Nutrition advice for the immune system

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Citrus fruits are rich in vitamin C, a nutrient crucial to help to boost the immune system. Credit: Julia Glassmacher | Lantern Reporter

Oranges, pumpkins and mushrooms are foods you would probably never find together in a dish, but they do all have one thing in common: boosting your immune system.

The foods contain key nutrients that help ensure immune health, Rachel Kopec, an assistant professor of human nutrition at Ohio State, said. These include vitamins A, D, C and E, which contribute to fighting off illness — something especially pertinent during the regular cold and flu season, as well as the current pandemic.

When it comes to the operations of the immune system, Kopec said vitamins A and D are particularly important. 

“Those are really critical in helping your immune system to function properly in identifying and maturing the sort of worker cells that circulate in your body to identify foreign pathogens,” Kopec said.

Foods that are nutrient dense in both vitamins A and D include orange vegetables, green leafy vegetables and fortified milk, which is infused with vitamins and minerals, Kopec said. She added that mushrooms and other fungi are also rich in vitamin D.

Kopec said there are other ways in which people can obtain vitamin D outside of food. She said sunlight is a great source of it, especially for those who do not consume dairy or follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. 

“Although we are starting to move toward the colder season, you can get vitamin D sufficiently each day by 15 minutes of unprotected exposure to sunlight,” Kopec said. “We don’t recommend any more than that because that increases, of course, concerns for skin damage.” 

Vitamins C and E, on the other hand, work together to help the body attack invading pathogens and prevent them from multiplying, she said. 

Green and red peppers, strawberries and citrus fruits — such as oranges and grapefruits —  are all rich in vitamin C, while vitamin E is found in plant oils used to cook as well as nuts and seeds, Kopec said. 

Something Kopec said she promotes and studies is getting nutrients from a food source, because it is not just the amount you are consuming, but how well your body absorbs the form it is in. 

“When you’re getting these nutrients from food based sources, they are often packaged in such a way that they are more easily delivered or absorbable than if you’re getting them in a purified or crystallized form from the supplement,” Kopec said.

Janele Bayless, the wellness coordinator for nutrition education at Ohio State, said more than just the right diet can help your body’s immune response.

Bayless said hydration is also key because becoming dehydrated can cause headaches, affect cognitive performance and contribute to energy loss — all things that can tax the body and negatively impact one’s immune system. 

Bayless said exercising and taking care of your mental health are also key to a healthy lifestyle and resources through the wellness center and at the RPAC can assist students in doing so. 

Rachel Green, a human nutrition dietetic intern at the College of Education and Human Ecology, said she recommends drinking eight to 10 glasses of water a day and sleeping seven to eight hours a night.

“The basics of supporting your health are also the basics of supporting your immune health,” Green said.  

When it comes to COVID-19, however, just consuming these foods will not prevent you from contracting an infectious disease but rather aid your body in fending them off, Kopec said.  

“All of these [nutrients] are really critical to have as armor that you put on in advance to help your body fend or ward off any potential infection,” Kopec said. 

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