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Natural foods to support your immune system health

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Brush up on the role your immune system plays in keeping you healthy, and what you can do to support its function all year long. We also explore the old adage 'you are what you eat' and offer up our top immune-enhancing foods.

Tomato and carrot soup in a bowl with pumpkin seeds and almonds
Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash

What is your immune system?

Your immune system is your body’s first line of defence against foreign invaders and microbes, otherwise known as pathogens (germs, viruses and bacteria).

It’s a complex system made up of a network of cells, tissues and organs. They join forces to fight off all the microbes we come into contact with on a daily basis through the skin and the mucous membranes. The immune system is always hard at work, adapting to various would-be invaders, remembering old pathogens its already dealt with and neutralising and removing new ones virtually around the clock. But every now and then a germ sneaks in and, voila, you can get sick.

There are multiple reasons this can happen: a pathogen can be particularly aggressive, or you’ve come into contact with one you haven’t encountered before.

Also, we tend to get sicker in winter, for reasons ranging from the fact that cold viruses may survive longer and spread faster in lower temperatures to a seasonal reduction in vitamin D levels, which play a role in supporting immune health.

How you can boost your immune system

Developing healthy lifestyle habits is the best strategy for strengthening your immune system. Top tips to follow:
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Get 7–9 hours’ sleep a night
  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Try to minimise stress
  • Eat a diet high in fruit and vegetables

How can foods help?

Diet is one of the most important ways to support your immune system. Natural, wholefoods deliver the enhancing, protective properties you need.

When you’re trying to stay healthy, it might be a good idea to cut back on foods that can lead to inflammation. This includes processed meats, trans and saturated fats, refined carbohydrates (such as white bread, pasta, flour and rice), processed meats and snacks, and sugary foods and drinks.

Instead, you want to feed your body with foods full of phytonutrients, antioxidants vitamins and minerals. With some simple dietary adjustments and by adopting antioxidant rich foods, you can help boost your immune system health and potentially keep bugs at bay.

Alternatively, the wrong choices can leave us feeling tired and flat. Sometimes you think you are choosing correctly but this may not be the case. We’re here to help you make the right choices.


Pumpkin, lentil, spinach and tomatoes on a plate

Eat plenty of wholefoods to get your phytonutrients, antioxidants vitamins and minerals that help support a healthy immune system. Photo: iStock


Antioxidant-rich and immune-boosting foods

There are many vitamins and food compounds which act as antioxidants in the body. These include vitamins, A, C, E and phytonutrients such as flavonoids and anthocyanidins.

Antioxidants are great for fighting off free radicals which the body produces in response to damage to cells. This can be caused by substances such as alcohol, smoking, pollution, UV exposure and fast food and the damage to the cells can negatively impact the immune system.

By keeping free radicals at bay, through adding these vitamins and phytonutrients to your diet, it may help you to maintain a healthy immune system. Below are some examples of commonly used foods that are high in antioxidants and simple to incorporate into your diet:
  • Berries blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are high in anthocyanins which give berries their red and purple colour as well as their antioxidant ability. Berries are always best fresh but are delicious when added to smoothies, juices or desserts
  • Almonds – high in vitamin E, a fat-soluble nutrient, almonds have also been found to be good for heart health . They are a great snack to have on hand for those mid-afternoon hunger cravings
  • Oranges, and other citrus fruits – typically known to be high in vitamin C. One orange (131 grams) supplies nearly 100 per cent of the recommended dietary intake of vitamin C. As well as being an antioxidant, vitamin C helps to support immune system function
  • Garlic – Add some fresh garlic to your stir fries, pasta dishes and even salad dressing – not only will it give your meal a great flavour, but it also contains unique immune boosting properties. Garlic has a long history of use as both a food and a medicine and has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties
  • Ginger – Not only does ginger add delicious flavor to many dishes, it is traditionally used to help relieve some symptoms associated with the common cold and it’s warming properties make for a great home remedy during the colder months
  • Mushrooms – varieties such as shiitake, maitake (‘hen of the woods’) and reishi are packed with antioxidants, minerals, vitamins B, C & D and bioactive compounds called beta-glucans, known to support immune defence
  • Spinach, kale and silverbeet – all boast high levels of vitamin C and folate, a naturally occurring B vitamin crucial for healthy cell function
  • Cauliflower – like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable rich in vitamin C, antioxidants and choline, an essential nutrient known to keep inflammation in check
Individual food groups are great for keeping your immune system healthy. However, your best option for optimal health for the whole body is to consume whole foods and a varied diet.

Mexican cauliflower rice in a bowl with sweet potato, lime and avocado

Make this: Mexican cauliflower rice bowls. Photo: Roberta Nelson

Using food when you have a cold

Don’t underestimate the healing power of food during the time that you have a cold. It is important to drink a lot of liquids when you have a cold or flu, and a great way of getting those fluids is through a tea or a broth, which may also help ease your symptoms. Here are a couple of recipes to try:

Cold and flu season tea

  • 3 cm stem of ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon
  • ¼ lemon
  • 1 cup hot water
Grate the ginger and squeeze the juice from ½ lemon and add them to the water with the cinnamon.

Immunity broth

  • 3 cm stem of ginger
  • 1 chilli
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • Lemon juice to taste
  • 2 cups of water
Bring the ginger, chilli and garlic to the boil. Strain add lemon to taste.

If you are interested to know more, follow our three-step Action plan: How to boost your immune system health for more tips on staying healthy this winter. Or take the Immune Health Check and find out how your immune system is going.