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Strengthen Your Immune System with Food

First, what is the immune system?

Your immune system is made up of cells that defend you against potentially harmful invaders called pathogens. Pathogens include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. It also protects us from everyday dangers like too much sun or environmental pollutants. When pathogens are present, your body releases specialized antibody cells to attack and defend you.

Four ways using nutrition can boost your immune system

If you’re like most people, you don’t start thinking about your immune system until you need it. However, it is important to support immunity all year round. The four essential areas of our lifestyle that can impact the strength of our immune system include:

    1. Diet
    2. Exercise
    3. Sleep
    4. Stress

Food plays an important role in keeping your immune system in top shape. Here are some lifestyle habits and tips that can help build up your body’s resilience and response capabilities.

1. Pack your diet full of good-for-you nutrients

Stocking up on nutrient-dense foods is not just good for your current energy levels, but can also boost your natural defense system, helping you guard against pathogens when they enter the body. A poor diet impairs immune function and increases susceptibility to disease. Even with a mild illness, our nutritional status can be reduced by several factors including;

    • A reduced intake of nutrient-dense foods (we often eat less when we don’t feel well)
    • An increase in nutrient losses (our intestines aren’t absorbing as many nutrients, and there is an increased risk of diarrhea)
    • A diversion of nutrients for other metabolic responses to an infection
    • An increase in calorie needs (metabolism) when a fever is present
Your Goal:

Eat a variety of bright, colourful, antioxidant-rich vegetables and berries. Focus on probiotic rich yogurt and fermented foods, lean proteins including fatty fish, and healthy fats like avocado, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, and seeds.

By including these foods, you can ensure you’re supporting your immune system without worrying about specific nutrients. These foods provide a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are known to boost the immune system. Here are some specific foods you can focus on:

Lean protein
Choose fish (salmon and trout), beans, chickpeas (hummus), eggs, chicken, tofu, and edamame. They help maintain strong immune cells. When you are sick, your body may need more protein than usual to recover.

Beta carotene (vitamin A)
Choose yellow- and orange-coloured vegetables and fruits like sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, eggs, and bell peppers. Green foods too, spinach, kale, and broccoli. Beta-carotene boosts your immune system and supports the skin and linings of mouth, intestine, and lungs to protect against pathogens.

Vitamin C
Choose citrus fruits, strawberries, leafy greens, and bell peppers. Vitamin C strengthens your defense system. If you take a supplement, try splitting the dose up throughout the day for added benefit.

Vitamin E
Choose nuts, seeds, whole grains, spinach, and leafy greens. Vitamin E helps develop more immune cells.

Choose fibre-rich vegetables and foods rich in healthy bacteria; yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and tempeh. These foods have good bacteria to help support the intestinal microbiome and protect against pathogens.

Choose cashews, seeds (pumpkin, hemp, flax, chia), beans, chickpeas (hummus), muscles, and oysters. Helps reduce the severity and duration of your illness.


Staying hydrated will support healthy immune function and will help flush out bacteria quickly when it enters the system.

2. Eat right for the energy to be physically active

Regular physical activity can boost resilience to infectious diseases, including Covid-19. It can be difficult to nourish ourselves in the best way possible when we aren’t feeling well or lack the motivation to get moving. Some great foods that will provide your body with long-lasting stable energy include:

Dehydration can leave you feeling drained and fatigued. Try and drink enough water to keep your body well hydrated throughout the day. You can tell you’re well hydrated when you don’t feel thirsty, and your urine is light-colored.

Lean proteins
Not consuming enough protein during the day can be a primary reason for fatigue. Protein-based foods provide the body with fuel to repair and build tissues. Protein takes longer than carbohydrates to break down in the body, providing a longer-lasting energy source.

Fibre-rich foods include whole grains, vegetables, beans, and fruit. High fibre foods stick with you as the day wears on, preventing you from getting hungry. Hunger can lead to low energy, or that “hangry” – irritable feeling.

Snacks that combine protein with high-fibre carbohydrates like Greek yogurt with berries and hemp hearts, or apple slices with peanut butter are the best for maintaining your blood sugar levels over the long term. This can improve your mood, energy, and stamina.

3. Time your meals to ensure adequate sleep

Sleep is essential to many important functions of the body, including healing and repair. Eating an adequate and balanced diet throughout the day lends itself to falling asleep more easily. With regular and consistent habits, and no late-night snacking, it will be easier to fall asleep and stay asleep all night long.

As a reminder, these are general sleep guidelines for the average, healthy population:

    • Older adults need 7 – 8 hours of sleep
    • Adults need between 7 and 9 hours
    • Teenagers require 8 to 10 hours of sleep
    • School aged children need 9 to 11 hours
    • Preschool children required 10 to 13 hours
    • Toddlers need between 11 and 14 hours
    • Infants require 12 to 15 hours and
    • Newborns need 14 to 17 hours

4. Minimize stress… eating

You may have noticed you can feel physically worse on the outside when you are under mental strain or stress on the inside. Long term stress can cause your immune system to be less effective, leaving you more vulnerable to illness and infections. So, when we reduce our stress levels, there is a benefit to your immune system’s health.

We all have varying levels of coping skills. Some may turn to alcohol, drugs, or food. By overeating and overconsuming calories when stressed, we can often feel guilt and sick to our stomachs soon after; however, this repeated pattern can lead to long term complications of chronic conditions and inflammation.

With a list of tactics that works for you, we create positive coping skills and help manage stress when feeling overwhelmed. This may include journaling, painting, going on walks, standing in the sunshine, having a bath, or meditating. Try having a quick shower, and think of the water washing away the day, allowing you to start fresh. Whatever you enjoy doing, do more of that during this time. It’s not always about food – healthy lifestyle habits are a crucial piece to this puzzle.

In the short-term, while you work to reduce stress levels, adaptogens such as natural herbs will help your body adapt to stress and reduce fatigue, leaving you more energy to focus on the long-term solutions.

Be successful with small, incremental changes – one at a time

Try to adopt one or more of these healthy lifestyle tips. Eating a healthy balanced diet gives you energy to be physically activity, helps lower your stress levels, and improve your sleep hygiene.

With all those in place, you are on your way to building strong and resilient immunity so you can fend off sickness more readily.

For help with integrating these lifestyle habits through diet, speak to a Registered Dietitian. At Harrison Healthcare we look at the entire you, and will personalize a health care solution that suits your history, genetics, and fits your busy day-to-day.


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We would like to acknowledge with gratitude that we operate on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations in Vancouver, and of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani), the Tsuut’ina, the Mountain Nakoda Nations, and the Métis Nation (Region 3) in Calgary. With appreciation, we recognize that these lands have been stewarded by them since time immemorial.

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