Our immune system is made up of cells, proteins, organs, processes and reflexes that all work towards a common goal: keeping us free from infection and disease. All of these elements that make up the immune system rely heavily on a sufficient intake of vitamins and dietary minerals to perform well. Out of all 26 essential nutrients, several vitamins and minerals are particularly good for the immune system. Being directly involved in the immune function, they enhance our immune response naturally and make us stronger and more resilient to disease.
What are the best vitamins and minerals for a strong immune system? The best vitamins and minerals for a strong immune system are vitamins A, C, D and E, zinc, selenium, copper and iron. Research shows these nutrients are directly responsible for maintaining the health of various components of the immune system and actively support processes with a great impact on the immune response. However, it is good to remember that all vitamins and minerals work together and support each other’s functions and activity in the human body, which is why it is important to not disregard the importance of all essential nutrients.
1) Vitamin A and mucous membranes. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble nutrient and is best known for its benefits on eyesight. However, vitamin A is a key nutrient for the immune system as well because it helps maintain the integrity of mucous membranes from all over the body. Mucous membranes are always in contact with elements from the outside world so they need to be healthy to be able to prevent potentially harmful microorganisms from breaching them and creating infection and disease. The membranes lining our nose, mouth, throat, lungs, stomach and intestines are all important components of the immune system and harbor lymphatic tissue containing white blood cells.
2) Vitamin C and white blood cells. Vitamin C is a water-soluble nutrient with excellent antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. According to research, several types of white blood cells such as T cells (cells that recognize, fight and destroy infected cells and tumor cells) and phagocytes (white blood cells that eat bacteria and viruses) collect vitamin C to help them better perform their functions (Vitamin C and immune function). Moreover, the nutrient protects all cells from oxidative stress, preventing cellular damage that may build up and cause certain cells to go haywire and become cancerous.
Vitamin C has also been shown to mediate the inflammatory response generated by the immune system itself. Whenever our immune system responds to infection or disease (say we catch a cold or get the flu), our body fights the infection, but also generates inflammation while doing so. Too much inflammation is actually counterproductive and can generate health problems in return. Vitamin C successfully reduces inflammation levels in the body, supporting good health.
3) Vitamin D and autoimmune disorders. Vitamin D is a nutrient we mostly synthesize in our skin from radiation from sunlight, although it can be found in foods such as mushrooms too. Everywhere in our body there are receptors for vitamin D, including on our immune system cells, indicating its health benefits go beyond bone health and osteoporosis prevention. More recent research correlates low levels of vitamin D with poor immunity and autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Studies have found that severe vitamin D deficiency is common in individuals suffering from more severe or advanced forms of autoimmune diseases.
It would appear that correcting vitamin D deficiency in autoimmune disease sufferers may help alleviate disease severity and even temporarily put a halt to its progression (Vitamin D and the Immune System). Vitamin D is also beneficial because is prevents immune system cells from producing too much inflammatory cytokines, preventing excess inflammation and its side effects. A sufficient intake of the nutrient appears to strengthen the immune system and lower the risks of infection and disease. More recent research suggests that severe vitamin D deficiency may increase the risk of certain cancers, including estrogen-sensitive cancers.
4) Zinc and immunity. Zinc acts similarly to vitamin C, supporting the activity of various cells of the immune system and reducing inflammation levels (Immune-enhancing role of vitamin C and zinc and effect on clinical conditions). Even a moderate, but prolonged zinc deficiency can impair the functions of several types of immune system cells such as T cells, B cells, neutrophils and macrophages (cells that eat pathogens). Moreover, zinc deficiency negatively impacts the thymus, a major immune system organ that produces immune system cells and helps them mature.
Zinc supports several important immune system processes such as killing harmful microorganisms or engulfing and digesting them. In addition to this, it acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory, reducing the production of inflammatory cytokines that accompany certain immune system responses and thus protecting cells from damage.
5) Selenium and the immune system response. Selenium actively participates in regulating both adaptive and innate immunity. Studies have shown that low levels of selenium result in a poor immune system response to bacterial, viral and parasitic infections, but also tumors and allergens. Selenium exhibits strong anti-inflammatory effects and appears to help manage overactive immune system responses such as allergy symptoms and asthma. Because of its extensive involvement in multiple aspects of the immune function, selenium is considered vital for a strong and healthy immune system (The influence of selenium on immune responses).
6) Copper. Commonly found in veal, lamb and goose liver, spirulina, oysters, mollusks, shiitake mushrooms, lobster, peanuts, lentils, beans and so on, copper is an essential dietary mineral of crucial importance for a healthy immune system. Research suggests copper deficiency greatly reduces the number of several immune system cells such as neutrophils and T cells and impairs their immune system responses. This results in poor immunity and low resistance to infection. Moreover, a severe deficiency increases the risk for heart disease, cancer and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Copper deficiency also negatively impacts selenium activity, further accentuating immune system related problems.
7) Iron. Research suggests iron not only helps immune cells mature, but also multiply. Moreover, white blood cells regulate iron levels in the body by producing certain proteins such as ferritin, ferroportin and hepcidin. Bacteria, certain parasites and cancer cells also rely on iron to produce infection and disease. But when infection occurs, our immune system can withhold iron. Without iron to multiply, the infection cannot advance and is managed easier (Role of iron in immunity and its relation with infections).
8) Manganese as antioxidant. Manganese is a cofactor for the superoxide dismutase enzyme, an enzyme with strong antioxidant effects which protects cells from oxidative stress and related cell damage. Moreover, a sufficient intake of manganese contributes to antibody production and supports the activity of various white blood cells such as T cells and neutrophils.
9) Vitamin E and the immune system response. Vitamin E deficiency appears to have an inhibitory effect on the immune system, negatively impacting B and T cell activity. Otherwise, the nutrient contributes to the development of T cells in the thymus and supports the aging immune system. Its strong antioxidant effects protect cell membranes from oxidative stress, further contributing to the immune function. Studies suggest a generous intake of the nutrient may enhance the immune system response and lower infection risks.
10) B vitamins. B vitamins in general contribute to the immune function by ensuring the health and the integrity of the digestive system which comes into contact with potentially harmful microorganisms every day. Vitamin B6 in particular supports antibody production and lymphocyte maturation and is especially important for an aging immune system.
Vitamins A, C, D and E, zinc, selenium, copper, iron and manganese are directly and deeply involved in the immune function and thus vital for a strong immune system and good health. However, it is important to remember that all nutrients work together in the human body and being deficient in one can negatively impact the absorption or activity of another, potentially compromising our health. Moreover, some nutrients such as certain B vitamins are indirectly involved in the immune response, making it all the more important to enjoy a varied and balanced diet, supplement if need be, to give our immune system the best possible advantages.