When it comes to your immune health, there are a multitude of vitamins and supplements that may contribute to a strong and healthy immune system.
Your immune system works hard to protect your body from pathogens, and it is made up of many different cells, organs, and proteins that all work together as your first line of defense.
Your immune system is made up of two main parts:
- Your innate immune system, which is what you are born with
- Your adaptive immune system, which is the part of your immune system that you develop when your body gets exposed to microbes or certain chemicals that are released by microbes
There are plenty of ways that you can work to support your immune system health.
One way is to eat healthy, well-balanced meals with a variety of essential nutrients. That said, there are a few specific vitamins and minerals that may be especially beneficial when it comes to immune health.
This is your guide to 9 of the best vitamins to boost your immune system health, and how to know if your diet might be lacking one of them.
1. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is also commonly referred to as ascorbic acid, and it is a water soluble vitamin that is best if taken on an empty stomach.
Your body cannot produce vitamin C on its own, which is why it is so important to make sure you are getting sufficient amounts of this vitamin either from your diet or from dietary supplements.
Foods that have a high vitamin C content include:
- Red pepper
- Oranges and orange juice
- Grapefruits and grapefruit juice
- Tomatoes and tomato juice
Aside from immune health, vitamin C also works to synthesize collagen in your body, and works towards protein metabolism as well. While a vitamin C deficiency is rare, there are some risk factors that may increase your likelihood of a deficiency.
2. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning that supplements of this vitamin are best if taken with food, specifically a fat source. It acts as an antioxidant in your body, and may have benefits against free radicals that can cause damage to your cells.
Vitamin E also works to support a healthy immune system while also supporting cardiovascular function.
You can vitamin E in a variety of foods, such as the following:
- Wheat germ
- Sunflower, safflower, and soybean oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Peanuts and peanut butter
- Beet greens, collard greens, and spinach
- Red bell pepper
Vitamin E deficiencies are rare since this vitamin is found in such a wide variety of foods, but certain digestive disorders and malabsorption are two risk factors that may make a deficiency more likely.
Signs of a vitamin E deficiency include:
- Retinopathy, or damage to your retina which can impair your vision overall
- Peripheral neuropathy, which is damage to the peripheral nerves, thus causing weakness or pain -- this most often happens in the hands and feet.
- Loss of control over your body movements
- Decreased immune function, which may be characterized by frequent illness
3. Vitamin A
Vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin that helps regulate your vision, support a healthy immune system, and maintain your reproductive organs. It can be found in a wide variety of foods, and thus a vitamin A deficiency is considered rare.
Vitamin A can be found in:
- Beef liver and other organ meats
- Some types of fish, including salmon
- Leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale
- Green, orange, and yellow vegetables, including broccoli, carrots, and squash
- Some fruits, including cantaloupe, apricots, and mangoes
- Dairy products, which are specifically recognized as one of the best sources of vitamin A
- Fortified breakfast cereals and other fortified foods
Premature infants, young children, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding are all at a higher risk of developing a vitamin A deficiency.
Vitamin A supplements may interact with certain medications, so it is always important to inform your doctor before you start taking any medications.
A good rule of thumb in general is to consult your doctor before starting to take any new vitamins and supplements that you have not taken before. Because your doctor is familiar with your medical history, this can better assess your individual needs and situation.
4. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is another fat soluble vitamin that works to support calcium absorption, bone growth and mineralization, and immune health.
When it comes to immune health, vitamin D has beneficial effects on the cells within your immune system. Vitamin D can be found in food sources like fatty fish and dairy products, but food sources of this vitamin are very limited.
Aside from food, your body also produces vitamin D when the sun’s ultraviolet rays hit your skin and trigger the synthesis of vitamin D. That said, vitamin D deficiency may be more common than you think, and this may be especially true for people who live in cloudy climates or who do not consume enough food sources of vitamin D, such as people on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
If you suspect that you have a vitamin D deficiency, it is important to consult your doctor, as a deficiency of this vitamin can take a toll on more than just your immune system. Because vitamin D is also important when it comes to the way that your body absorbs and uses calcium, a vitamin D deficiency can also wreak havoc on your bone health.
Vitamin D deficiency treatment usually entails a vitamin D supplement, but you should talk to your doctor to confirm that these supplements are necessary before you start taking them, because fat soluble vitamins do have the potential to build up to toxic levels in your body when taken excessively.
5. Folate/Folic Acid
Folate, also known as folic acid, is one of the B vitamins-specifically vitamin B9. Like the rest of the B vitamins, folate is a water soluble vitamin which means that supplements of this nutrient may be best absorbed if taken on an empty stomach.
Folate is important because it contributes to the synthesis of nucleic acids as well as the metabolism of amino acids, and it is a critical part of immune health because folate deficiency in humans has been linked to a decreased immune response to certain mitogens.
A folate deficiency may cause your immune system to be weakened and thus less resistant to infections and illnesses.
Folate can be found in a wide variety of foods, including the following:
- Kidney beans
- White rice
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Beef liver
- Enriched spaghetti
- Some seafood, including crab and halibut
- Ground beef
- Chicken breast
An isolated folate deficiency is fairly uncommon, but a folate deficiency that appears alongside other nutrient deficiencies is. This is because folate deficiencies are strongly associated with malabsorption, poor diet, and alcoholism, which are all contributing factors to poor nutrition as a whole.
If you suspect that you have a folate deficiency, it is important to consult your doctor and inquire about whether further supplementation may be in order.
Iron is another essential nutrient for your overall health and well-being because it helps you maintain a healthy blood flow.
This is because iron is one major component of hemoglobin, which is one type of protein in red blood cells that work to carry oxygen from your lungs to the various parts of your body. If there is insufficient iron in your body, you may not have enough red blood cells to transport oxygen adequately.
Aside from hemoglobin, iron is also a major component of myoglobin, and this protein works to carry and store oxygen in your muscle tissues specifically. The iron that can be found in food comes in two main forms, known as heme iron and non-heme iron.
Heme is found only in animal flesh foods such as meat, poultry, and seafood, while non-heme iron can be found in plant foods such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and green leafy vegetables.
The recommended daily intake for iron varies between men and women, with women needing more iron than men. This is because iron is lost through blood loss during menstruation, thus making it easier for women to become iron deficient.
Pregnant women may need even more iron than non-pregnant women, because the rapid growth of a pregnant woman’s fetus requires extra blood circulation during the pregnancy.
Iron deficiency is commonly referred to as the most common nutritional deficiency, and children, women who are menstruating or women who are pregnant, and those eating a diet that lacks sufficient iron are most likely to end up with an iron deficiency.
Symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sensitivity to cold
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
- Pale skin
- Hair loss
- Brittle nails
- Cravings for non-food items such as dirt, clay, or ice
An iron deficiency can be treated with the use of iron supplements, usually of up to 100–200 mg of iron per day.
Selenium is a trace mineral, and although your body only needs small amounts of it, it is an essential part of your overall health.
Selenium is an important component of certain enzymes and proteins, which are called selenoproteins, and these work to help make your DNA as well as protect you against cell damage.
Selenoproteins are also involved in reproduction as well as the metabolism of your thyroid hormones. Most of the selenium in your body is stored in your muscle tissues, but your thyroid glands hold the most concentrated selenium since various selenoproteins work to support your thyroid function.
Selenium can be found in a variety of foods, including
- Brazil nuts
- Shellfish and fin fish
- Beef, turkey, and chicken
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Whole wheat bread
- Beans and lentils
While a selenium deficiency is rare, it is possible, and signs of a deficiency include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Altered mental state, such as confusion
Like other nutrient deficiencies, a selenium deficiency may be treated through the use of selenium supplements, and these may offer benefits when it comes to immune health, hair and nail health, and thyroid health.
Zinc is most commonly recognized for its abilities to support your immune system and support a healthy metabolism, and it also contributes to your body’s ability to heal wounds and your ability to taste and smell.
People who make sure to eat a variety of foods generally get enough zinc from their diet alone, and zinc can be found in foods like chicken, red meat, and fortified breakfast cereals.
Studies have shown that zinc has soothing and antioxidant properties, and zinc deficiencies have been linked to severe immune dysfunctions even to the extent of death due to intercurrent infections.
Evidence also suggests that using zinc lozenges or zinc syrup within the first 24 hours after symptoms of the common cold begin may help shorten the duration of your cold symptoms, but you should always consult your doctor before trying out any form of supplements.
Zinc deficiencies are not common, but if a deficiency does occur it can be treated with the use of dietary zinc supplements, and if supplementation is necessary your doctor will be able to offer you guidance when it comes to proper usage and dosing.
9. B Complex Vitamins
The vitamin B complex consists of all of the B vitamins, all of which are water soluble and thus are not stored in your body.
The B vitamins are as follows:
- B1: Thiamin
- B2: Riboflavin
- B3: Niacin
- B5: Pantothenic Acid
- B6: Pyridoxine
- B9: Folic acid, also known as folate
- B12: Cobalamin
Aside from these vitamins, biotin, choline, inositol, and para-aminobenzoic acid are all also commonly included in the B complex.
All of the B vitamins are closely related and they all work together to perform various functions in your body, which is why it is critical for you to make sure you are getting sufficient amounts of each one.
Because there are so many vitamins included in the B complex, the B complex impacts your immune system and overall health in a few different ways. Vitamins B6, B9, and B12 are all thought to work together to help with the production of certain proteins and DNA that is relevant to your immune system, and B vitamins as a whole are believed to be associated with improving your immune system’s response.
Additionally, deficiencies of any B vitamins can take a toll on your health and can weaken your immune system. Being deficient in vitamin B1, for example, may be linked to an increased risk of developing certain parasitic infections, and deficits of vitamin B6 have been shown to have a negative impact on the cellular immunity specifically of older adults who are otherwise healthy.
Like with other nutrient deficiencies, any deficiency of a B vitamin will likely be treated through the use of a supplement for the vitamin or vitamins in question.
If you suspect that you are experiencing a deficiency of one or several B vitamins, you should consult your doctor to confirm this so that you can start taking the appropriate supplements in order to properly nourish your body and stay healthy.
The Bottom Line
Vitamins C, A, E, and D, are a few key vitamins that work to support your immune health in various ways, and the vitamin B complex, too, incorporates all of the B vitamins which work hand in hand to make sure your immune system stays strong and healthy.
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