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How to Boost Your Immune System with Plant-Based Foods

Your immune system is your line of defense against getting sick and it helps you recover from illness and infection quickly.  Supporting it with plant-based immune-boosting foods is a powerful way to keep it strong so it's ready for anything. 

We are all a little nervous about getting sick right now, whether it be the common cold, tonsillitis, or even the dreaded coronavirus. We’re even more nervous to go to any clinic or hospital, for the obvious reason that other sick people have been in and out of those doors. There was never a better time to focus on healthy living and supporting your immune system, than during a pandemic that is affecting our lives on a daily basis.

As people go back to work and social distancing gets more and more difficult as time goes on, you can support your immune system through a plant-based diet and build up your body’s response to any illness that comes your way this year.

What you'll learn in this article:

 

What is Your Immune System?

We are constantly exposed to microbes, or harmful bacteria that cause disease. Our immune system protects us from microbes and diseases by recognizing and fighting harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Our skin, mucus, stomach acid, enzymes, and cells defend the body from microbes. Even our organs create antibodies (proteins that signal the immune system to fight invaders) that generate immune cells to fight harmful bacteria. 

Your immune system is actually kind of like an army: it identifies harmful microbes (the threat), multiplies immune cells (your army), then engulfs and recycles the threatening microbes. And, just like an army, your immune system learns through experience. It remembers the harmful microbes so that next time, the antibodies and cells of your immune system are even more successful in keeping you healthy. 2 

Taking good care of your immune system helps it take good care of you. This includes the actions you can take to support your health as well as limiting the factors that can slow down your immune system.

Here are the primary ways our immune systems are hindered:

  • Poor diet: Eating low-nutrient foods can slow down the production of immune cells.
  • Poor digestion: Poor absorption in our digestive tracts can cause micronutrient deficiencies which decline immune system effectiveness.
  • Toxins in the environment: Air pollution, cigarette smoke, or pesticides can suppress immune cells.
  • Obesity: Excess weight can cause low levels of chronic inflammation and can impair immune cells.
  • Chronic diseases: Autoimmune and immunodeficiency disorders can disable immune cells.
  • Chronic stress: When you’re stressed, the hormones released can slow your immune system.
  • Lack of sleep: Sleep restores your body, and lack of sleep can reduce immune cells.

 

What You Can Do to Boost Your Immune System 

According to Harvard,

“Eating enough nutrients as part of a varied diet is required for the health and function of all cells, including immune cells.”

By eating nutrient-dense foods, your immune system will be prepared for microbial attacks. In other words, your army needs a big, healthy dinner to be strong! A high-fiber, plant-based diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes supports immune health. On the other hand, if you eat a diet high in processed foods, refined sugar, and red meat, and low in fruits and vegetables, your immune system will be suppressed. 2

Plant-based diets provide the nutrients your body needs to keep your immune system in balance. Ensuring you ingest healthy levels of nutrients like vitamin E, vitamin A, iron, and selenium can improve your immune responses, helping you stay vital and well.2 Today, we will spotlight these essential nutrients as examples of a plant-based diet supporting immune function. You’ll also find some delicious plant-based recipes that are particularly high in these nutrients.

Why not just take a multi-vitamin?

Taking a plant-based multi-vitamin can help fill in any nutrition gaps you have from your diet or digestive inefficiencies, however, food can be a more powerful medicine. Whole foods provide a blend of co-factors, or helper molecules, that support absorption and nutrient utilization in ways a vitamin pill cannot emulate. As much as we try, we will never fully understand the complexity of whole foods and how these co-factors work together for our benefit. Although helpful, no vitamin supplement can meet all your body’s nutritional needs.

 

Plant-Based Nutrients to Keep Your Immune System Strong

plant-based immune boosting vitamins and foods: vitam in E, Vitamin A, Iron, Selenium guide


 

Immune System Booster: Vitamin E  

Vitamin E is a powerful, fat-soluble antioxidant that helps your body fight infection. It increases the numbers of immune-supportive cells such as Natural Killer cells and lymphocytes and supports powerful levels of infection and disease-fighting chemicals. It's antioxidant properties protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, which, unchecked contributes to all things we do not want, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Vitamin E is part of almost 200 of the body’s biochemical reactions and is important in immune function. 1,3

Vitamin E’s immune system benefits:

  • Helps fight off infections 1
  • Supports organ function 4
  • Increases red blood cell production 4
  • Reduces inflammation 4Long-term inflammation can damage tissues and may overwhelm the immune system.1

Other benefits of vitamin E:

  • Reduces the effects of Alzheimer’s disease 5
  • Improves symptoms of liver disease 5

Plant-based foods high in Vitamin E include:

  • Green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, nuts and seeds such as almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, and sunflower seeds1

  

At Your Vegan Family, our recipes are full of nutrient-dense food that fill up your store of nutrients on a daily basis so you always have the building blocks needed to boost your immune system and stay healthy. Eat your vitamins! 

Your Vegan Family plant-based recipes high in vitamin E:

Chocolate Almond Protein Bars (34%) 

The BEST Vegan Pesto

Sprouted Chickpea Falafel

   

Immune System Booster: Vitamin A 

Vitamin A is an essential micronutrient, meaning our bodies can’t manufacture it and must absorb it through food. There are two types of this fat-soluble vitamin. Preformed vitamin A is found in meat and dairy products. Provitamin A is found in fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based products. 6,7

Vitamin A’s immune system benefits:

  • Helps organs function properly 6
  • Has an antioxidant effect that strengthens the immune system 1 

Other benefits of vitamin A:

  • Maintains normal vision 6
  • Maintains reproductive health 6
  • Maintains surface tissues like skin 7

Plant-based foods high in Vitamin A include:

  • Orange vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash, cantaloupe, avocado1, and green vegetables like broccoli6

 

Your Vegan Family plant-based recipes high in vitamin A: 

Vegan Fruit Pizza

Sunrise Vegetable Curry Samosas 

Vegan Polenta Pie

   

Immune System Booster: Iron 

Iron is a mineral that helps your body grow and develop. Iron helps hemoglobin develop in your red blood cells, which carries oxygen throughout your body. Some hormones are also developed with iron. Plant-based, nonheme iron is absorbed less efficiently than animal-based iron. Vitamin C helps you absorb iron, so be sure to eat Vitamin C rich foods with your foods that are high in iron. Foods high in vitamin C include broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, tomatoes, sweet peppers, potatoes, spinach, oranges, and strawberries-yumm!

Iron’s immune system benefits:

  • Helps immune cells grow and function 2
  • Helps your body carry oxygen to cells 1
  • Produces antibodies (disease-specific infection fighters) 
  • Works as an antioxidant to protect healthy cells 2 

Other benefits of iron:

  • Reduces the chance of anemia,  boosts energy, and increases powers of concentration 8

Plant-based foods high in iron include:

  • Beans like lentils, kidney beans, and peas 1
  • Green vegetables like broccoli and kale 1
  • Nuts and some dried fruits, like raisins 8

 

Your Vegan Family plant-based recipes high in iron:

Berry Shortbread Bars (33% US Recommended Daily Allowance) 

Vegetable Explosion Chana Dal 

Instant Pot: Creamy Three Lentil Dal

   

Immune System Booster: Selenium 

Selenium is a trace element we hear very little about, but is so important for our overall health. This essential nutrient plays an important role in thyroid hormone metabolism (low thyroid levels can result in low energy and dry/thinning hair), DNA synthesis, and protection from and infection. 9 

Selenium’s immune system benefits:

  • Helps immune cells grow and function (S for Superman and S for Selenium!) 2
  • Works as an antioxidant to protect healthy cells 2
  • Produces antibodies 2
  • Reduces inflammation 9

Other benefits of selenium:

  • Slows down the body’s over-active responses to certain forms of cancer 1
  • Improves male fertility 9
  • Might play a role in preventing cancer and cognitive decline 9

Plant-based foods high in selenium include:

  • Garlic1, broccoli1, brazil nuts1, barley1, brown rice9, lentils9

 

Your Vegan Family plant-based recipes high in selenium:

Dairy-Free Pudding: It’s Vegan, Chocolate and Inspiringly Healthy

Vegan Ginger Cookies 

Raspberry Lemon Chia Parfait 

  


Eating a smart plant-based diet will support your immune system by providing the essential nutrients your body needs like vitamin E, vitamin A, iron, and selenium and the co-factors you need to absorb and utilize them. 

The best way to stay healthy and happy is to feed your body, cells, and immune system with high-quality, plant-based foods – especially during a pandemic! Get your immune system warriors ready for battle with recipes from Your Vegan Family. Each recipe has a full nutritional analysis included at the bottom of the page. 

Through experimenting in our kitchen and getting feedback from our two young sons, we create nutritionally-dense, healthy, plant-based recipes to share with the world. You can find more about our recipes, our family, and our story here: www.yourveganfamily.com

 


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Written by Your Vegan Family 

Stacy and Markus live an adventurous vegan lifestyle and write articles about their experiences cooking global vegan cuisine, creating businesses, raising vegan kids, and traveling through more than 65 countries. They earned degrees in molecular biology and acupuncture, consulted over decades for healthcare companies and individuals, created businesses in Asian medicine, eco-tourism, cultural immersion, and taught yoga in myriad venues.

We’ve learned a lot from eating a plant-based diet for 25 years and are eager to share more with you. Learn more on our About Us page.


Other sources of info:  

  1. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/eat-these-foods-to-boost-your-immune-system/
  2. https://www.hsprh.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/nutrition-and-immunity/ 

Vitamin E

  1. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/
  2. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-954/vitamin-e
  3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-vitamin-e/art-20364144

Vitamin A

  1. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3936685/ 

Iron

  1. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-Consumer/ 

Selenium

  1. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Selenium-HealthProfessional/

 

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