As the days grow shorter and temperatures drop, the familiar resurgence of all sorts of illnesses begins, meaning that fortifying your immune system is an absolute must. To avoid any scrambling when sickness does inevitably come knocking at your door, prepare your pantry with a few key staples now. This way, you’ll have a number of nature’s best immunity supporters at your fingertips when you need to shore up defenses against whatever the winter wind blows your way. Here’s the all-star lineup of foods and supplements to stock up on now.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Brittany Michels, M.S., R.D.N., C.P.T., is a registered dietitian and a nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe. Karen Cooney, C.N., C.H.H.C., is a certified nutritionist, also with The Vitamin Shoppe.
Top Foods for Immune Health
As the saying goes, “you are what you eat”—and we know that a nutritious, whole foods-based diet contributes to a healthy gut microbiome, which is linked to a stronger immune response. Fill your cart with these power-player foods to keep your body’s defense game in tip-top shape.
1. Yogurt and Kefir
Probiotics, gut-friendly microbes that help support gut lining integrity and immune function, are abundant in fermented and cultured foods such as yogurt and kefir. Probiotics play a role in immunity in several ways, including enhancing mucosal barrier function, protecting against the effects of pathogens, supporting immunomodulating functions, and aiding in the absorption of nutrients, such as vitamin C.
“Some strains of probiotics, in particular, have been linked to immune cell activation and may influence respiratory health,” says dietitian Brittany Michels, M.S., R.D.N., C.P.T., a nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe. “Lactobacillus casei, for example, is one such strain that’s been found to decrease certain less-than-ideal immune markers and support respiratory function.”
Kefir, in particular, is one of the richest dietary sources of probiotics out there—and regularly consuming it has been associated with improved digestion, a more balanced allergy response, healthy blood pressure, and a healthy inflammatory response. Kefir, along with yogurt, is also widely available, inexpensive, and even relatively easy to make at home. Choose plain unsweetened yogurt or kefir for the greatest positive impact. Aside from cultured dairy products, other ways to up your probiotic intake include eating sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha.
2. Citrus Fruits
Citrus fruits, including oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, and lemons, are vitamin C powerhouses that help ramp up the production of pathogen-fighting white blood cells—and should be a regular part of your rotation during the seasons of sickness.
“Low levels of vitamin C impair the immune system and increase both respiratory infection and allergy risk,” explains Michels. “Vitamin C can also help prevent histamine formation, helping to support comfort during seasons that may leave you sniffly and sneezy.”
Studies suggest that consuming foods high in vitamin C may help to shorten the severity and duration of illnesses (including colds) and lower the risk of certain infections. Additionally, vitamin C supports the integrity of the gut lining, where antibodies are made, and assists in maintaining healthy skin and a strong cardiovascular system, too.
Other vitamin C-rich foods to focus on include cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, red cabbage, and cauliflower), bell peppers, berries, papaya, guava, cantaloupe, tomatoes, and kiwi.
In addition to being great sources of vitamin C, berries (including strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries) are also full of polyphenols and fiber that facilitate a healthy digestive tract and support the immune system. If you can’t find fresh berries after the summer months, look for frozen berries instead; they’re typically less expensive but just as nutritious.
4. Garlic and Onions
Garlic is a potent plant (hence its taste and smell) that contains a pathogen-fighting compound called allicin and other compounds that promote immune function.
Much like garlic, onions are full of antioxidants such as flavonoids and phenolic compounds that fight oxidative stress and generally support a healthy gut microbiome and immune system. (It’s no wonder you’ll find plenty of garlic and onions in the Mediterranean diet, which is associated with improved overall health and a reduced risk of chronic inflammation and many diseases!) Use garlic and onions generously in soups, sauces, and stir-fries all winter long.
Another way to add garlic to your immunity arsenal? Try garlic honey. Fermented mixtures of garlic and raw honey have a long history in traditional folk medicine, specifically for supporting the body through coughs, colds, sore throats, nasal congestion, and the like. Raw honey contains antimicrobial properties, and fermented garlic is thought to have even more potent antimicrobial and antibacterial properties than the raw stuff, suggests The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Karen Cooney, C.N., C.H.H.C.
Here’s how to DIY fermented garlic honey at home with a head of garlic and some raw, local honey:
- Place your garlic into your jar and cover with the raw honey.
- Screw the lid on the jar and let it rest on your counter for three days. The honey will absorb some of the beneficial properties of the garlic.
- From there, store your jar in the refrigerator to keep it fresh. Ideally, use it within several months.
5. Leafy Greens
Consuming lots of fruits and veggies is known to benefit many physiological functions, including immune defenses, Leafy greens (such as spinach, kale, bok choy, wintercress, and others) are among the best options because they provide an array of antioxidants, vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin K, folate, calcium, magnesium, and more, according to Cooney and Michels.
In particular, the beta-carotene found in greens supports immune cell division and the synthesis of antibodies. Greens are also loaded with fiber, helping to feed healthy microbes in the gut and ward off inflammation. Both Cooney and Michels suggest adding greens to your diet often by tossing them into salads, pasta, soups, and omelets.
6. Ginger and Turmeric
Turmeric and ginger have been used for centuries in traditional medicine systems to help the body fight off foreign invaders. According to Cooney, these spices have natural antioxidant properties that are known to promote gut health and healthy digestion, such as by relieving nausea.
The compound called gingerol found in fresh ginger root can help balance immunity-hampering inflammation, in addition to helping ease indigestion. Ginger is also known for its soothing effect on sore throats and upset stomachs.
Similarly, turmeric is rich in a compound called curcumin that has potent antioxidant effects that support immune function and help the body bounce back more quickly. According to Cooney, turmeric is also supportive for respiratory health and energy, in addition to general well-being and gut support.
7. Fire Cider
A traditional herbal folk remedy, fire cider has been making a comeback in recent years. It’s made with a blend of apple cider vinegar and various herbs, vegetables, spices, and honey—such as garlic, onion, ginger, horseradish, hot peppers, turmeric, rosemary, and lemon. The fiery combination creates a tonic that’s long been taken in small amounts to support digestion and gut health, and provide anti-inflammatory benefits.
While there hasn’t been extensive research that has proven the effects of fire cider, it’s traditionally been used to help people battle cold and flu symptoms. Apple cider vinegar, the main ingredient in fire cider, has been shown to possess antioxidant and antimicrobial properties due to its phenolic compounds and acidity. Other ingredients in fire cider, such as turmeric and garlic, are also full of antioxidants that can generally support the gut and immune system.
Fire cider is relatively easy to make at home, though you may be able to find it pre-made at certain natural food stores or farmer’s markets. If DIYing it, feel free to customize it to your liking by adding more or less spicy or sweet ingredients.
Best Supplements to Support Your Immune System
In addition to incorporating immune-boosting foods into your diet, supplements can help provide an extra layer of defense. Make sure your pantry is stocked with the following lineup.
1. Vitamin D
Michels explains: “Vitamin D has multiple effects on cells within the immune system, including B cells, dendritic cells, monocytes, and T cells. It’s considered a regulator of both instinctive and adaptive immune responses.” Additionally, vitamin D can help support mental health during the darker months of the year, too.
Read More: 7 Signs You Have A Vitamin D Deficiency
Dosage recommendations of vitamin D vary depending on factors including your health status and current levels. “If you’ve never had your blood level checked, consider requesting it at your next doctor’s visit,” suggests Michels. “If it falls below 50ng/mL, consider supplementation.”
2. Vitamin C
While vitamin C can be obtained from various fruits and vegetables, adding a vitamin C supplement to your routine is an easy way to further boost your intake during the months when fresh produce may be less available but the need for C is high. A supplement can be particularly handy if you have increased needs due to malabsorption or other medical conditions.
Zinc is involved in various aspects of immune function, including the production of new immune system cells. It also helps keep oxidative stress in check. Cooney recommends taking a quality, daily multivitamin to ensure you’re solid in the zinc department throughout the winter. When you’re feeling under the weather, consider upping your zinc intake. Research suggests you can take up to 80 or 90 milligrams for a short time to support your body against the heightened stressor.
These “gut-friendly” microbes help maintain a balanced microbiome in the gut, which is where the majority of your immune system is located. Consuming probiotic supplements may help counteract the effects of some pathogens and help your body mount a healthy defense when needed, according to Michels.
Elderberry is a time-honored remedy for promoting healthy immunity that goes back centuries. (It’s perhaps best known for its use in European folk medicine.) Cooney is a fan of elderberry supplements, such as elderberry syrups, which contain antioxidants and vitamins that can help your body respond to and recover from illnesses-related symptoms. That said, it’s not recommended for people with autoimmune conditions or pregnant and nursing women.
Similar to elderberry, echinacea is an herb that’s been used for centuries. Today, it’s most commonly used to help the immune system do its thing when the going gets tough. Studies suggest it has antioxidant and other beneficial properties that make it a must-have in the colder months.
7. Garlic Extract
Remember all those perks of garlic we covered earlier? Garlic supplements can be a convenient way to benefit from allicin and other immune-boosting compounds found in garlic.
8. Functional Mushrooms
Certain “functional mushrooms,” such as shiitake and reishi, possess immune-promoting compounds that generally support the body’s defenses while helping to maintain homeostasis (a.k.a. “balance”), research suggests.
The Immunity Big Picture
Nourishing and supporting your body with the right foods and supplements can make a world of difference this time of year. However, all of the different elements of your lifestyle also either promote or undermine your immune health. That’s why Cooney recommends limiting alcohol and ultra-processed foods, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep (seven hours, minimum, folks!), and hydrating with plenty of clean water, herbal tea, or bone broth. Combine these with good ol’ hand-washing and other hygiene practices and you’ll be in good shape!