Supporting the immune system with diet

A properly functioning immune system is responsible for fighting pathogens. While in the case of bacterial infections, the immune system can count on additional support in the form of administered antibiotics, in the case of diseases caused by viruses, medicine has a smaller arsenal. Considering that the immune system consists of organs, cells, tissues and proteins that together carry out physical and biochemical processes to fight pathogens, providing the body with the right building materials, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants is essential for their proper functioning. Boosting immunity can have a significant impact on the course of infections of various origins.

Including certain foods in your diet can boost your body’s immune response.This process is slow and long lasting, and the effects are difficult to measure, but there are scientific indications that changing diet and lifestyle can strengthen the body’s natural defences[1].

Diversity is the key to proper nutrition. Consuming only one product or a group of products, even if it has an immune-supporting effect, is not enough to fight a specific infection.

You should also pay attention to the portion size and recommended daily intake, so that you do not get too much of some nutrients and too little of others.

Taking care of your physical health and immunity, it is worth composing the diet in accordance with the recommendations contained in the Pyramid of Healthy Nutrition and Physical Activity.Among the important nutritional elements supporting the immune system, there are a few important ones that should be included in a properly balanced diet:


Protein is not only a building material for tissues and organs. The immune cells themselves are partly made of protein and they also produce special proteins called antibodies. These, in turn, “seek out” and destroy viruses and bacteria that attack the body[2].

An adequate supply of this nutrient is necessary for these reactions to take place properly. A diet that is too low in protein can lead to symptoms of weakness, fatigue, apathy and immune disorders[3]. That is why it is not only worth knowing which products contain the optimal amounts of protein, but also in which of them it is complete and easily digestible.

Such products include mainly lean meatsuch as turkey and chicken breast fillets, lean beef, fish, eggs, dairy products, and in the case of plant sources, especially peas, beans and soybeans[4]. Consuming these foods while we’re in good shape is not a problem. However, in the event of disease, people often experience loss of appetite, which makes maintaining a proper diet much more difficult.

One of the symptoms that may occur in the course of an infection is fever, which increases the demand for protein. Respiratory infections are often associated with the overproduction of mucus, the formation of which also requires protein, hence the demand for it becomes even higher.

In the face of the increased demand for protein, with simultaneous loss of appetite and deterioration of the sense of smell and taste constitute a big obstacle for its supplementation. In such case, broth[5]is a good choice, especially one cooked on lean poultry such as turkey breast. This is high-protein soup with proven anti-inflammatory properties, helping to thin the mucus in the upper and lower respiratory tract and cough it out[6].

Lean broth is easily digestible and at the same time improves the body’s hydration, which is important in infections accompanied with fever, which promotes dehydration[7]. Not only does broth help to relieve the symptoms of a common cold, but it also protects against illness. Poultry, such as turkey meat, is a source of vitamin B6. Vitamin B6, in addition to supporting haematopoietic processes and thus preventing anaemia, which is important in the case of body weakness, also helps in the proper functioning of the immune system, as it participates in the formation of antibodies. Vitamin B6 deficiency leads to inflammatory changes, e.g. in the oral mucosa, which promote the formation of an entry gate for infection and facilitate its progression. About 100 g of cooked turkey meat in broth covers 40-50% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin B6. Turkey meat is also a source of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 participates in the body’s energy metabolism, preventing fatigue, which is important for convalescents. Similarly to vitamin B6, it prevents anaemia, which is favoured by infections associated with high fever, and it also helps in the proper functioning of the immune system. Poultry broth also contains gelatin, chondroitin and other nutrients that help in the recovery process after an illness.

Boosting immunity

Other food products that are rich in nutrients and antioxidants also play an important role in boosting immunity.[8]Vegetables and fruit are rich in these elements – so when you prepare food you should remember to include them in every meal.

Fruit, in particular berries and citrus, are extremely rich in vitamins C[9]and A, which are known for their antioxidant properties, supporting immunity, respiratory system functions and regeneration of connective tissue. Many phytonutrients contained in fruit and vegetables have anti-inflammatory properties, so people who want to support their immune system should frequently eat such vegetables as garlic[10], onion, red pepper and spinach[11].

The role of microflora in boosting immunity

Currently, a lot of research is devoted to the role of micro-organisms inhabiting the lumen of the digestive tract in promoting immunity[12]. Many strains of friendly gut bacteria stimulate the host’s immune responses, displace pathogenic micro-organisms, seal the intestinal barrier, produce certain vitamins on their own, and improve intestinal peristalsis.

To ensure the right conditions for the multiplication of probiotic microflora, you should take care of a proper diet rich in dietary fibre and water-soluble fibre, which constitutes a substrate for friendly micro-organisms[13]. Therefore, the inclusion of whole grain, unprocessed products, such as nuts, seeds and dry seeds of legumes in your menu is beneficial for their development. It is worth remembering that some products such as buttermilk, yoghurt, silage and fermented foods contain lactic acid bacteria, which are a natural probiotic, especially important when taking antibiotics.


Boosting immunity is a process that takes many months. The most important factors supporting immunity are a proper diet and prevention of nutritional deficiencies – especially when it comes to protein, a hygienic lifestyle and moderate physical activity[14]. A balanced diet containing sources of essential vitamins, minerals and active plant compounds with antioxidant properties helps counteract the development of infections. In people who have already fallen ill, an appropriately increased supply of protein, for example, from turkey meat, will allow for a more efficient recovery and return to full health.

[1]Chandra, R. K. (2002). Nutrition and the immune system from birth to old age. European journal
of clinical nutrition
56(3), S73-S76.

[2]Li, P., Yin, Y. L., Li, D., Kim, S. W., & Wu, G. (2007). Amino acids and immune function. British Journal of Nutrition,98(2), 237-252.

[3]Long, C. L., Schaffel, N., Geiger, J. W., Schiller, W. R., & Blakemore, W. S. (1979). Metabolic response to injury and illness: estimation of energy and protein needs from indirect calorimetry and nitrogen balance. Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition3(6), 452-456.

[4]Hoyles, L., & Vulevic, J. (2008). Diet, immunity and functional foods. In GI Microbiota and Regulation of the Immune System(pp. 79-92). Springer, New York, NY.

[5]Rennard, B. O., Ertl, R. F., Gossman, G. L., Robbins, R. A., & Rennard, S. I. (2000). 
Chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro. Chest118(4), 1150-1157.

[6]Saketkhoo, K., Januszkiewicz, A., & Sackner, M. A. (1978). Effects of drinking hot water, cold water, and chicken soup on nasal mucus velocity and nasal airflow resistance. Chest74(4), 408-410.

[7]Popkin, B. M., D’Anci, K. E., & Rosenberg, I. H. (2010). Water, hydration, and health. Nutrition reviews68(8), 439-458.

[8]Tilg, H., & Moschen, A. R. (2015). Food, immunity, and the microbiome. Gastroenterology,
148(6), 1107-1119.

[9]Hemilä, H., & Chalker, E. (2013). Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (1).

[10]Bayan, L., Koulivand, P. H., & Gorji, A. (2014). Garlic: a review of potential therapeutic effects. Avicenna journal of phytomedicine4(1), 1.

[11]Serafini, M., & Peluso, I. (2016). Functional foods for health: the interrelated antioxidant and anti-inflammatory role of fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices and cocoa in humans. Current Pharmaceutical Design22(44), 6701-6715.

[12]Ozen, M., & Dinleyici, E. C. (2015). The history of probiotics: the untold story. Beneficial microbes6(2), 159-165.

[13]Holscher, H. D. (2017). Dietary fiber and prebiotics and the gastrointestinal microbiota. Gut microbes8(2), 172-184.

[14]Simpson, R. J., Kunz, H., Agha, N., & Graff, R. (2015). Exercise and the regulation of immune functions. In Progress in molecular biology and translational science(Vol. 135, pp. 355-380). Academic Press.