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How to support the immune system: Food vs supplements

fruits and supplements to support the immune system

Wondering how to support your immune system?

We discuss how what you eat can affect your body's ability to tackle everyday stressors and whether supplements are just as effective.

If I changed my diet, could it stop me from getting sick? What supplements can I take to support my immunity? How to support the immune system is behind many nutrition-related concerns and curiosities.

Here we summarise some key immunity-supporting foods and supplements, so you can weigh up what could work best for you.

But first, let’s talk about the function of the immune system.

What does the immune system do?

Your immune system offers protection against all kinds of infections, allergies and diseases. It looks out for anything harmful that enters your body, picks it up and fights back.

There’s a wide range of things that can spark your immune system into action – an allergen such as pollen, a virus causing a cold, a cut from a fall.

But whatever the problem, your immune system is what’s powering your ability to heal and recover.

Can you really ‘boost’ immunity with food and supplements?

Are you seeking out the best food to boost immune system function? Or maybe vitamins to boost immune system health? But more to the point, should we be talking about ‘boosting’ immunity at all?

In reality, increasing the number of immune cells in your body probably won’t achieve the results you want.1

This is because no one really knows the optimal number of cells or the exact mix of cells the immune system needs for peak performance.

So, we’re consciously avoiding talking about ‘boosting’ immunity. Instead, we refer to how to support the normal function of the immune system.

How to support the immune system with food

A healthy diet is an important way to support your immune system. Here we focus on three ways diet can contribute to improving immunity: superfoods, probiotics and prebiotics.

  • Superfoods

Mention immunity and diet and ‘superfoods’ instantly come to mind. This collection of foods earned its heroic label due to the density and richness of their nutrient content.

They’re packed full of vitamins, fibre and antioxidants. Their impressive nutrition credentials offer some important benefits to immunity and your overall health.

Popular superfoods:

  • Blueberries
  • Kale
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Beans
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts
  • Salmon
  • Acai berries
  • Probiotics

A healthy digestive system is essential to support normal immune system function.

Did you realise 70% of your immune system is located within your 9-metre-long gastrointestinal tract?2 This is down to the trillions of gut bacteria living there.

This diverse and unique community of bacteria is sometimes called a microbiome and it has a big role in supporting your immune system.

Most experts agree, maintaining a healthy balance of essential good bacteria in your gut can have a big influence on your overall wellness.

Friendly bacteria prevent the growth and proliferation of harmful bacteria in the gut, making probiotics an important food to keep your gut microbiome healthy.3 

Probiotics come in the form of live bacteria and yeasts. They are found naturally in cultured dairy products and unpasteurised fermented foods.

Popular probiotic food sources:

  • Live yoghurts
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Pickles
  • Tempeh
  • Natto
  • Miso
  • Kombucha

But to get all the probiotic benefits, the good bacteria must be alive when you eat it. So, it’s important that yoghurts are ‘live’ or contain ‘active’ ingredients and choose unpasteurised and fermented versions of these foods.

  • Prebiotics

If you want probiotics to do their job, you need to nourish them. That’s where the lesser known (but equally important) family of foods called prebiotics comes in.

Prebiotics are non-digestible foods that feed helpful bacteria formed in the gut.

So, to make the distinction clear – probiotics introduce new bacteria into your gut and prebiotics fuel the bacteria already in your gut. Together they’re a highly compatible duo.

Prebiotics are most commonly found in fibre-rich foods.

Popular prebiotic food sources:

  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Leek
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas

How to support the immune system with supplements

For the immune system to hit peak performance, it needs good, regular nourishment.

So, it’s understandable that eating a diet lacking in essential nutrients is connected with a higher risk of getting some health conditions.

If your diet isn’t providing you with the micronutrients you need, supplements, such as multivitamins, offer additional support to your immune system.

This also applies to probiotics and prebiotics. Is your gut getting sufficient supplies of these nutrients from your diet? If not, adding a probiotic or prebiotic supplement can help to bolster your gut microbiome. This offers extra benefits to your immunity too.

Summary: Diet or supplements – what’s best?

There’s no definitive answer. It depends largely on your personal circumstances, diet and taste preferences.

Can’t stomach too many vegetables? Maybe you haven’t got the taste buds for fermented foods? Supplements are a valuable alternative if your diet is deficient in any of the vital nutrients for immune system health.

However, there’s no compelling evidence to suggest that supplements offer any additional benefits to your immune system over simply following a healthy, balanced diet.

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 26 April 2021

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