Optimal - The Blog

May 5, 2020

Immune Supportive Foods

You are what you eat… and you get to choose.

By Beth Ellen DiLuglio, MS, RDN, LDN

It is well known and widely accepted that what we choose to eat has a profound and lasting impact on our health. This universal truth is especially relevant in times of immune challenge.

The human body relies on a variety of nutrients, including macronutrients, micronutrients, and phytonutrients. They must come from the diet and without these vital factors, dysfunction will occur.

An abundance of research recognizes the critical role that nutrition plays in immunity.[1] “Many foods or food-derived materials improve or enhance immune functions in a wide range of human subjects; and foods with immune-modulating activities affect either innate or acquired [adaptive] immunity.”[2]

Nutrients specifically relevant to immune function include vitamins A, folate, B2, B6, B12, C, D, and E; zinc; copper, magnesium, iron, and selenium.[3] [4] [5] “Practically all forms of immunity may be affected by deficiencies in one or more of these nutrients.”[6]

Researchers recognize and confirm that: [7]

  • “Micronutrient deficiencies are a recognized global public health issue, and
  • Poor nutritional status predisposes to certain infections.
  • Immune function may be improved by restoring deficient micronutrients to recommended levels,
  • Thereby increasing resistance to infection and supporting faster recovery when infected.
  • Diet alone may be insufficient and tailored micronutrient supplementation based on specific age-related needs necessary.”

We must pay especially close attention to vitamin D status because dietary sources are limited, and suboptimal levels are common. A deeper dive into vitamin D and immunity reveals that B and T immune cells and antigen-presenting cells synthesize the active form of vitamin D which in turn is capable of modulating both innate and adaptive immunity. Insufficiency of vitamin D is associated with increased susceptibility to infection as well as increased risk of autoimmunity. [8]

Another dietary nutrient of particular importance to humans is vitamin C. The vast majority of mammals produce their own vitamin C at a rate of ~50 mg/kg/day.[9] However, humans and some mammals such as primates are unable to do so. Those wily wildbeasts consume ~20-106 mg/kg/day while humans consume a paltry ~ 1mg/kg/day.[10] If we do the math for a 150 pound/68 kg person, they may need ~3400 mg of vitamin C on a good day and more in the face of stress and infection. However, individuals with oxalate-based kidney stones, hemochromatosis, or G6PD disease must limit their intake of vitamin C.

Of course, essential nutrients exist in a complex matrix that we call food. Plant-based foods and compounds are unique sources of countless “phytonutrients” or “phytochemicals,” many of which “exhibit anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and angiogenic activity.”[11]

Fresh, whole foods in general are a cornucopia of immune-supportive nutrients that are absent from highly processed foods. A diet that relies primarily on processed foods will directly compromise immunity, jeopardize, cardiometabolic health, and contribute to chronic disease. The choice is ours.

Immune-Supportive Foods and Nutrients



Beans, legumes




Chia seeds

Chicken soup (esp. fed omega-3s)

Citrus (no grapefruit if on meds)


Dark chocolate, 60% cocoa

Dark leafy greens


Fermented foods

Fish (cold water, oily)









Oats, oatmeal

Olive oil


Onions, shallots



Peppers, jalapeno, bell, chili


Protein sources, high quality, meat, omega-3 eggs, oysters




Seeds, pumpkin, sunflower


Sweet potato




Whey protein (found in cow’s milk, powder supplements, high in cysteine)


Supplemental Nutrients

#1 = Well-balanced multivitamin mineral supplement

Alpha lipoic acid

Arginine (if no sepsis)




Glutamine (if no liver or kidney compromise)


Organic greens powder/supplement


Turmeric, curcumin

Whey protein powder


Food sources of nutrients Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center at OSU

Minerals [R] 

Vitamins [R] 

Immunity in Brief [R]

Immunity [R] 


1. Chandra RK. Nutrition and the immune system: an introduction. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997 Aug;66(2):460S-463S. [R]

2. Kaminogawa S, Nanno M. Modulation of Immune Functions by Foods. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2004 Dec;1(3):241-250. [R]

3. Maggini S, Pierre A, Calder PC. Immune Function and Micronutrient Requirements Change over the Life Course. Nutrients. 2018 Oct 17;10(10).  [R]

4. Childs CE, Calder PC, Miles EA. Diet and Immune Function. Nutrients. 2019 Aug 16;11(8). [R]

5. Gombart AF, Pierre A, Maggini S. A Review of Micronutrients and the Immune System-Working in Harmony to Reduce the Risk of Infection. Nutrients. 2020 Jan 16;12(1). [R]

6. Calder PC, Kew S. The immune system: a target for functional foods? Br J Nutr. 2002 Nov;88 Suppl 2:S165-77. [R]

7. Maggini S, Pierre A, Calder PC. Immune Function and Micronutrient Requirements Change over the Life Course. Nutrients. 2018 Oct 17;10(10). [R]

8. Aranow C. Vitamin D and the immune system. J Investig Med. 2011 Aug;59(6):881-6. [R]

9. Ely JT. Aneurysm: prevention and nonsurgical repair. Med Sci Monit. 2004 Jan;10(1) [R] 

10. Drouin G, Godin JR, Pagé B. The genetics of vitamin C loss in vertebrates. Curr Genomics. 2011 Aug;12(5):371-8. [R]

11. Cooper EL, Ma MJ. Understanding nutrition and immunity in disease management.  J Tradit Complement Med. 2017 Jan 16;7(4):386-391. [R]

12. Examine.com Which supplements can help against colds and the flu? [R]

13. Healthline:15 Foods That Boost the Immune System [R]

14. Cleveland Clinic: 8 Vitamins & Minerals You Need for a Healthy Immune System [R]

15. Lindsey Toth MS, RD.  The Science Behind Your Immune System & How to Keep it Strong [R]

16. Top 20 Immune Boosting Foods. Fullscript. April 16, 2020. [R]

17. Linus Pauling Institute  Immunity In Brief [R]

18. 12 "superfoods" you should be eating. Want to improve your health and prevent disease? Incorporate these nutrition-packed foods into your diet. Harv Womens Health Watch. 2013 Mar;20(7):1, 7 [R]

19. Butler MJ, Barrientos RM. The impact of nutrition on COVID-19 susceptibility and long-term consequences. Brain Behav Immun. 2020 Apr 18. [R]

Tag(s): Treatment

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