When it comes to helping your immune system — and your overall health — the basic equation is simple:
Try to reduce your intake of what works against you, such as unhealthy foods and toxins…
And try to increase your intake of what works for you, such as clean water and healthy foods.
Below you’ll find 18 of the top foods that fulfill on that second part of the equation.
Simply put, you can’t go wrong ensuring you have plenty of these foods in your diet!
What Makes a Food Particularly Helpful for Immunity?
Food contains the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients your immune system needs to function correctly. By zeroing in on the right kinds of food, you help your body get ready to defend itself against incoming pathogens.
Zinc, selenium, and iron are three minerals important to immune health. Vitamin A, vitamin E, and folate (vitamin B9) also offer support and have some anti-infection power.
Besides these specific vitamins and minerals, focusing on high-antioxidant foods will help your overall health and your immune system.
Certain plant foods — herbs and spices perhaps most notably — also have special compounds that may fight infections and help enhance immune function.
For the most positive effect, fill your diet with a variety of the following foods to “feed” your immune system the many nutrients, antioxidants, etc. it needs.
The Best Foods for a Healthy Immune System
Colored Bell Peppers (Especially Red Ones)
You might expect citrus fruit to be at the top of the list for vitamin C content, but peppers actually beat them out.
All colored bell peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C. For example, a medium red pepper has about 152 mg of vitamin C, and a large yellow one has around 342 mg. For reference, the recommended daily intake (RDI) is 75 mg for women and 90 mg for men.
Along with vitamin C, colored peppers also contain beta carotene. Beta carotene is a powerful antioxidant and precursor to vitamin A, another immune supporter.
Citrus is one of the most familiar vitamin C foods and one of the best for immune health. The great thing about citrus is that you can juice the fruit to get extra C, although you will miss out on some fiber if you do.
It’s hard to go wrong with any citrus, but oranges are definitely one top choice. A medium orange has nearly 83 mg of vitamin C, which is close to the RDI.
Grapefruit, tangerines, and clementines are also good options for eating whole. Lemons and limes make a refreshing high C drink that can be taken with honey if you’ve already caught a scratchy throat.
Few of the best foods for immune health are more potent than garlic. It has a pungent, spicy flavor and contains allicin and other sulfur compounds that strongly support immune function.
Research shows that these compounds mauy boost the response of certain types of white blood cells, particularly in response to viruses. This means that garlic may not only help reduce your risk of sickness, it may also shorten the duration of a cold or flu.
To get the most out of garlic for immune health, either eat it raw or chop it and let it rest for 10 minutes before gently cooking. Both of these methods help maximize the immune-support power of the allicin.
Onions contain some of the same sulfur compounds as garlic, including allicin. They are also loaded with unique antioxidants that support overall health and immune function. One specific example is quercetin, which has shown antiviral properties and an ability to help immunity.
Just like with garlic, onions are best eaten raw and chewed well, or chopped and then gently cooked, to maximize the allicin and other nutrients.
Traditional medicine has recognized ginger as one of the best foods for healthy immunity for hundreds of years.
Most notably, ginger has powerful antimicrobial properties (particularly antiviral) that may counteract certain types of respiratory infections. It’s also full of antioxidants and potent compounds, like gingerol, that may have an anti-inflammatory effect and enhance immune response.
For the most benefit, use fresh ginger root rather than dried.
Cruciferous vegetables in general are filled with immune-supportive nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A, selenium, and folate. Broccoli, especially, is a superstar with almost 70 mg of vitamin C per a one cup serving and plenty of antioxidants.
In addition to nutrients, broccoli also contains a type of compound known as glucosinolates. Glucosinolates have antiviral and antibacterial properties when they get broken down. They also support immune function and potentially fight off cancer.
To keep these key nutrients and compounds intact, steaming may be the best way to cook and consume broccoli.
Kiwi is another vitamin C powerhouse with just one fruit packing in about 71 mg. Studies have even shown that eating kiwi when you are low on vitamin C can help escalate the amount of the vitamin in your blood to an optimal level.
Kiwi fruits are also full of many other essential nutrients, including potassium, folate, magnesium, vitamin K, and vitamin A. Just eating one or two a day offers a lot of support to your immune system and may even help prevent or shorten the symptoms of respiratory infections.
Turmeric has received a lot of attention for its anti-inflammatory properties, but it’s also one of the best foods for healthy immunity.
More specifically, the plant compound curcumin found in this bright orange root has demonstrated immune-beneficial properties. It even has promise as an antiviral and antibacterial compound to help your body fight off infection.
Probiotics aren’t just for your digestive tract. They have also been shown to support immune function and potentially lessen the risk of certain infections, including respiratory illnesses.
There’s even evidence that probiotics promote the production of antibodies and important immune cells, which can strengthen your overall immunity. Of course, gut health is also directly connected to immune health, so getting your digestion in order will help your immune system, too.
Probiotic foods like kimchi and sauerkraut are excellent sources of beneficial bacteria. For some extra power, try adding in a quality probiotic supplement.
Eating a wide range of berries is a quick way to get a vitamin C and antioxidant boost.
Many types of berries, including blueberries — the original superfood — contain a specific group of antioxidants known as flavonoids. Flavonoids support a healthy immune system and seem to have a special link to respiratory health. Some research indicates that consuming more flavonoids may help prevent upper respiratory infections.
For the most nutrients, consume a wide range of berries, either fresh or frozen.
One specific berry deserves some special attention when it comes to immune support. Elderberries have been well-researched as one of the top foods for a healthy immune system.
Not only does the humble elderberry contain a great amount of vitamin C and antioxidants, it may also possess powerful antiviral properties. It seems to be especially effective against the flu, but may also shorten the length of a cold.
Elderberry has also shown general immune-beneficial properties, which means you can use it as a protective food – not just after you get sick.
Green tea is known for its especially high antioxidant content, particularly a specific and powerful antioxidant known as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG).
Research has shown that EGCG can be very helpful for healthy immunity — among many other benefits. It also has antiviral and antifungal properties, which could make it helpful against certain types of infections.
Consuming green tea or matcha daily is your best bet for immune support from tea. However, black tea does have less potent immune-beneficial effects because of the presence of flavonoids.
Papaya is a nutrient powerhouse.
When it comes to immune health, just one small papaya gets you over the RDI of vitamin C (about 95 mg). That same serving also has a good amount of folate, vitamin A, and potassium. Plus, papaya contains the beneficial carotenoids beta carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
On top of all that, papayas also contain the digestive enzyme papain, which benefits gut health and offers immune support.
Almonds are one of the best foods for healthy immunity because of their excellent vitamin E content. Just a half-cup serving gets you about 100% of the RDI for vitamin E.
While vitamin C is often highlighted as the nutrient of choice for immune support, vitamin E is nearly as powerful. It’s another antioxidant vitamin that is critical for immune function and can even help your body fight off an infection.
Vitamin E is best absorbed by your body when paired with a healthy fat — which almonds happen to have in abundance!
Like almonds, sunflower seeds are rich in immune-supporting vitamin E. Just a quarter-cup serving contains about 12 mg of vitamin E, which is nearly at the RDI of 15 mg.
Sunflower seeds are also a great source of selenium, a little-discussed mineral. Selenium is very important for preventing infections and has a stimulating effect on your immune system. It may even help combat viral infections like the flu.
The RDI for selenium is 55 micrograms for adults, and a half-cup serving of sunflower seeds gets you about 37 micrograms.
There are many reasons to eat more spinach and immune support is one of them.
This leafy green is filled with vitamin C, vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene), folate, and antioxidants. It specifically contains carotenoids and flavonoids, two types of antioxidants that are beneficial for immune health.
For the maximum vitamin C benefits, eat your spinach raw in a salad. Or to improve vitamin A absorption, lightly steam or cook it.
Pumpkin and Sweet Potatoes
Orange vegetables like pumpkin and sweet potatoes are rich in beta carotene, the antioxidant immune supporter. They also contain other essential nutrients like moderate amounts of vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, iron, and calcium.
Along with providing immunity support, vitamin A also supports your vision and may help protect your skin from UV damage.
As a bonus, both pumpkin and sweet potatoes are healthy carbohydrate choices for the fall and winter months — exactly when your immune system usually needs some extra support.
Certain herbs deserve a place on the list of best foods for healthy immunity. Fact is, they are some of the oldest natural immune supporters on record, and many are now supported by research.
Echinacea is one such herb that has antiviral properties and may be particularly effective against the flu.
Astragalus is an adaptogenic herb long used in traditional Chinese medicine. It is often used to help immunity, and preliminary studies show it may, indeed, be excellent for immune support. The dried root is traditionally taken by simmering it in water — either as a tea or broth.
Medicinal mushrooms have many amazing properties. Some particular varieties, such as turkey tail and chaga, are especially powerful for immune health. They contain plant compounds (mainly polysaccharides) and lots of antioxidants that support immune health.
Help Your Immune System Naturally
Now that you know 18 of nature’s best foods for healthy immunity, fill your diet with a range of them regularly for the greatest effect.
And remember, it is always wise to try to choose USDA Certified Organic fruits and vegetables. Again, in addition to increasing the foods that work for you, you want to reduce what works against you, and pesticides on produce can certainly fall into that latter category.
Finally, for extra support, you may want to consider adding in high quality supplements in areas where you may be challenged in getting the nutrients from food alone.
For example, many people today can benefit from a high-quality vitamin D supplement, and I encourage you to read this vitamin D article next for clarity on that.