5 Supplements that Boost Your Immune Function

5 Supplements that Boost Your Immune Function

Jan 11, 2024 | Written by Matthew Lees, PhD and Marion Hall | Reviewed by Scott Sherr, MD and Marion Hall

The immune system is a vitally important network that integrates organs, cells, and proteins throughout the body to fight infection and protect cells from abnormal changes. Without it, we would have no way to protect ourselves from harmful things that enter the body, such as disease-causing germs or pathogens (bacteria, fungi, viruses, or parasites). In this role, the immune system has two arms, referred to as the innate and adaptive systems [1,2].

The innate system defends against foreign bodies, injuries, and pathogens, and is a faster albeit more general line of defense. The adaptive system is slower to engage but is geared towards specific pathogens or altered cells within the body.

The immune system does far more than simply fight infection. It also recognizes and neutralizes harmful substances we might encounter in the environment. It also detects abnormal cells, such as those associated with cancer, that can lead to disease and death.

When the immune system is operating normally, we are completely unaware, but when problems arise or it isn’t functioning as well as it should, we tend to get sick. Germs that the body hasn’t encountered before are likely to make us ill.

In today’s article, we will take a look at five supplements (and a bonus!) that can support and enhance the immune system to work more optimally to maximize health and well-being.

1. Zinc

Zinc is a well-known mineral and micronutrient that has a significant role in the healthy function and regulation of the immune system [3]. It is an essential trace mineral for all organisms and has been referred to as “the gatekeeper of immune function” [4], so it is fitting that we address it first in this article.

Zinc deficiency is associated with imbalanced immune reactions that favor allergies and autoimmune diseases. In its severe form, zinc deficiency manifests with clinical symptoms like lymphopenia (insufficient white blood cells, or lymphocytes), decreased ratios of T helper cells to cytotoxic T cells, decreased natural killer cell activity, and increased monocyte cytotoxicity.

Supplementation with zinc, under the supervision of a physician, can be a helpful strategy, especially in older people, to ensure that these elements of the immune system remain in optimal function. Careful attention must be paid to the dose, timing, length of treatment, and form of zinc consumed [5].

2. Cordycepin

Cordycepin is a derivative of the nucleoside adenosine, that was initially extracted from the Cordyceps militaris fungus but can now be produced synthetically [6]. It can also be obtained from other fungi within the Cordyceps genus. These fungi have received attention in recent decades due to their immunostimulatory potential [7].

The Cordyceps species, its extracts, and bioactive constituents have been linked with cytokine production, the cellular signaling proteins of the immune system that play a major role in inflammatory and immune responses [8].

Early research has shown promise for Cordyceps in promoting animal survival against influenza by boosting the immune system, whilst also demonstrating anti-inflammatory effects [9]. More recently, work has shown that 500 mg of cordyceps consumed as a food supplement three times a day showed effectiveness in patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 infection [10].

3. Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are major components of cell membranes that must be consumed in the diet (i.e., essential fatty acids). Adequate availability of omega-3s supports the integrity and strength of cell membranes throughout the body, including that of immune cells.

In recent years, research has found that omega-3s don’t just help with suppressing inflammation, they also enhance the effectiveness and function of B cells (cells that produce antibodies against pathogens) [11].

Research on omega-3 supplements has indicated that the supplement formulation should be obtained from a certified sustainable source, free from heavy metals and organic pollutants, with minimal processing, and composed of the natural triglyceride form of the fatty acids for improved safety and effectiveness in providing optimal immune support [12].

4. Vitamin C

An essential vitamin and micronutrient, vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and cofactor for a plethora of biosynthetic and gene-regulatory enzymes [13]. It supports epithelial barrier function against pathogens (the mucus membranes of the mouth and nose for example) and also accumulates in phagocytic cells such as neutrophils that are involved in the process of destroying invading pathogens as a first line of defense. Vitamin C is also needed for the clearance of spent neutrophils from the site of infection by macrophages, reducing tissue damage and necrosis.

Vitamin C deficiency is associated with impaired immunity and higher susceptibility to infections. Supplementation with this important vitamin appears to be able to prevent and treat respiratory and systematic infections [13]. To optimize the cell and tissue levels of vitamin C as a prophylactic against infection, 100-200 mg/day is advised as an initial dietary intake. The treatment of an established infection requires higher amounts due to the increased inflammatory response and metabolic demand [13].

Research studies suggest that adequate intakes of vitamin C and zinc (see above) ameliorate symptoms and shorten the duration of respiratory tract infections like the common cold. Furthermore, vitamin C and zinc reduce the incidence and improve the outcome of pneumonia, malaria, and diarrhea infections, especially in children in developing countries [14].

5. Vitamin D

Although its reputation as the “sunshine vitamin” is well established, alongside its roles in calcium and bone homeostasis [15], vitamin D is also important for immune function.

The vitamin D receptor is expressed on immune cells (i.e., T cells, B cells, and antigen-presenting cells) and vitamin D itself can modulate innate and adaptive immune responses.

Vitamin D deficiency can bring about an increased risk of infection and increased autoimmunity. It is associated with conditions such as psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and autoimmune diseases.

The current recommendation is to increase vitamin D intake and get sufficient sunlight exposure for a serum vitamin D level of 30 ng/mL (75 nmol/L) and better at 40-60 ng/mL (100-150 nmol/L) to obtain optimal health benefits [16].

Bonus: GABA supplements

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is one of the most important inhibitory neurotransmitters in our brain. GABAergic function refers to the relaxation effects that occur through GABA and its receptors in the brain.

While studies have shown that increasing GABA production or intake may improve sleep quality, decrease anxiety, have neuroprotective effects, suppress neurodegeneration, and decrease blood pressure [17,18], it is also known to enhance immune system function.

GABA has various effects on immune cells, such as activation or suppression of cytokine secretion, cell proliferation modification, and cell migration [19]. It also plays a role in autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as modulating the immune response to infections [19]. In an animal model for multiple sclerosis, increasing GABAergic activity ameliorated ongoing paralysis in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis via inhibition of inflammation [20].

Given all this information, you must be wondering how to increase your GABA intake! Considering the name of this section, you think we're probably going to suggest GABA supplements. (If you want to learn about other methods to increase GABA in your brain, you can read our list here!)

However, while several drugs can mimic or increase GABA in the brain, such as benzodiazepines and gabapentin, very few supplements are capable of the same thing. This is because exogenous GABA taken as a supplement has very poor bioavailability and cannot penetrate the blood-brain barrier (BBB) on its own [21]. It is glutamate, with the help of vitamin B6, that can cross the BBB to later be converted into GABA. You can learn more about this process in our GABA guide.

But fear not, there are still ways to help GABA get to your brain and to help modulate your GABA system without using drugs, some of which can be found below:

  • Niacin bound to GABA forms N-nicotinoyl-GABA, which helps GABA cross the BBB by increasing both vitamin B3 and GABA levels in the brain.
  • Kava (Piper methysticum) increases the binding of GABA, though the full mechanism has not yet been established [22].
  • Honokiol interacts with GABA receptors in the brain, enhancing their response to GABA and increasing GABAergic neurotransmission.
  • Agarin binds to and activates GABA receptors in the brain, increasing GABA neurotransmission.
  • Cannabidiol (CBD) modulates brain excitatory glutamate and inhibitory GABA levels, and has been found to increase GABA levels and modulate glutamate-GABA systems, though further research is still needed [23].
  • Cannabinol (CBN) indirectly modulates the GABA system and is found to be more effective when used with CBD [24].

 
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Summary

In this article, we looked at five different supplements and their roles in enhancing immune function. We explored the impact of zinc, the important antioxidant vitamin C, the fat-soluble vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and cordycepin. We also discussed how increasing GABA production or intake can boost your immune function, and provided some non-drug ways to do so.

If you’re planning on taking any new supplementation, make sure to consult with a medical professional before doing so.

 

References

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    Authors

    Matthew Lees earned his PhD in exercise physiology, nutrition and aging from Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom in 2020. To date he has published over 35 peer-reviewed academic publications and has presented his work at national and international conferences. His passions lie in communicating research findings to lay audiences and finding the answers to the most challenging questions in nutrition, health, and disease.

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