Do you want to know how to strengthen your immune system? First, it helps to understand how it works and why it’s important. The immune system is the body’s first line of defense against infection and disease. It fights everything from cold and flu viruses to serious illnesses like cancer.
“The immune system is a collection of cells, tissues, and organs that all work together to protect the body from viruses and bacteria,” says Registered Dietitian Caroline Passerrello, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (opens in new tab) and a faculty member in the Dietitian Nutritionist Program at the University of Pittsburgh.
“There are multiple lines of defense that work together to keep our bodies functioning as intended. Some of them fight to keep substances out of the body and others work to fight off viruses and bacteria that have entered the body. One line of defense is the mucous membrane tissue and mucus — this is a sticky substance that prevents germs from entering our body through our nose. Our skin, our largest organ, is another line of defense for the immune system.”
Simply put, the stronger your immune system, the less likely you are to get sick. Here our experts explain more about the natural support of the immune system.
Can you actually “boost” your immune system?
While we’d all love to know how to boost our immune systems and never get sick, the truth is, there are no scientifically proven links between lifestyle changes and improved immunity.
The immunologist Dr. Brian Ferguson, associate professor of immunology at the University of Cambridge, tells Live Science that you can’t really “boost” the immune system. “You can keep it healthy and working effectively with a normal diet and exercise, but nothing really ‘speeds’ it up,” he says.
dr Brian Ferguson studied Biochemistry at Imperial College, London and was a PhD student at University College London under the supervision of Prof. Paul Driscoll and Dr. Huseyin Mehmet. This work contributed to the structural and molecular biology of death receptor signaling.
In fact, increasing the number of cells in the body—whether they’re immune cells or otherwise—isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“We don’t want to ‘boost’ our immune systems — an overactive immune system is not healthy,” says Passerrello. “But we can take steps to support our immune system and keep it working at its best.”
Caroline Passerrello is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a faculty member of the Dietitian Nutritionist Program at the University of Pittsburgh, and a co-author of Human Nutrition: Science for Healthy Living (3rd Edition). Passerrello’s teaching focuses on the principles of education, community-engaged science, public health nutrition, and personal and professional development skills for Registered Dietitians.
A little study (opens in new tab) of healthy twins between the ages of eight and 82 concluded that while genetics play a role, our immunity is largely determined by non-hereditary factors. The germs we are exposed to throughout our lives, as well as individual lifestyle factors such as sleep, stress, diet and exercise play an important role in the strength of our body’s immune system.
dr Deepak Ravindran (opens in new tab)MD, told Live Science, “Because the majority of the immune system resides in the gut, traditional methods of ‘boosting’ the immune system have centered around diet and supplements.
“The immune and nervous systems are closely linked, so methods like mindfulness, breathing techniques, and meditation can also have the same effect on the immune system. Relaxation strategies centered around touch, art therapy, grounding techniques, dance and movement can all have the same effect of calming and boosting the immune system.”
This is how you support your immune system
Being physically active and eating a balanced and nutritious diet are all ways to naturally support the immune system, says Passerrello.
Aim for antioxidants
The right nutrients are essential for immune function and help stimulate the production of white blood cells and antibodies that fight disease. “Antioxidants are components of food that protect us at the cellular level — they protect our cells by neutralizing potentially harmful substances that enter our bodies,” she says. “Most plant foods are good sources of antioxidants.”
Eat fermented foods
According to Passerrello, inflammation is a sign that our body is using the immune system to try to restore balance. “Our bodies need helpful bacteria to help balance the bacteria in our gut and keep inflammation at bay,” she says. Eating gut-friendly probiotic foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, and tempeh is a great way to support the immune system.
Vary your vitamin C sources
Vitamin C is a key component of white blood cells and they play a huge role within the immune system and help fight infection. Cup for cup, red peppers have more vitamin C than citrus fruits, so look for sources of vitamin C beyond citrus fruits.
zone in on zinc
“Zinc deficiency can impair both our innate and adaptive immunity due to its role in many different cell types within the immune system,” says Passerrello. “Example: Our lymphocytes are a type of cell that plays a role in immunity. The activity of the lymphocytes depends on sufficient zinc levels. Beef, grains, shellfish, seeds and legumes are good sources of zinc.”
Do sports regularly
According to a study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, regular exercise has been shown to help reduce stress, improve immune system regulation and “delay the onset of age-related dysfunction.” (opens in new tab).
minimize stress levels
“While there are many stressors in our lives that are beyond our individual control, taking steps to manage stress will also support a healthy immune system,” says Passerrello.
“There is also a bi-directional relationship between immunity and mental health, a study published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Immunology (opens in new tab) found.”
Do not smoke
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (opens in new tab)Smoking damages the immune system and can make the body less effective at fighting disease.
Smoking is also known to impair the balance (balance) of the immune system, which increases the risk of various immune and autoimmune diseases. These are conditions caused when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and tissues in the body.
Get good sleep
Sleep and immunity have a two-way relationship (opens in new tab). Your immune response, for example to a viral infection, can interfere with sleep. And sleep deprivation causes the body to produce more cortisol (the stress hormone), and we’ve heard before that stress can affect our immunity. Meanwhile, good sleep can boost the immune system.
How does the immune system change with age?
Immunity, the body’s defense system, tends to weaken with age, says Passerrello. “We know that after years of working and protecting our bodies, the immune system decreases in efficiency and effectiveness as we age.”
The thing is, as you get older, not only do you have fewer immune cells, the ones you have stop communicating with each other. Simply put, this means they take longer to respond to harmful germs and are less efficient at fighting infection and disease.
Unfortunately, there is no magic pill or thing we can do or eat that is guaranteed to boost our immune system and keep us from getting sick. The best we can do is try to take care of ourselves, eat well and exercise regularly to give our immune system the best chance of doing a good job.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide medical advice.