Your Immune System: 4 Ways to Give it a Boost

Thanks to the coronavirus, sales of supposed “immune-boosting” supplements skyrocketed. But don't hop on this bandwagon just yet. You cannot take a spoonful of elderberry syrup and expect to never fall sick again. Nothing you do can magically make your immune system ironclad overnight. Instead, it's small, daily, consistent lifestyle habits like those below that build a strong immune system. Luckily, you're probably already doing a lot of these things.

Stay Active

Perhaps the best thing you can do for your immune system is to move your body regularly. A sedentary lifestyle is linked with impaired immune function and increased inflammation, which can increase the risk of numerous chronic illnesses. On the other hand, working out enhances immune response, reduces inflammation, and helps keep your entire body in top condition. Doing moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise lasting less than an hour almost every day appears to be most beneficial. This type of activity increases the circulation of immunoglobulins, anti-inflammatory cytokines, neutrophils, natural killer cells, T cells, and B cells—these are like your personal army ready to attack viruses, bacteria, and other intruders at the first hint of detection.

Stick to Whole Foods

If you need another reason to ditch the sad “Standard American Diet,” how about this: Eating a diet high in refined carbs, sugars, saturated fats, and trans fats and low in fiber, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids boosts the production of cells that promote inflammation. We want some inflammation in the short-term to spur our immune system to fight off invaders and heal. However, long-term, low-grade inflammation is like a fire that refuses to go out. With enough time, your immune system can get confused and end up thinking healthy cells are disease-causing pathogens – and attack and damage them.

Following an eating pattern similar to the Mediterranean diet – heavy in plants, moderate in poultry, eggs, dairy, and lean meats – shifts your body into more of an anti-inflammatory mode. Fiber from vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds is particularly important to support a healthy gut microbiome and immunity. As the bacteria in your gut break down these fibrous foods, they release short-chain fatty acids that regulate immune cell function.

Prioritize Quality Sleep

Most of us could use more zzz’s. But did you know inadequate sleep could actually make you sick? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University asked 153 healthy adults to track their sleep duration and sleep efficiency (the percent of time in bed they actually slept) for two weeks. Then the participants used nose drops containing rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, and were quarantined for five days. Those who slept less than seven hours were almost three times more likely to come down with a cold than those who slept at least eight hours. Those with higher sleep efficiencies were also less likely to become sick.

Take Care of Your Mental Health

There's some evidence that when you expose people to a virus, those who are most stressed are most likely to experience severe symptoms and be sick for longer. Additionally, when researchers gave stressed people the influenza vaccine, their immune systems were less efficient at producing antibodies. While it's unclear if that meant they also were less capable of fighting off the flu, consider this another reason to do what you can to manage stress. Way back in 1991, a study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that people under higher levels of psychological stress were more likely to come down with respiratory infections and the common cold. Take walks outside without your phone, meditate, build Legos, do yoga. Find what works to control the stress in your life.