Boosting Your Immune System

By Ruth Ann Clayton, RD

Nature gave you a marvelous gift, your immune system.  Yes, from that first minute on earth you have an innate system of skin, mucosal membranes and the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) standing as an army ready to react to invaders.  Your also have an adaptive or acquired immune system gained from immune cells coming into contact with invaders and producing antibodies.  This two layered “immune system army” detects invaders (antigens) sending out soldiers (white blood cell) and chemicals (cytokines) on a search and destroy mission.

The main organs supporting the immune system are the bone marrow and the thymus.  Bone marrow makes stem cells that become white blood cells (T-cells and B-cells).  T-cells are sent to the thymus to mature into specialized T-cells.  This army of B-cells & T-cells communicates with other soldiers such as killer cells, helper cells and suppressors cells.  Supporting this army are the lymph system, tonsils, spleen, appendix and GI tract, working with the nervous system and brain.  This means your sophisticated immune system is everywhere in your body.

When this system falters you become susceptible to infections, colds, flu, cancer and many other ills.  But what causes it to falter?

Causes are complicated and multifaceted and therefore difficult to isolate.  They can include poor diet, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, environmental toxins, stress, smoking, pesticides, corticosteroids, aging, and radiation to name a few.

Can you do anything about a compromised immune system?  ABSOLUTELY!!!

Diet comes first.  Skipping breakfast and, eating a burger and fries for lunch do not facilitate a healthy immune system.  A poor diet robs your army of its defenses by lowering white blood cells and reducing immune health.

Didn’t your mother tell you to eat your vegetables?  Those bright colorful vegetables and fruits were placed on this earth for a reason.  Adding colorful antioxidant fruits, cruciferous and green leafy vegetables, lean meats (especially cold water fish), whole grains, and medicinal mushrooms are great beginnings to improving your diet.  In short, the choices you make about what you eat may make the difference.

Although by no means complete, here is a list of nutrients that may be helpful in facilitating the body’s ability to promote wellness or heal itself if you get sick.

Researchers have found that when vitamin and mineral levels in the blood drop you may be more prone to illness. Adding high-quality supplements to a wholesome diet may boost your immune function and offer protection.  Some key immune support vitamins and minerals backed by science are vitamins A, B, C, D, and E, and minerals zinc, copper, selenium and iron. 

 Vitamin A and beta-carotene are potent antioxidants needed for a strong immune system of both T-cells and B-cells and healthy mucous membranes.

 B Vitamins are critical for numerous enzyme functions in the body, assisting in making antibodies.  A deficiency of B’s can depress the immune system.  Without B6 for example, your antibodies would diminish.  B vitamins are best taken together.

 Vitamin C may be at sub optimal levels of in your diet.  This vitamin stimulates white blood cells to combat oxidative stress.

Vitamin D is recognized for encouraging macrophage activity.  These macrophages are white blood cells that seek out and consume microorganisms.

 Vitamin E is best know for its antioxidant value greatly helping immunity by boosting production of T-cells.

Vitamins can, in proper amounts, be a welcome addition to improve immunity.  Caution should be taken when using mega doses of any vitamins without direction from your physician.

Minerals play an important role in keeping your immune system healthy.  Once again a poor diet can be the culprit.  Zinc is the only mineral to play a crucial role in every component of your immune system.  Over 300 enzymes in the body need zinc, but many people consume less than the Recommended Dietary Allowance for zinc daily. Zinc must be balanced with copper in the body, thus a copper deficiency may lead to reduced resistance to infection.   Selenium is another mineral linked to healthy immune function.  Deficiencies of selenium can lead to impaired production of antibodies.  Iron is essential for white blood cells but should be supplemented only after diagnosis of deficiency and consultation with a physician as to the cause of the deficiency.

Many botanicals have traditionally been used as effective immunity boosters.  Ashwaganda, astragalus, cats claw, Echinacea, elderberry, ginseng, eluthero, ginger, goldenseal, green tea, garlic, licorice, oil of oregano, olive leaf extract and grapefruit seed extract are commonly used.  Detailed information on who should and should not take any of these individual botanicals is available at your local health food store.  Some botanicals may not be appropriate for you so use your health food store’s resources to educate yourself.

The list of natural products with science and traditional use as immune enhancing properties is extensive.  Others include Coenzyme Q 10 a helper in building T-cells, probiotics for GI tract health, and plant sterols and sterolins for balancing the immune system.  Others include medicinal mushrooms containing polysaccharides believed to stimulate immunity, beta 1,3 glucan also a polysaccharide found in grains, immunoglobulins found in colostrum, alpha lipoic acid a water and fat soluble antioxidant, and omega 3 fatty acids which may be beneficial for increasing immune cells.

If you enjoy good health, thank your immune army.  Whether you are healthy or ailing you must support your immune army daily for it to do its best work.  Whatever your age, proper nutrition, exercise, rest and stress reduction can boost your immune army to prevent or minimize disease-causing invaders from taking hold. Fortunately you can choose from many natural nutrients and supplements to help ensure maximum protection.


 NOTE:  Persons with autoimmune diseases (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, HIV, Aids, etc.) should only use natural products that modulate or balance but do not boost the immune system.  Persons undergoing cancer treatments such as chemotherapy should consult their physician before taking supplements.

This information has not been approved by the FDA and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.

To learn more about boosting your immune system check out this article.