gets to work at eliminating them to keep us safe.
Can you use vitamins to boost immune system function?
Certain vitamins and minerals can support the normal functioning of your immune system for sure! But ‘boost’ it? Unfortunately, not.
The term ‘boost’ implies that by upping your intake of certain vitamins, minerals and so-called ‘immune boosting foods’ can ‘upgrade’ your immune system to some ‘hulk-strength’ version of itself. This is simply not true.
The truth is that there are lots of vitamins, minerals and foods you can take to support your immune system to get it working as best as it possibly can – but it will never surpass its natural capability.
Your immune system cannot go above its normal working ability and your immunity cannot be increased or ‘boosted’ beyond normal expected levels.
The human body is a wonderfully intelligent thing and is already equipped to keep you safe – so just focus on supporting your immune system as best as you can so that it can protect you.
Vitamins and minerals that support your immunity
Keep reading to find out which vitamins and minerals can support your immunity and just what they bring to the table when it comes to keeping you safe.
Vitamin C may not be able to boost your immunity into levels previously unknown, but there is lots of evidence to suggest that it can support the normal function of your natural immune system.
Evidence has shown that individuals lacking in vitamin C can help restore their natural immunity by making sure they supply their body with enough vitamin C, including:1
- Older people
- Patients who have been exposed to toxic chemicals
- Individuals taking part in severe physical exercise
- People simply lacking in vitamin C
How to get more vitamin C in your life:
- Red and green peppers
- Oranges and orange juice
- Brussels sprouts
- Leafy green vegetables
- Vitamin C Supplements
Vitamin D, aka the sunshine vitamin, is often prescribed as one of the best immune boosting supplements. Now, while it can’t ‘boost’ anything, it has been shown to support your immune system function, as well as many other health benefits.
When it comes to immunity, vitamin D plays a regulatory role – meaning that it is involved in functions that ensure your immune system is operating properly.
Studies have shown that vitamin D receptors can be found in our immune systems.
Specifically, vitamin D receptors can be found in our T- helper cells, which are arguably the most important cells in adaptive immunity.2,3
T-helper cells are needed for the body to release antibodies and macrophages to destroy any dangerous microbes we ingest. They also help to activate T cells to kill infected cells. Without T-helper cells, our bodies would not be able to defend itself from dangerous particles and even microbes that are usually harmless.4
How to get more vitamin D in your life:
- Spend time outside with direct sunlight on your skin – this is how your body makes vitamin D by itself
- Oily fish like salmon
- Fortified plant milks
- Fortified cereals
- Vitamin D supplements
Another popular vitamin loved by the ‘immunity system booster’ brigade is vitamin B6.
Also known as pyridoxine, vitamin B6 is part of the vitamin B family that our bodies need to stay nice and healthy. It supports nervous system function, protein and glycogen metabolism, normal red blood cell formation and our immune systems.
Research has revealed that adequate vitamin B6 levels in the body are needed for proper immune function in animals.5
Studies have also found that people deficient in vitamin B6 may have reduced immune function and struggle to produce enough antibodies when given immunisations.6
How to get more vitamin B6 in your life:
- Vitamin B6 supplements
Vitamin B12 is another of the popular ‘immune-boosting supplements’. While that may not be true, vitamin B12 is pretty important when it comes to supporting our immune system.
This vitamin is involved in the body’s process of making nucleic acid and cell proteins associated with the immune system.
A study on people with vitamin B12 deficiency found that their immune system struggled to produce antibodies when they were given a pneumonia vaccine.8 This may suggest that those who are deficient in vitamin B12 may struggle to produce adequate antibodies.
How to get more vitamin B12 in your life:
- Milk and dairy products
- Yeast extracts enriched with vitamin B12
- Vitamin B12 fortified plant milks
- Soya ‘mock-meats’ fortified with vitamin B12
- Vitamin B12 supplements
Vitamin A is the collective term for a group of fat-soluble nutrients that the body stores in the liver.
You may have already heard of its use in the skincare world where it is usually referred to as retinol. But vitamin A does so much more than just help smooth out your skin; it is very involved in the function of our immune system.
Studies have shown that the acids found in vitamin A support the function of our T cells – the ones that help destroy cells that have been infected with pathogens. People who are deficient in vitamin A may struggle to kill bacteria and other dangerous cells.8
How to get more vitamin A in your life:
- Milk and other dairy products
- Sweet potato
- Vitamin A supplements
Folate, aka folic acid or vitamin B9, is not just for when you’re pregnant! Granted, this member of the B vitamin family is very important for expecting mothers and their babies, but it also helps to support your immune system.
Folic acid plays a crucial role in certain chemical reactions in the body that can affect cells involved in our immune system.
Research has shown that a lack of folate can slow down DNA synthesis and subsequently reduce T-cell response and multiplication in the body. However, the same study found that adding adequate folate back into the body can get help to get your immune system back in order.9
How to get more folate in your life:
- Brussels sprouts
- Leafy green vegetables
- Folate supplements
Iron is one of the most important essential minerals for our bodies. From making haemoglobin in the blood to supporting our energy levels, iron is certainly a ‘key worker’ in our body.
When it comes to our immune system, iron is grafting there too! Numerous in vitro studies have shown that being deficient can change the way our immune system functions.
Iron deficiency has been seen to reduce the number of T-cells and other natural killer cells like B-cells that are responsible for getting rid of unwanted and potentially dangerous foreign bodies and infected cells.10
How to get more iron in your life:
- Red meat
- Fish and shellfish
- Leafy green vegetables
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Iron supplements
Another essential mineral that our bodies need to function is zinc, especially when it comes to our immune systems.
Developing a zinc deficiency is associated with a decline in most aspects of immune function, including the deterioration in numbers of T-cells and B-cells – the ones that help to fight off dangerous intruders in our body.
Research suggests Zinc deficiency renders people more susceptible to infections, whereas supplementing zinc has been seen to benefit immune responses to bacterial and viral infections.11
One study investigating infants with acrodermatitis enteropathica – a rare inborn error with a reduced ability to absorb dietary zinc highlights the immune functions that are dependent on zinc. The panel concluded that a cause and effect relationship has been established between dietary intake of zinc and the normal function of the immune system, however, the evidence provided does not establish that inadequate intake of zinc leading to impaired function of the immune system occurs in the general EU population.12
How to get more zinc in your life:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Zinc supplements
Copper is yet another heavy metal our bodies need to stay strong and healthy. This mineral helps your body to transport iron around the body, to maintain normal skin pigmentation and connective tissues and so much more!
Your immune system needs a small amount of copper to keep running as usual.. It is essential for synthesising the enzyme cytochrome c oxidase, which is needed for the energy production of immune cells. Copper also plays a role in protecting immune cells against reactive oxygen species.13
Studies have shown that even a marginal copper deficiency adversely affects some cells in the immune system. Severe copper deficiency can actually change the profiles of immune cells in our blood, bone, marrow and lymphoid tissues.14
How to get more copper in your life:
- Nuts and seeds
- Leafy greens
- Dark chocolate
- Copper supplements
Have you heard of selenium? It’s another essential mineral our body needs just a dash of to support our immune system, thyroid function, normal sperm development, hair and nails and protect our cells from oxidative stress.
When it comes to our immune system, selenium plays a small role in cell-mediated immunity – the destruction of infected cells.
Research has shown that human supplementation of selenium can stimulate activated T-cells in the immune system.15
How to get more selenium in your life:
- Brazil nuts
- Selenium supplements
Just remember, vitamins, minerals and foods that boost your immune system do not exist. But vitamins, minerals and foods to support your immune system do exist, and hopefully this guide has helped you understand just how some of them do just that.
Last updated: 5 November 2020
4 As source 3
6 As source 5
12 As source 11
14 As source 13