Bring on the superfoods! The value of nutrition as a cornerstone to health is garnering more and more attention. So is looking to our diets with a “food as medicine” perspective— and no nutritive approach is more popular right now than using antioxidant rich foods to boost the immune system. There are lots of reasons why a food could be called a “superfood.” It could help support heart health, gut health, contain a very wide spectrum of nutrients, or maybe even be considered a “brain booster.” So, why are antioxidants and improved immune health at the top of the list? Some bodily systems, as it turns out, can be considered “foundational” to the rest of health. If you take care of that system, it takes care of the rest. No system does this job better than the immune system! This is because immunity is tied into the health and protection of all other systems and organs: skin, brain, muscles, and even eyesight. That’s right: if you take care of your immune system, it takes care of all these and is the most holistic way to take care of you.
What is the immune system – and why take care of it?
Every country has an army or military reserve: something that activates to attack and defend borders when the country comes under threat. Our bodies have this same ability, too, and this is precisely what our immune systems do for us. In fact, our immune systems can work almost like a computer. They detect and remember any foreign invader— whether it’s a virus, pathogen, allergen, or parasite— and build up antibodies and T-cells programmed to attack that invader each time it comes around. The immune system also mediates inflammation. Immune boosting can also increase your overall energy levels, because a healthier immune system means less inflammation! And finally, when you take care of your immune system, you don’t just improve your body’s ability to fight off sickness and inflammation. You also raise the body’s ability to take care of all the other systems from inflammation as well— and this is where antioxidants come in!
What are antioxidants?
You’ve probably heard the term “antioxidant superfood.” Antioxidants spell out precisely what they do: they are “anti-” (against) oxidation, and they are nutrients (including vitamins and minerals) found in foods or supplements. Yes, our bodies oxidize! And these nutrients help prevent and fight against this. But what is oxidation, and what does it have to do with the immune system? Think of what else oxidizes: such as an apple or an avocado. When you slice these open, they oxidize or go bad. This is a process of degradation that is completely natural, and it takes place within our bodies as well. In fact, it’s all part of the process of aging and getting old, though certain other factors can accelerate oxidation such as poor diet, stress, chemical exposure, and more. When oxidizing happens this also activates our immune system to heal what is oxidizing. This is what causes chronic inflammation. So, when you take in plenty of antioxidants, you help reduce both oxidizing and inflammation in the body! This lowers the burden on your immune system and ensures that it functions in a healthy way, being neither underactive nor overactive.
Which foods boost the immune system?
How do you boost the immune system with food? It’s easy: a good first step is gravitating towards food high in antioxidants. This is a surefire way to know that you’re nutritively taking the best care of your immune system possible. Plant-based foods of all kinds tend to be high in antioxidants, especially the more colorful they are. Dark berries and dark leafy greens tend to also be antioxidant rich. Don’t forget healthy nuts and seeds! These contain omega-3 fatty acids, which themselves are antioxidants and protect against inflammation— and boost the immune system— in their own ways. Try these 10 antioxidant rich foods to boost the immune system:
- Acerola cherry
- Amla (Indian gooseberry)
- Citrus (lemon, orange, etc.)
- Gourmet mushrooms
- Maitake mushroom
- Shiitake mushroom
Nutrients and vitamins that boost the immune system
If you need a little extra antioxidant support on top of foods, it doesn’t hurt to supplement with other nutrients, minerals, and vitamins that boost the immune system as well. Some of these are, in fact, antioxidants themselves as stated earlier in this article. Lots of these are found in the foods listed in the section above as well. That said (and depending on where you source your plant-based foods from), it’s not always guaranteed that you’ll get the optimal antioxidants you need from store-bought foods. If they are grown from GMO seed, certain hybrid seeds, or not grown in a sustainable method that takes care of the soil, it’s quite possible that the fruits, vegetables, and other grown foods are lacking in nutrients. If that’s the case or if it’s a concern, here are some excellent nutrients and antioxidant vitamins that could help make up for it:
- Vitamin A
- B vitamins (especially folate, B9)
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Boost the immune system with supplements and herbs
To give your immune system even more leverage, turn to immune boosting supplements and herbs. For thousands of years these have been used to support the immune system and thereby increase health in the entire body— helping to curb chronic inflammation and restore energy levels as well.
- Adaptogenic mushrooms
- Green tea
- Holy basil
- Lion’s mane
- Turkey tail
One herbal supplement we really love to highlight is elderberry. In some ways, this ancient healing herb could be considered a food, herb, supplement, and nutrient all in one: it is in some ways consumed as a food, but also a common ingredient in herbal supplements and nutrient formulas!
Health benefits of elderberry
The benefits of black elderberry include far more beyond immune boosting. It contains many antioxidants, including vitamin C, but also natural food pigments called “anthocyanins” that are considered some of the most powerful food-based antioxidants out there (and with a lot of research to support its incredible health properties). In fact, these super healthy antioxidant anthocyanins are responsible for elderberry’s signature dark purple to purple-black color! It’s these and the berry’s other antioxidant nutrients that make elderberry such a famous immune builder: both in the world of ancient herbalism and modern day herbalism, but also in today’s vitamin and supplement industry (plus, it has a wonderful flavor too). Health benefits of elderberry include:
- Boosting the immune system
- High in antioxidants
- Supporting digestive health
- Supporting kidney health
- Cold and flu remedy
- Supporting respiratory health
- Helping symptoms of cough
- Helping symptoms of sore throat
- May support asthma symptoms
Uses of elderberry have included the making of teas, delicious sweet syrups, and even sometimes tinctures and extracts in order to experience the elderberry benefits. Fortunately, you can experience the immune boosting and antioxidant rich herb for yourself in tasty and easy-to-use supplement form!