If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Immunity is a bit like a car. You enjoy its benefits without thinking much about how it works—until something goes wrong. (For the record, there are communities that care very deeply about these things even when they are working well.) Like a car, your immune system has many moving parts and, yes, even requires maintenance. At a basic level, your immune system protects you from germs (including bacteria, parasites, and viruses) in order to prevent infection.
Most people know that white blood cells are a key part of your immune system, but they’re not the only piece in the puzzle. Your immune system not only involves specialized cells, but also tissues and organs. One of the main characteristics of your immune system is that it can differentiate between your own cells and invaders. But even white blood cells, those fighters of foreign materials, can be weakened, which is why proper maintenance of this system is vital for overall health and wellness.
- Your immune system is in charge of protecting your body from infection.
- It’s made up of not just white blood cells but also tissues and organs in your body.
- There are many ways to support your immune system, but they’re not quick fixes.
- A healthy lifestyle—including a nutrient-packed diet, regular exercise, and enough sleep—is the best way to support immunity.
- Staying up-to-date on the shots your healthcare provider recommends is also essential.
9 ways to support your immune system
So how do you keep your car running smoothly so you can go about your day? These science-backed methods can support your immune system—but they’re not quick fixes.
Eat a healthful diet
Certain foods can influence immunity. Many plants support a strong immune system thanks to their active compounds called phytonutrients. Cranberries, for example, can influence antimicrobial activity in your body, support immunity, and increase infection resistance (Cooper, 2017). One type of phytonutrient, called flavonoids, is particularly beneficial. Flavonoids help with disease prevention and may have anti-cancer properties. The mechanics of these benefits aren’t fully understood, but healthcare professionals suggest incorporating foods rich in these antioxidant compounds (such as green tea, citrus fruit, and turmeric) into your diet (Kozłowska, 2014).
Eating the right foods may not protect you, however, if you’re not eating enough. Undernutrition and deficiencies in micronutrients impair overall immune function by negatively affecting immune functions that protect you. The right diet not only supports your immunity but also helps counter the effects of factors that negatively affect immune function, like aging (Marcos, 2003). If you want to give your immune system the biggest leg up through nutrition, a consistent diet consisting of plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies and adequate calories is a good place to start.
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While you’d be hard-pressed to find a medical expert that didn’t stand behind regular exercise as a means of improving overall health, the health benefits of a single workout are a bit of debate in the medical community. Past research has shown that the number and function of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that’s part of the lymphatic system, decreases immediately following an intense exercise session. But one review suggests that these studies have been misinterpreted, and this dip in the numbers represents a redistribution of white blood cells around your body. Essentially, researchers are suggesting that, contrary to what previous work has suggested, this actually shows your immune system is on alert (Campbell, 2018).
Another review of the relationship between exercise and immunity found that working out can help prevent illness in several different ways. Moderate exercise is associated with a lower risk of illness, and exercise in general increases defense activity in the body. You’ll reap more rewards if you make working out a habit, too. A consistent exercise regime helps the body regulate the immune system and may even dampen the dysregulation that can happen in this critical system as we age (Nieman, 2019).
But athletes and people who train intensely for fun take note: The second review did find that extended bouts of intense exercise, such as preparing for a competition, does, in fact, take a toll on immunity. So while the occasional intense workout gets a pass, long stretches of extreme training are associated with bouts of illness—especially in females and endurance athletes (Nieman, 2019).
Get enough sleep
It’s not just your imagination that you always get sick after a big work project or bout of stress-related sleeplessness, either. People who are sleep deprived are much more likely to catch the common cold than those logging adequate hours in bed, one study found. Those with the best immune response were getting over seven hours of sleep a night, while those sleeping fewer than five hours a night were at high risk of getting sick. But even those snoozing five to six hours a night had a much greater risk of coming down with a cold, researchers found (Prather, 2015).
Although they’re certainly no replacement for an all-around healthy lifestyle, there are some supplements with scientific backing for their ability to support a healthy immune system. But there are a couple of things to unpack here. First, deficiencies in certain nutrients may cause your immune system to suffer—but that doesn’t mean taking more of them if you have healthy levels will have an effect. Vitamins and minerals that play a role in the immune system include (Maggini, 2007):
- Skin barrier health: Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and zinc
- Antibody production: Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, folic acid, zinc, copper, and selenium
- Cellular immunity: Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, folic acid, iron, zinc, copper, and selenium
A balanced diet providing adequate caloric intake should get you close to meeting your needs of these essential nutrients, but taking a multivitamin is another option.
Drink less alcohol
We all know that excessive drinking isn’t healthy, but we mostly think of liver damage as the primary physical consequence. But drinking too much has long been associated with increased risk of illness and death from infectious diseases such as pneumonia.
But we’re suggesting moderation here and not abstinence. Moderate drinking of polyphenol-rich beverages such as wine and beer has actually been found to slightly benefit the immune system compared to avoiding alcohol altogether (Romeo, 2007b). One small study found that moderate beer consumption—as defined by one 11.2-oz beer for women a day and two 11.2-oz beers a day for men—had a positive modulating effect on the immune system, though women benefited more than men (Romeo, 2007a). More research needs to be done on the exact amounts that support immunity, as well as whether certain drinks have different responses (Romeo, 2007b).
Although a review on the research surrounding tobacco use and immunity underscored the need for more studies on the topic, it did find that there’s evidence that smoking can cause changes to several parts of our innate immunity. Tobacco use may change the tissue surface of our lungs as well as several types of our immune cells. Based on the summary of research in this area, the authors of the review emphasize that quitting smoking should be suggested for people who struggle with recurrent infections and anyone who is immunosuppressed (Mehta, 2008).
Get enough sunlight
Sunlight has multiple effects on our immune system. Ultraviolet (UV) light, the reason why you should be wearing sunscreen, is also damaging to your immunity. But sunlight also benefits the immune system because it aids in the synthesis of vitamin D (Maglio, 2016), which supports antibody production and cellular immunity (Maggini, 2007). Unfortunately, the effects of small amounts of UV light on our immune system are still unclear, so more research is necessary (Maglio, 2016).
Practice proper hand hygiene
It may feel silly to think that something as simple as washing your hands is enough to help prevent the flu, but it’s standard medical advice for a reason. One study even compared antiseptic handwashing to antiseptic hand rubbing with products like hand sanitizer and found that handwashing was more effective at removing flu viruses (Hirose, 2019). Past research has looked specifically at how both methods compare in removing viruses from finger pads and also found that handwashing was more effective than alcohol-based hand disinfectants (Tuladhar, 2015). You should be washing your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds after using the restroom, after coughing or sneezing, and before eating or touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
Get the newest flu shot
Even though influenza (flu) season comes around every year, the circulating strains of the virus change. That means it’s critical to get the flu shot each influenza season for protection against the strains currently affecting people. Past studies have found that the vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalization in children and death in adults from flu (Studies Show Flu Vaccine Reduces Risk of Hospitalization in Children and Death in Adults, 2019). And a review of 20 studies found that having been vaccinated during the current and previous flu season can support immunity against certain strains of the virus (Ramsay, 2019).