Your lifestyle can improve your immune system in several ways, but one of the most important is eating the right foods.
So how do we choose?
It seems like every few weeks there’s a new immune-boosting superfood on the scene. But as an immunologist and a doctor of functional medicine, I’m here to tell you that any nutrient-dense food that’s rich in vitamins and minerals East an immune superfood.
However, some foods seem to stand out from the rest for their beneficial properties. Here are five magic superfoods that I always try to add to my diet for a strong and healthy immune system:
Mushrooms have been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. And now we have modern science to explain the effects of these incredible mushrooms which, depending on the species, can boost, redirect or modulate our immune activity.
My favorite is maitake, also called “hen of the woods” or “chicken of the woods”. Not only do they make delicious tacos, but they can increase Th1 cytokines, which help boost the cellular immune response when fighting bacterial infections.
I too am a fan of shiitake mushrooms. Studies show a pattern of immune-boosting benefits, such as an increase in cytotoxic NK and T cells – both of which are beneficial in defeating viruses and cancer cells.
Finally, there’s reishi mushroom, which has been shown in several studies to increase the Th1 cytokine response and help make chemotherapeutic drugs more effective. Additionally, reishi extracts promote the immune response against certain strains of the herpes virus.
Reishi mushrooms have a hard outer shell that makes them inedible, so capsules are the most convenient form.
Ginger has several strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The spicy, aromatic root contains compounds called gingerols, which show promise in preventing cardiovascular disease by reducing oxidative stress in blood vessels, as well as inflammation in the heart region.
Studies reveal that ginger extract can help prevent alcohol-induced liver disease and can also block kidney damage created by chemotherapy drugs.
I often recommend ginger to patients who experience nausea, bloating, and other gastrointestinal issues due to imbalances in their microbiome. You can stir fresh ginger into savory dishes, smoothies and ginger tea, or take a bottle of ginger (found in many juice bars and cafes) to drink plain or diluted in water.
3. Broccoli sprouts
Recently, much attention has been focused on broccoli sprouts, a potent source of one of the most immune-boosting biochemicals: sulforaphane.
On its own, sulforaphane has been shown to increase levels of several antioxidant compounds by inducing a compound in our cells called NRF-2. This is sometimes called the “master regulator” of antioxidants, meaning it helps increase the production of other antioxidants.
NRF-2 may play a role in reducing inflammation seen in many diseases such as cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and liver disease.
Most cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower and broccoli, contain high amounts of glucoraphanin, which converts to sulforaphane during digestion. However, young broccoli shoots contain between 10 and 100 times more sulforaphane than mature broccoli!
Broccoli sprouts are best eaten raw – for example, in salads – because the sulforaphane is easily broken down by cooking. I always aim to eat two ounces of broccoli sprouts a week.
Not only does garlic make everything more delicious, but this pungent vegetable contains multiple compounds that regulate the immune system.
Garlic studies show that it is immunostimulant – increasing the activity of NK cells, a type of immune cell that contains granules containing enzymes that can kill tumor cells or virus-infected cells.
At the same time, garlic is anti-inflammatory and may be cardioprotective by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.
It is also fabulous for fortifying our gut, for several reasons:
You can incorporate garlic into almost any recipe – so use it whenever you can – and you can also find it in supplement form if you’re not a fan of the taste.
If I had to pick one culinary compound from nature’s apothecary for its immune-supporting effects, I’d go with turmeric root.
The bright yellow-orange root contains a magical compound called curcumin, which has many key benefits:
Turmeric is an excellent spice to use in cooking, although it gives a bright yellow tint to the skin, tongue and teeth. And, since it is not well absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract, you will need to eat large amounts of it to achieve immune modulating effects.
Given this, curcumin supplements are the best way to get this beneficial compound. Dosages vary according to need. For general health, I recommend about 1,000 milligrams a day in divided doses.
Dr. Heather Moday is a board-certified allergist, immunologist and functional medicine physician. She is also the author of “The Immunotype Breakthrough: Your Personalized Plan to Balance Your Immune System, Optimize Your Health, and Build Your Lifelong Resilience.” Follow her on Instagram @theimmunityMD and Facebook.