How can you improve your immune system? On the whole, your immune system does a remarkable job of defending you against disease-causing microorganisms. But sometimes it fails: A germ invades successfully and makes you sick. Is it possible to intervene in this process and boost your immune system? What if you improve your diet? Take certain vitamins or herbal preparations? Make other lifestyle changes in the hope of producing a near-perfect immune response?
What can you do to boost your immune system?
The idea of boosting your immunity is enticing, but the ability to do so has proved elusive for several reasons. The immune system is precisely that — a system, not a single entity. To function well, it requires balance and harmony. There is still much that researchers don’t know about the intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response. For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function.
Focus on food
“I believe in the power of immune-boosting foods,” says Dr. Darling. “Choosing whole, unprocessed foods does wonders for overall health.”
Dr. Darling recommends these immunity boosters:
- Garlic: Allicin, a compound in garlic, is well-known for its ability to boost the immune system. The most benefit comes from eating one-half of a raw garlic clove daily. If you can’t stomach raw garlic, the next best thing is to roast it.
- Prebiotics: Robust gut bacteria protect us against infection. Keep those bacteria healthy with prebiotics that contain fiber, specifically inulin fiber. Excellent sources of prebiotics are Jerusalem artichokes, green bananas or plantains, Jicama root and asparagus.
- Vitamin C-rich foods: Vitamin C is known to boost immunity. One study found that older adults who ate kiwi every day for a month had a significant decrease in the severity and duration of upper respiratory infection symptoms. “People often reach for orange juice to get vitamin C, but juice has a lot of sugar,” says Dr. Darling. “It’s better to get vitamin C from oranges, broccoli, kiwi or cantaloupe.”
- Antioxidants: Stress can lead to lowered immunity and make you more prone to illness. Colorful fruits and vegetables including berries, carrots and spinach have antioxidants that protect you against oxidative stress, which translates to a stronger immune system.
Living under constant stress, even low-grade, that continues day in and out, causes the body to produce too much cortisol, the stress hormone. Over time, elevated cortisol lowers your resistance to fighting off infection and contributes to poor sleep and higher blood pressure.
Protect yourself from stress and bolster your immune system with a few lifestyle tweaks:
- Sleep: Yep, it’s easier said than done (especially if you’re an insomniac). But here’s the deal — you need seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night to fight off infection. “Prioritize sleep. If you need help, choose a tried-and-true technique known as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I,” says Dr. Darling. “Talk with your doctor to find a reputable therapist or download a CBT-I app.”
- Meditation: Even five minutes a day of guided meditation, or simply sitting quietly and focusing on your breath, can make a difference. Meditation lowers your heart rate and blood pressure and reduces anxiety. Plus, it’s calming. So it’s not surprising that it also helps you sleep.
- Exercise: “Exercise increases your resilience so you can fight off infection,” says Dr. Darling. “Our bodies function better when we’re physically active every day.” Dr. Darling recommends carving out at least 10 minutes a day, ideally 30 minutes, and doing a mixture of cardio and strength training.
- Kick Back and Relax: Some stress can be a good thing. It helps your body get ready for a challenge. But if it lasts too long, that’s bad news. Studies show it can weaken your body’s defense system. Avoid it when you can. Make it a point to unwind and do things you enjoy.
- Find a Furry Friend: There’s a reason we call them “man’s best friend.” Dogs and other pets aren’t just good buddies. They also give us a reason to exercise and boost our health in other ways. Pet owners have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and healthier hearts. Dogs can help your child’s immune response and make him less likely to get allergies.
- Build Your Social Network: We all know friends are important, but strong social ties can also have a big effect on your health. People with healthy relationships are likely to outlive those with poor social ties. Want to broaden your circle? Volunteer, take a class, or join a group that interests you. And nurture the bonds you already have.
- Have a Laugh: A giggle or two is good for you. Not only does it make you feel better, there’s no downside. One study found that after people laughed out loud at funny videos, their immune systems worked better. But we aren’t sure yet if that means less illness in the long run.
Attitude is everything
A positive mindset is vital for health and well-being. Research shows that positive thoughts reduce stress and inflammation and increase resilience to infection — while negative emotions can make you more susceptible to the common cold and flu.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is scary, so it’s easy to spiral down in negative thoughts,” says Dr. Darling. “The story we tell ourselves is crucial. Change it from ‘It’s not going to be OK’ to ‘I am safe at home with the people I love.’ Start your day with a positive thought or even a mantra such as, ‘I am well.’”
Natural immunity aids
If you’re ready to give it all you got when it comes to avoiding the coronavirus, consider these extra measures:
- Supplements: “A lot of people are deficient (or low) in vitamin D, and a deficiency may increase your susceptibility to infection,” says Dr. Darling. “Get outside for fresh air and sunshine, but I also recommend taking a daily supplement of 1,000 to 2,000 IUs of vitamin D.”
- Essential oils: Eucalyptus and tea tree oils have antiviral properties that may protect you against infection from viruses. Use in an oil diffuser to inhale them or make a hand sanitizer using tea tree oil mixed with aloe vera gel and isopropyl alcohol. Studies also show that lavender essential oil has a calming effect, so it can help ease anxiety and improve sleep. Add a few drops to a warm bath or use the oil in a diffuser while you work or sleep.
And sometimes, even with lots of sleep and vitamin C, superheroes get sick. It’s OK! The key is to take time off to recharge (and avoid getting others sick). In no time, you’ll be donning your cape again. But for your health and the health of those around you, make sure you’re fully supercharged before you do.