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Immune Health

A healthy immune system is the first line of defense against infection and disease. While getting adequate sleep, managing stress, staying hydrated, exercising regularly, and practicing proper hygiene are effective ways to maintain a healthy immune system, science has proven time and again that nutrients gained through a healthy diet are a critical part of the equation.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide a roadmap to help people meet their nutrient needs by consuming foods containing macronutrients, essential vitamins and minerals, dietary fiber, and other naturally occurring components that may have positive health benefits. The dietary guidelines encourage people to adopt healthy eating patterns comprising fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, seafood, other sources of protein, and healthy oils, and limiting sodium, sugar, and saturated fats.

Inadequate intake of many nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, could compromise immune function.  Following are six vitamins and minerals that help maintain a healthy immune system.

Vitamins and Minerals

What It Does

Sources

Vitamin C

A water-soluble nutrient occurring naturally in fruits and vegetables. Acts as an antioxidant and protects cells from the effects of free radicals. Also helps the immune system work properly to protect the body from disease and helps the body heal.

Citrus fruits, berries, cantaloupe, red and green peppers, broccoli, potatoes, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, and spinach.

Vitamin A

A fat-soluble nutrient occurring naturally in many foods and added to others, such as cereals. Has antioxidant properties, protecting cells from damaging free radicals. Shown to be important for immune system development and function, helping regulate immune responses, and the formation of antibodies against antigen. Carotenoids, such as beta-carotene can be converted into vitamin A by the body.

Spinach, dairy products, liver, and fortified breakfast cereals.

 

Other sources are foods rich in beta-carotene, such as green leafy vegetables, broccoli, carrots, squash, apricots, mangos, and cantaloupe.

Vitamin E

A fat-soluble nutrient with antioxidant properties, found naturally in many foods. Shown to play an important role in the normal functioning and response of the immune system.

Vegetable oils, such as wheat germ, sunflower, soybean, corn, and safflower oils. Nuts, such as almonds, peanuts, and hazelnuts. Sunflower seeds, spinach, and broccoli.

Vitamin D

A fat-soluble nutrient that plays numerous critical roles in the body, most notably building and maintaining strong bones. The immune system requires vitamin D to help modulate immune responses to pathogens ―viruses and bacteria.

Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel. Fortified foods and beverages, such as cereals, milk, and plant-based milks, such as soy milk, almond milk, and oat milk. Liver, cheese, and eggs.

 

Unlike other nutrients, the body can make vitamin D when skin is directly exposed to sunlight.

 

Zinc

An essential mineral necessary for good health. Needed for making proteins, growth and development, wound healing, and to support the immune system.

Red meat, poultry, seafood, such as oysters, crabs and lobsters, fortified breakfast cereals, whole grains, beans, nuts, and dairy products.

Selenium

An essential mineral we seldom hear about despite its important role in inflammation and immunity. In addition to initiating immunity, it regulates excessive immune responses and chronic inflammation.

Brazil nuts, seafood, liver, breads, grains, lean red meat, poultry, fish, and eggs

By filling the plate with colorful nutrient-rich foods including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, consumers can take an important step to bolster their immune health.  If fresh produce is not available,  frozen or canned fruits and vegetables are good alternatives, however, check the Nutrition Facts label to select options with low or no added sugars or sodium.

Helping Consumers Make Smart Choices
The Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods is an excellent resource to help identify the amount of calories, saturated fats, dietary fiber, sodium, and other nutrients in each serving of food. For more information on how to use the Nutrition Facts label, check out our toolkit.

 

References

Gombar, A. F., Pierre, A., Maggini, S. (2020). A review of micronutrients and the immune system―working in harmony to reduce the risk of infection.  Nutrients 12(1): 236. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7019735/pdf/nutrients-12-00236.pdf

Huang, Z., Rose, A. H., & Hoffmann, P. R. (2012). The role of selenium in inflammation and immunity: from molecular mechanisms to therapeutic opportunities. Antioxidants & redox signaling, 16(7), 705–743. https://doi.org/10.1089/ars.2011.4145

Huang, Z., Liu, Y., Qi, G., Brand, D., & Zheng, S. G. (2018). Role of Vitamin A in the Immune System. Journal of clinical medicine, 7(9), 258. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm7090258.

National Institutes of Health. “Selenium – Fact Sheet for Consumers, Fact Sheet for Health Professionals..” December 10, 2019. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Selenium-Consumer/, https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Selenium-HealthProfessional/.

National Institutes of Health. “Vitamin A – Fact Sheet for Consumers, Fact Sheet for Health Professionals.” February 14, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-Consumer/, https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/.

National Institutes of Health. “Vitamin C – Fact Sheet for Consumers, Fact Sheet for Health Professionals..” December 10, 2019. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-Consumer/, https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/.

National Institutes of Health. “Vitamin D – Fact Sheet for Consumers, Fact Sheet for Health Professionals..” March 24, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-Consumer/, https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/.

National Institutes of Health. “Vitamin E – Fact Sheet for Consumers, Fact Sheet for Health Professionals..” February 28, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-Consumer/, https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/.

National Institutes of Health. “Zinc – Fact Sheet for Consumers, Fact Sheet for Health Professionals..” December 10, 2019. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-Consumer/, https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/.

Pekmezci, D. (2011).  Vitamin E and immunity. Vitamins and Hormones. 86:179-215. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-386960-9.00008-3.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/executive-summary/

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