When it comes to a healthy immune system, certain nutrients can help. But there isn't one vitamin or mineral that can protect you from the coronavirus or the flu.

Advertisement

Lots of people are curious to know if there are foods out there that are natural immune boosters. The thing is, "boost" isn't really the right word. You can help support your immune system naturally with good nutrition and lifestyle habits, like trying not to stress, getting enough sleep and regularly exercising. But (and there's a big but coming up)...

No food or supplement is going to cure or prevent COVID-19, or any illness for that matter. There's a reason the CDC isn't advising everyone to arm themselves with chicken soup or a bottle of zinc pills and continue going about life as usual. The best way to minimize the spread of illness in general is to stay home as much as you can, avoid sick people, wash your hands frequently, disinfect surfaces in your house and—when it comes to COVID-19 in particular—get vaccinated and continue to follow the latest local and CDC guidelines on mask wearing. OK. Now that's out of the way.

Are there vitamins that can help support your immune system?

Sure. There are. Our immune system is supported by a generally healthy diet and also specific nutrients, namely vitamins A, C, D and E, as well as zinc. Protein is also important for immune health, as it helps to build and repair damaged immune cells (note: most of us eat enough protein). You can get all these nutrients from food. Vitamin D is probably the one nutrient on this list that's tough to find from food alone. Your body can also make vitamin D from sunlight. If you want to start supplementing, I would talk to your doctor or a dietitian and do your research (read more about supplements and why they can be beneficial but also can be dangerous).

One key thing to remember, is that more isn't always better when it comes to these nutrients. Too much zinc can cause GI distress (think nausea, vomiting) and is also associated with suppressed immune function (so, the opposite of what you're trying to do here). Supplementing isn't necessarily the answer. You're not likely to get too much of any one nutrient from food, but on the other hand, it is easy to over supplement.

How can I get immune support without supplements?

slice of orange with EatingWell's "The Beet" logo
Credit: Getty Images / Nakhorn Yuangkratoke / EyeEm

When it comes to getting good nutrition for your immune system, think of variety and balance in your diet. That, plus good hygiene habits, like washing your hands and regularly sanitizing surfaces, are the things that will help you naturally protect your immune system. Getting the COVID-19 vaccine is another way to help keep you safe.

Some foods to consider:

Vitamin C-rich foods: peppers, oranges and orange juice, strawberries, broccoli, pineapple

Vitamin D-rich foods: milk, yogurt, some fish, fortified foods

Zinc rich-foods: beans, nuts, seeds, meat, fish

Protein-rich foods: eggs, yogurt, meat, beans, fish, whole grains, cheese

We also know that gut health plays a role in immunity, so try to eat a mix of prebiotic and probiotic foods. Think high-fiber (prebiotics) and fermented (probiotics) so vegetables, fruits, whole grains and yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi.

While whole foods are a healthy option, feel free to also rely on convenience items, like frozen and canned foods—especially if you're feeling under the weather and low on energy. And if you're craving a plate full of comforting pasta or a cheesy casserole, then go for it. Our body does a pretty good job of letting us know what it needs, and a craving like that likely means your body needs some extra calories to cope. Give yourself grace, definitely don't run to the store just to grab a food on this list and know that frozen and canned produce is a great way to get nutrients in your diet.

What about elderberry? Can that help my immunity right now?

There's no research to show elderberry can help with COVID-19. There's some research to show that elderberry may help with cold and flu symptoms, reducing both severity and duration. However, we just don't know enough about it at this time and I wouldn't advise taking it right now (but you know the drill—if you want to, chat with your doc first).

What are the worst foods for your immune system?

Eating to support your immune system is about eating a variety of foods, so it's my opinion that all foods fit. Alcohol isn't the best (sorry to all you cocktail lovers). It's dehydrating and can affect your immune system negatively, so drink in moderation or skip it altogether. Too much added sugar may also suppress your immune system temporarily according to research, but some is totally okay.

I would also do everything you can to help promote sleep (we need sleep for our immune system). Avoid caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime. Try these four tips for a better night's sleep from a sleep expert.

Bottom line

I know the idea of a quick fix is much more enticing than the advice in this article but please, don't listen to an influencer or celebrity, especially if they have something to sell you. A well-balanced diet with lots of variety is key. Stay hydrated. Move your body. Get some sleep. Take care of yourself. Try not to stress too much. And follow the advice of the medical experts at the CDC and your local public health department to keep yourself and others as safe as possible.

The situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to change quickly; it's possible that information or data has changed since publication. While EatingWell is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by using the CDC, WHO and their local public health department as resources.

Welcome to The Beet. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Lisa Valente tackles buzzy nutrition topics and tells you what you need to know, with science and a little bit of sass.