Immunonutrition: Can We Stimulate the Immune System?

Is it possible to stimulate the immune system by consuming certain nutrients? Here's what you need to know about immunonutrition.
Immunonutrition: Can We Stimulate the Immune System?

Last update: 22 May, 2021

Immunonutrition is the science that studies the relationship between nutrients and immunity. Its objectives are to understand the immunological markers associated with nutritional status. In this way, it aims to develop a model of how the compounds present in food influence the body’s immune response to viruses, bacteria, and toxins.  Today, we’ll take a closer look at immunonutrition and nutrients that may stimulate the immune system.

Immunonutrition: nutrients that stimulate the immune system

Some substances have the property of enhancing human immunity, or at least establishing a series of interactions with it. Below, we’ll take a look at the nutrients that stimulate the immune system, according to scientific evidence.

Glutamine

A person pouring supplements into his hand.
Glutamine supplementation is related to benefits associated with the gastrointestinal tract.

The first example is glutamine. This is a non-essential amino acid that has functions related to the protection of the digestive tract. Supplementation with this substance improves intestinal mucosa and reduces hospital stays in bone marrow transplant patients according to scientific literature.

Arginine

This is another amino acid, which, in this case, is capable of improving cellular immune function and wound healing. However, scientific literature indicates that supplementation with this substance may reduce inflammatory responses. For this reason, more studies are necessary in order to ensure its efficacy.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These fatty acids regulate the synthesis of eicosanoids which, in turn, act as mediators of the immune response. They also have an important anti-inflammatory effect that serves to counteract the inflammatory effect of omega-6, which is present in processed foods.

Scientific studies point out the importance of maintaining a balanced intake of both nutrients in order not to cause a state of inflammation.

How to improve the intake of these nutrients?

To optimize your immune response, you should consume quality protein on a daily basis. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least 0.8 g of protein per kg of body weight for sedentary people. These recommendations increase when it comes to athletes.

In addition, it’s important to take into account that 50% of our protein intake should be of animal origin to ensure the intake of all essential amino acids in the correct proportion.

In this regard, we should prioritize the intake of fish over meat. This way, and with regular consumption of oily fish, it’s more likely that we’ll reach the recommended omega-3 intake.

We can also find this nutrient in vegetable oils and fruits such as avocado. Of course, it’s best to consume oils raw in order to avoid the formation of toxic compounds that can affect our health.

Is immunonutrition the same as supplementation?

Examples of probiotic foods.
The only supplements that seem to be favorable for a large part of the population are probiotics. For other supplements, more evidence is needed.

In principle, experts don’t recommend nutrient supplementation except in cases of special needs, deficiencies, or illness. The long-term effects of supplementation with certain vitamins, for example, are not known with certainty.

The only substances whose supplementation could be favorable for a broad range of the population are probiotics. In addition, such substances are beginning to be closely related to immune function. Many trials are taking place in this regard and it won’t be long before conclusions and evidence are forthcoming.

Apart from this case, and that of vitamin D due to its deficiency, experts don’t recommend supplementation. A separate case would be that of athletes, especially when seeking an increase in performance.

In sedentary people, and even when seeking to improve the immune system, current recommendations advocate for a varied and balanced diet and regular physical exercise. However, immunonutrition is a very broad field and much remains to be explored.

Immunonutrition: What should we remember?

Immunonutrition is a relatively new science with a lot of ground to cover. Despite that, there are already certain discoveries in this regard. For example, we already know that there are nutrients that can modulate and stimulate the immune system.

In addition, we have the case of probiotics, which promise to revolutionize this sector in the coming years. With better knowledge of the genome and of this area, the trend is to evolve towards personalized and individualized nutrition.

However, the evidence we have today leads us to seek a varied and balanced diet. It’s important to ensure protein and omega-3 intake, but it’s also important to reduce the consumption of processed foods and toxic elements such as alcohol.

As supplements, only probiotics could be valued by default, and beneficial to a large part of the population. In the case of amino acid supplementation, professionals should assess cases on an individual basis.

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  • Wang B., Wu G., Zhou Z., Dai Z., et al., Glutamine and intestinal barrier function. Amino Acids. 2015. 47 (10): 2143-54.
  • Li J., Zhang Z., Huang X., L-Arginine and allopurinol supplementation attenuates inflammatory mediators in human osteoblasts osteoarthritis cells. Int J Biol Macromol, 2018. 118: 716-721.
  • Tortosa Caparros E., Navas Carrillo D., Marín F., Orenes Piñero E., Anti inflammatory effects of omega 3 and omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in cardiovascular disease and metablic syndrome. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr, 2017. 57 (16): 3421-3429.