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Eat Well to Be Well: Weather winter by boosting your immune system

Want to get through the winter as healthy as possible? Take special care of your immune system. If there’s one system in our body we tend to neglect, it’s this one. Only when we get sick do we remember how important it is. Wintertime often means sharing close quarters with people and their germs, putting our immune system at risk. Think of your immune system as your body’s own personal department of defense, armed and ready to fight off any foreign substance that wants to cause you harm. If it’s not fully functioning, you become more vulnerable to disease-causing microorganisms that can make you sick. There are several ways to keep your immune system working at its best – exercise, rest and good nutrition. This article focuses on good nutrition and how it can play a role in keeping you out of the doctor’s office this winter.

tin-soldierPeople who are malnourished are more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Since the immune system’s job is to keep you healthy, like any good soldier, it needs to be adequately nourished with nutrient-rich food. There are specific important nutrients that play a key role in protecting you from infections and boost your immune system to its optimal best.

Vitamin C – This is often the first nutrient people think of in protecting themselves from illness. This antioxidant protects you from infections by stimulating the formation of antibodies which improve your immune functioning. Next time you are at the grocery store, head to either the produce, canned goods or frozen food aisles to stock up on berries, broccoli, oranges, grapefruit, bell peppers, tomato juice, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe and honeydew melon.

Vitamin E – Here is another vitamin working as an antioxidant by neutralizing free radicals. Foods rich in vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds, broccoli, peanut butter, spinach and fortified cereals.

Protein – Protein forms the immune system molecules that fight disease. When the body detects foreign antigens, it makes antibodies that are giant protein molecules to fight them. Without enough protein, a person becomes less resistant to infectious diseases due to a reduction in antibodies. Eat a variety of foods rich in protein such as lean meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, soy products and nuts and seeds.

Vitamin A – Scientists have known for a long time of vitamin A’s role in keeping your skin and tissue throughout the body healthy which protects you from infections. In the 1920s, it was called “the anti-infective vitamin.” A deficiency of vitamin A is associated with impaired immunity and increased risk of infectious disease. Excellent food sources are carrots, kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, apricots, eggs and vitamin-fortified foods such as milk and cereal.

Zinc – This mineral enhances your immune system by healing wounds and keeps the immune cells functioning as they should. Find zinc in poultry, lean meat, beans, nuts, seafood, whole grain products and dairy products.

Selenium – Although we only need minute amounts of this trace mineral, it is important to our health as it works with vitamin E to prevent oxidative damage to lipids and decreases damage to cell membranes. Since selenium is found in the soil, the content in plant-based food depends on the amount of selenium in the soil. As a result, selenium concentrations in plant-based foods vary widely by geographic locations. Good food sources are seafood, organ meats like liver, also red meat, poultry and eggs, along with various grains.

Eating a nutrient-rich diet is the easiest way to get in the above nutrients. There is no good evidence that getting in more of these nutrients than what you get from a healthy diet, such as taking a supplement, will improve the immune system. For most people, this is not necessary. Your body wants you to eat real food and this is the best way to improve your immune system. Besides, you should always check with your doctor before taking any supplement. Both zinc and selenium can be toxic in high doses and taking more than 2,000 mg of vitamin C a day can have side effects like diarrhea.

Stock up on immune-boosting foods, get plenty of rest and exercise and you should maximize your ability to weather this winter with minimal illnesses.

Cheryl_Mussatto_pictureCheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian who works as an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, where she teaches a course called Basic Nutrition. She is also a certified health and wellness coach. She writes Eat Well to Be Well, a column about health and nutrition, and may be contacted at

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