Best Supplements That Help Boost the Immune System

When cold and flu season rolls around are you always the first one to become sick? Do you feel like you’re feeling under the weather more often than not? If so, then your immune health may be suffering.

Your immune system helps your body to prevent or fight infection (1).  A healthy immune system can detect when viruses, bacteria, or other unhealthy microbes are invading your body. Once detected, a healthy immune system will help to fight off pathogens and protect you from disease (2).

On the other hand, if your immune system is weakened in any way, you will be more likely to develop infection and disease when exposed to any pathogens.

Conditions that reveal a weakened immune system include allergies, cancer, and autoimmune conditions (3).

Many people have allergies, so it may not seem like a big deal health wise. But allergies in fact reveal that the body’s immune system is overreacting to harmless allergens like pollen or food.  This in turn can cause the body to be in an inflammatory state for extended periods of time, which may in the long term place a person at risk for chronic disease (4).

The immune system of those with autoimmune conditions also overreacts by attacking their own cells that they mistake for pathogens (3). Such conditions include type 1 diabetes, lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and HIV, to name a few.

Although some of these conditions are caused by uncontrollable factors like genetics, those that are simply more prone to allergies and colds may strengthen their immune system through lifestyle changes.

More obvious changes include eating more fruits and vegetables that are rich in anti-inflammatory antioxidants, washing your hands often to avoid infection, and reducing stress (2). These changes can in turn reduce inflammation in your body and mind.

Lesser known ways to strengthen your immune system include being more active, not smoking, sleeping enough at night, and taking supplements. Supplements can help fill in the nutritional gaps of your current diet.

Read below to discover the best supplements you can take to better support and strengthen your immune health.

Useful Supplements for the Immune System

Vitamin C

This water-soluble vitamin, best known for its role in fighting off colds, is a well-known effective immune health supplement (5).

Found in fruits and vegetables like oranges strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers, this antioxidant is not only important for immune health, but can also improve the antioxidant quality of vitamin E (5,6). This in turn, makes vitamin C’s impact on improving immune health even greater.

Research shows that a deficiency of vitamin C in the diet can lead to impaired immune function and increased incidence of infection (7). However, supplementation of vitamin C can lead to prevention of infections such as respiratory or systemic conditions.

Vitamin C is an essential nutrient since it cannot be made by the human body (5,7). Therefore, vitamin C must be consumed by humans in the diet. Most adults are recommended to consume between 75 and 90 milligrams of vitamin C per day, with the richest sources being oranges, broccoli, strawberries, peppers, and Brussels sprouts (5).

Vitamin C deficiency is rare, but those at risk include smokers, those with limited food access, and those with medical conditions such as those with certain cancers, malabsorption issues, or those on dialysis.

If you fall into any of the at-risk groups, or just feel like you don’t consume enough vitamin C in the diet, then vitamin C supplements may be right for you. Current studies have shown that high doses of vitamin C may help prevent pneumonia or the common cold in some individuals (8).

Also, those who are exposed to extreme physical exercise or cold temperatures may have significantly reduced risk for colds with vitamin C supplementation of 250 mg to 1 gram of vitamin C daily (5). However, if you can, it’s best to consume vitamin C from your diet if possible, so you can benefit from all the other nutrients and antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin B6

Another water-soluble vitamin great for immune health is vitamin B6, also known as pyridoxine (9). This vitamin plays a vital role in protein metabolism, cognitive development, and the production of glucose in the body. However, it is its role in immune function that is becoming clearer.

Animal studies show that B6 deficiency can negatively affect growth and prevent lymphocyte, or white blood cell growth, which can impair immunity (10). This study also suggested that supplementation with vitamin B6 could help improve immunity.

Other studies show that the immune function of vitamin B6 may be related to inflammation. One study has found that plasma levels of the active form of vitamin B6, or pyridoxal 5’-phosphate (PLP), is inversely linked with many inflammatory markers (11).  In fact, plasma PLP levels can help predict chronic inflammatory disease risk like heart disease. Also, supplementation of vitamin B6 can improve immune function in B6-deficient humans and animals.

Most adults should consume at least 1.3 to 1.7 milligrams of vitamin B6 daily (9). Those in the older population or with malabsorption issues may be at highest risk of vitamin B6 deficiency (12).

The richest food sources of vitamin B6 include fortified cereals, cooked sockeye salmon, roasted chicken breast, pan-fried beef liver, and canned chickpeas (9). Since these food sources may not be in everyone’s diet, supplementation of this vitamin may be needed for many people to reap the immune health benefits.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin whose antioxidant properties make it a great immune health support supplement. Vitamin E is found in plant-based oils like sunflower and wheat germ oil, almonds, dry, roasted sunflower seeds, as well as leafy, green vegetables like spinach (13).

Most adults meet the 15 milligrams of vitamin E recommended daily. However, if you don’t eat enough of these plant-based foods though, then supplementation may be necessary to reap the full health benefits.

Vitamin E, like vitamin C, is a potent antioxidant that can help reduce oxidative stress in the body and in turn reduce chronic disease risk (14,15). And although many studies focus on the alpha-tocopherol form of vitamin E, research also shows that many forms of the vitamin could have immune health benefits (14).

Studies show that vitamin E supplementation improves immune function, can enhance disease resistance in older adults, and improve the antibody response to various vaccines (15).

Glutathione

This tripeptide, which is three amino acids connected by peptide bonds, is an important supplement for immune health support (16). Glutathione is a major antioxidant in the cell body, so it is effective at reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in the body (17). However, its primary function is found to be controlling the immune response to infection.

Along with these functions, glutathione plays important roles in regenerating the antioxidant vitamins C and E, regulating cell growth and cell death, as well as helping to remove toxins from cells in the body (16).  Together all these functions play a vital role in protecting the body from illness.

In fact, research shows that those supplemented with glutathione enhanced immune function (18). This study looked at the impact of daily doses of 500 and 1000 milligrams of liposomal glutathione on healthy adults. Study results show that elevated glutathione levels in the blood led to reduced levels of oxidative stress biomarkers and enhancements of immune function biomarkers.

This study warrants further research on the potential of glutathione on immune function. In the meantime, if you feel like your immune system needs a boost, ask your healthcare provider if adding glutathione may be right for you.

Zinc

This essential mineral is a common ingredient in cold lozenges and other over-the-counter cold remedies (19). That’s why it may come as no surprise to find this nutrient on the list of best immune health support supplements.

Adequate zinc levels in the body are essential to optimal immune system function (20).  Research shows that zinc deficiency has been linked to not only immune dysfunctions but has been linked to inflammation (21).  Also, those with zinc deficiency are found to have low levels of T cells in the body, which are play an important role in the immune response and fighting off infected cells (22).

Most adults should consume about 8 to 12 milligrams of zinc daily for optimal health (19).  Oysters are a rich source of zinc, but this mineral is also found in other animal proteins like beef, chicken, pork, and crab as well as beans and fortified cereals.

Those who don’t eat meat may have a harder time meeting their daily zinc needs. Nearly two billion people worldwide are zinc deficient (20). Besides vegetarians, those with malabsorption issues, pregnant and lactating women, as well as alcoholics may be at high risk for zinc deficiency (19). In particular, those who abuse alcohol may have low zinc levels since ethanol intake decreases intestinal zinc absorption and increase urinary zinc excretion.

Therefore, to maintain optimal immune function, those at risk for zinc deficiency would be particularly benefited by zinc supplementation. By maintaining healthy levels of zinc, you will also help lower your risk of inflammatory diseases linked with zinc deficiency.

Such inflammatory conditions include diabetes, cancer, and certain infectious diseases like pneumonia (21). Certain medications like antibiotics, some rheumatoid arthritis medicines, and diuretics may interact with zinc, so if you take any of these, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before starting a zinc supplement (23).

Elderberry

Another supplement well-known for its presence in cold remedies is elderberry, also known as Sambucus nigra (24). Native to Europe, elderberries are berries with a rich source of antioxidants known as anthocyanins.

There are species of elderberries that have been naturalized in the United States, but it is the European species that have been most used in supplements and looked at in research studies.

One study looked at the impact of elderberry on symptoms of the common cold. Study results show that those who took elderberry extract produced a significant reduction in duration and severity of cold symptoms (25).

Sambucus nigra L., also called black elder, also helps boost immunity by fighting inflammation. Research shows that the elderberries and elderflowers may be able to regulate inflammatory conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis (26).

Furthermore, animal studies show that elderberry extract can lower insulin resistance, correct hyperglycemia, and lower insulin secretion (27).

Therefore, elderberry may be a great supplement to help boost immune health. The only people who should avoid taking this supplement, due to safety concerns, would be those who are pregnant or lactating as well as those with autoimmune conditions taking immunosuppressants (24).

Echinacea

Often seen in cold remedy formulas alongside elderberry, echinacea is a flowering plant native to North America that is an ideal immune support supplement (28). It is the roots and the above-ground parts of the plant that are used to make not only echinacea capsules and tablets, but also teas, squeezed juice, and extracts.

Echinacea, also known as Echinacea purpurea, is well-known for its immune-stimulating and anti-inflammatory properties (29). In fact, one recent study analysis found that treatment with 2400 milligrams of Echinacea extract daily over four months was found to be effective in preventing and treating the common cold (30).

Echinacea is generally safe for most people taken as a short-term supplement (28). However, some people may experience nausea, stomach pain, or allergic reactions. Although risk of side effects of echinacea is found to be relatively low. Therefore, when cold and flu season comes around, add echinacea to your routine to help support your immune system.

Garlic

This savory edible bulb has been used for thousands of years all around the world as a health supplement (31).  It’s most notably used for promoting heart health and fighting the common cold because of its antioxidant and antihypertensive properties (32).

Also known as Allium sativum, garlic, especially aged garlic extract (AGE), contains many compounds that have potential to positively impact immune health (33). Such compounds include lectins and fructo-oligosaccharides that have potential to interact with immune system cells.

Furthermore, in animal studies, AGE was shown to work well in enhancing the immune system’s response to antigens, which are the component that works to stimulate production of antibodies after a person receives a vaccine. This antibody production in turn helps the body to fight off pathogens.

Because of the antioxidant properties of garlic, it carries with it anti-inflammatory properties that have shown to benefit immune health. For example, a recent study looked at the effects of AGE on the health status of obese individuals. Study results show that those who had six weeks of AGE intake had lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol levels, and improved immune cell distribution (34). Not only that, but AGE intake helped prevent the increase in concentration of serum inflammatory markers like tumor-necrosis factor-alpha and interleukin-6.

Besides consuming garlic in its fresh, powdered, or infused oil form, garlic can be consumed in supplement form in tablets and capsules (31). Garlic supplements are safe for most people to consume, although some people may experience stomach upset, heartburn, or an allergic reaction.

Taking garlic can also increase the risk of bleeding in those that are on blood thinner medications like warfarin, so be sure to consult with your doctor before starting garlic supplementation.

Curcumin

Even though it only makes up about 2-3-percent of the weight of turmeric, curcumin plays a big role in immune health support (35). Curcumin has been used for thousands of years for its medicinal properties that include anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties (36).

Most of the benefits stem from the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin that stem from the antioxidant polyphenol. However, the addition of black pepper, or piperine, is needed to improve the bioavailability of curcumin, so the body can reap the compound’s full health benefits.

The immune health benefits of curcumin may also come from its ability to control the production of certain proteins involved in the immune response. In particular, one study found that curcumin can induce the production and expression of the anti-inflammatory protein interleukin-10 (37).

In turn, curcumin can help reduce risk of conditions like allergies, infections, and bowel inflammation, to name a few. Curcumin can be taken in the form of capsules or softgels and is considered generally safe to consume for most people (35).

Probiotics

Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide health benefits (38). Although mostly linked to gut health benefits, probiotics can also support immune system health.

These “good bacteria” in fact are thought to exhibit their gut health benefits through their positive effect on the immune system (39). Probiotics are found to have immune system-controlling properties like increasing activity of natural killer cells that help control infection and limit tissue damage (40).

Other immune health properties of probiotics include enhancing the gut barrier as well as competitive exclusion of pathogenic bacteria.

A recent study looked at the effect of probiotics on upper respiratory infection. Study results show that a probiotic blend of Lactobacillus paracaseiLactobacillus casei 431® and Lactobacillus fermentum PCC® bacteria was effective in reducing the incidence of the common cold and flu-like respiratory infections by strengthening the immune system (41).

In people who are generally healthy, probiotics are safe for to consume with the only side effects reported to be mild digestive symptoms like gas (38). However, critically ill patients or those with weakened immune systems should not consume probiotics unless directed by a physician.

Summary

In order to manage overall health, maintaining a strong immune system is essential. A diet full of antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables as well as staying active most days can help with this. This is due to the antioxidants’ ability to help stave off oxidative stress and prevent cell damage.

Also, sleeping enough each night and managing stress can keep inflammation at bay and help the immune system function optimally. When it comes to diet though, you may not always consume all the nutrients you need through food alone.

Those with malabsorption issues, on restricted diets due to disease or choice, as well as older adults may be at risk for nutrient deficiencies in the diet. This is because their diet may be lacking in certain antioxidants in the diet and in turn can put a person at risk for oxidative stress and inflammation that can lead to chronic disease and infection. Therefore, supplements can be a great way to help fill in the nutrient gaps and support immune health.

Even if you don’t fall into any of the at-risk groups though, you may still benefit from supplements to support your immune health. As long as they don’t interact with any medications you are currently taking, an extra dose of antioxidants and other natural extracts and spices can help support your immune system and prevent infection.

So, if you feel like cold and flu season is getting the best of you, or you just don’t feel your best, look into adding an immune health support supplement to your routine today.

Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Staci.

References
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Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD.

Written by Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD.

Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, health editor, and founder of LighttrackNutrition.com. Through her writing, she hopes to provide others with an unbiased and evidence-based view of health and wellness topics so they can make educated decisions when building their healthy lifestyle.