During cold and flu season, people seem to fall into one of three groups: sick, getting over being sick, and hoping to not get sick again. Currently, I’m in the third group, so everywhere I go, I try to hold my breath in case it helps. That’s not a great long-term strategy. A better long-term strategy is to keep my immune system functioning at its best year round.

A healthy immune system is one more reason to follow an overall healthy lifestyle. A healthy immune system helps reduce the risk of catching the disease-causing organisms that cause infections, colds and flu.

Your immune system is complicated. It includes many types cells and systems that work together to recognize and destroy harmful viruses and bacteria. But like all parts of your body, it can’t do its job best unless you support it by eating well and getting regular physical activity.

How can I strengthen my immune system?

In general, eating healthy foods and meeting nutrient needs supports a healthy immune system. While all nutrients are important for good health, some are known to have specific roles in helping your immune system work.  Nutrients like protein, zinc and vitamins A, C and E are important. Examples of foods that have  these nutrients are:

Protein: fish, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), lean meat or poultry, tofu, nuts and seeds, eggs, and milk and milk products

Zinc: lean meat and poultry, fish, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds

Vitamin A: dark green or orange vegetables, red, yellow and green sweet peppers, sweet potatoes, and winter squash. These are good sources of carotenoids, which our bodies convert to Vitamin A. Preformed vitamin A is found in fatty fish and fortified foods like milk and soy beverage.

Vitamin C: kiwis, oranges, red, yellow and green sweet peppers, guava, broccoli, strawberries, and Brussels sprouts

Vitamin E: nuts and seeds, nut and seed butters, avocadoes, fish, vegetable oils, and leafy green vegetables

These foods are just examples. Research doesn’t recommend one food over another, but does support including a variety of healthy foods every day.

If you think that your diet isn’t meeting your needs, your health care provider or dietitian may suggest a multivitamin or mineral supplement to help prevent or correct a deficiency. Getting enough vitamins and minerals is important, but it’s also important to know that more is usually not better.

Unless directed by your health care provider, avoid large doses of single vitamin or mineral supplements. For example, having enough zinc in your diet is good for the immune system, but taking large amounts of zinc when you don’t need to can actually lower the immune system.

Another important part of a healthy lifestyle to keep your immune system working its best is regular physical activity.