How to boost your immune system with supplements
Keeping your immune system healthy year-round is key to preventing infection and disease. Making healthy lifestyle choices by consuming nutritious foods and getting enough sleep and exercise are the most important ways to bolster your immune system. In addition, research has shown that supplementing with certain vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other substances can improve immune response and potentially protect against illness. However, note that some supplements can interact with prescription or over-the-counter medications you’re taking. Some may not be appropriate for people with certain health conditions. Be sure to talk with your healthcare provider before starting any supplements. Here are 15 supplements that are known for their immune-boosting potential.
But why do we need to supplement? Shouldn't we get our nutrients from our food? Because of soil depletion, crops grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today. Fruits and vegetables grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today. The main culprit in this disturbing nutritional trend is soil depletion: Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows. Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before.
A landmark study on the topic by Donald Davis and his team of researchers from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was published in December 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. They studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. Davis and his colleagues chalk up this declining nutritional content to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition.
“Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly,” reported Davis, “but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.” There have likely been declines in other nutrients, too, he said, such as magnesium, zinc and vitamins B-6 and E, but they were not studied in 1950 and more research is needed to find out how much less we are getting of these key vitamins and minerals.
The Organic Consumers Association cites several other studies with similar findings: A Kushi Institute analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that average calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables dropped 27 percent; iron levels 37 percent; vitamin A levels 21 percent, and vitamin C levels 30 percent. A similar study of British nutrient data from 1930 to 1980, published in the British Food Journal,found that in 20 vegetables the average calcium content had declined 19 percent; iron 22 percent; and potassium 14 percent. Yet another study concluded that one would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one.
1. Vitamin D3 Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient essential to the health and functioning of your immune system. Vitamin D enhances the pathogen-fighting effects of monocytes and macrophages — white blood cells that are important parts of your immune defense — and decreases inflammation, which helps promote immune response (Trusted Source). Many people are deficient in this important vitamin, which may negatively affect immune function. In fact, low vitamin D levels are associated with an increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections, including influenza and allergic asthma (Trusted Source). Some studies show that supplementing with vitamin D may improve immune response. In fact, recent research suggests that taking this vitamin may protect against respiratory tract infections.
Vitamin D is essential for immune function. Healthy levels of this vitamin may help lower your risk of respiratory infections.
2. Zinc Zinc is a mineral that’s commonly added to supplements and other healthcare products like lozenges that are meant to boost your immune system. This is because zinc is essential for immune system function. Zinc is needed for immune cell development and communication and plays an important role in inflammatory response. A deficiency in this nutrient significantly affects your immune system’s ability to function properly, resulting in an increased risk of infection and disease, including pneumonia (Trusted Source, Trusted Source).
Supplementing with zinc may help protect against respiratory tract infections and reduce the duration of these infections.
3. Vitamin C Vitamin C is perhaps the most popular supplement taken to protect against infection due to its important role in immune health. This vitamin supports the function of various immune cells and enhances their ability to protect against infection. It’s also necessary for cellular death, which helps keep your immune system healthy by clearing out old cells and replacing them with new ones (Trusted Source, Trusted Source). Vitamin C also functions as a powerful antioxidant, protecting against damage induced by oxidative stress, which occurs with the accumulation of reactive molecules known as free radicals. Oxidative stress can negatively affect immune health and is linked to numerous diseases (Trusted Source).
Supplementing with vitamin C has been shown to reduce the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections (Trusted Source). All in all, these results confirm that vitamin C supplements may significantly affect immune health, especially in those who don’t get enough of the vitamin through their diet. The upper limit for vitamin C is 2,000 mg. Supplemental daily doses typically range between 250 and 1,000 mg (25).
SUMMARYVitamin C is vital for immune health. Supplementing with this nutrient may reduce the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections, including the common cold.
4. Elderberry Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra), which has long been used to treat infections, is being researched for its effects on immune health. In test-tube studies, elderberry extract demonstrates potent antibacterial and antiviral potential against bacterial pathogens responsible for upper respiratory tract infections and strains of the influenza virus (Trusted Source) What’s more, it has been shown to enhance immune system response and may help shorten the duration and severity of colds, as well as reduce symptoms related to viral infections (Trusted Source, Trusted Source). A review of 4 randomized control studies in 180 people found that elderberry supplements significantly reduced upper respiratory symptoms caused by viral infections (Trusted Source). SUMMARY
Taking elderberry supplements may reduce upper respiratory symptoms caused by viral infections and help alleviate flu symptoms. However, more research is needed.
Aside from the items listed above, many supplements may help improve immune response:
Selenium. Selenium is a mineral that’s essential for immune health. Animal research demonstrates that selenium supplements may enhance antiviral defense against influenza strains, including H1N1 (Trusted Source, Trusted Source, Trusted Source).
Garlic. Garlic has powerful anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. It has been shown to enhance immune health by stimulating protective white blood cells like NK cells and macrophages. However, human research is limited (Trusted Source, Trusted Source).
Andrographis. This herb contains andrographolide, a terpenoid compound found to have antiviral effects against respiratory-disease-causing viruses, including enterovirus D68 and influenza A (Trusted Source, Trusted Source, Trusted Source).
Licorice. Licorice contains many substances, including glycyrrhizin, that may help protect against viral infections. According to test-tube research, glycyrrhizin exhibits antiviral activity against severe acute respiratory-syndrome-related coronavirus (SARS-CoV) (Trusted Source).
Pelargonium sidoides. Some human research supports the use of this plant’s extract for alleviating symptoms of acute viral respiratory infections, including the common cold and bronchitis. Still, results are mixed, and more research is needed (Trusted Source).
B complex vitamins. B vitamins, including B12 and B6, are important for healthy immune response. Yet, many adults are deficient in them, which may negatively affect immune health (Trusted Source, Trusted Source).
Curcumin. Curcumin is the main active compound in turmeric. It has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, and animal studies indicate that it may help improve immune function (Trusted Source).
Echinacea. Echinacea is a genus of plants in the daisy family. Certain species have been shown to improve immune health and may have antiviral effects against several respiratory viruses, including respiratory syncytial virus and rhinoviruses (Trusted Source).
Propolis. Propolis is a resin-like material produced by honeybees for use as a sealant in hives. Though it has impressive immune-enhancing effects and may have antiviral properties as well, more human research is needed (Trusted Source).
According to results from scientific research, the supplements listed above may offer immune-boosting properties. However, keep in mind that many of these supplements’ potential effects on immune health have not been thoroughly tested in humans, highlighting the need for future studies.
The bottom line Many supplements on the market may help improve immune health. Zinc, elderberry, and vitamins C and D are just some of the substances that have been researched for their immune-enhancing potential. However, although these supplements may offer a small benefit for immune health, they should not and cannot be used as a replacement for a healthy lifestyle. Maintaining a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, engaging in regular physical activity, and not smoking are some of the most important ways to help keep your immune system healthy and reduce your chances of infection and disease. If you decide that you want to try a supplement, speak with your healthcare provider first, as some supplements may interact with certain medications or are inappropriate for some people. Moreover, remember that there’s no scientific evidence to suggest that any of them can protect against COVID-19 — even though some of them may have antiviral properties.