Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 6/22/2020
Your immune system can be fickle. One minute it’s protecting you from illness and disease, and the next, you’re laying on the couch with a tissue stuck up each nostril and a vomit bucket on your side.
No one enjoys being sick, and really, who has the time for it? Being sick as an adult sucks — you’re expected to dote on yourself and taking a day off work just means you have more to do tomorrow.
Keeping your immune system functioning on high really boils down to living a healthy lifestyle. Yes, eating healthy and exercising are definitely part of it. But in addition to avoiding the jerk that always comes into the office sneezing and coughing, there are steps you can take in your daily life to ensure your body’s natural defenses are always on guard.
One quick note before we dive in: This is a list of evidence-backed immune boosting tips, not some garbage you’ll find on your favorite blonde celebrity’s “wellness” site. If the science is iffy or nonexistent, you won’t find it here because we don’t want to waste your time.
Exercise helps you manage stress and may boost your immune system in other ways, but there is emerging evidence that intense and prolonged exercise could have an opposite effect. Intense exercise temporarily suppresses the immune system, so if you’re an endurance athlete or partake in otherwise strenuous fitness, take care after your tough workouts — you’re more likely to pick up germs you can’t fight off.
In addition to increasing your risk of cancer and other diseases, smoking cigarettes damages your immune system. Both innate (the kind you’re born with) and adaptive (the kind that evolves as you’re exposed to new germs) immunity can be hampered by smoking. So, if you haven’t yet, you should probably quit.
Eat more bacteria! It sounds counterproductive, but probiotic foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, and others have been shown to enhance immune response in both healthy and diseased people. It’s believed they may strengthen the protective layer in your digestive system and stimulate the production of antibodies to fight new invaders.
We could list all of the fruits and vegetables with their respective immune-boosting components, but that would take a long time and we know you’re scanning this article for the high points. Here they are: Fruits and vegetables — especially brightly colored ones and dark leafy greens — contain many components that have been shown to improve immunity. Flavonoids, carotenoids, and other antioxidants in these foods all play a role in immune health. Aim to eat as many as possible, every day.
Being overweight or obese doesn’t only increase your risks of heart disease, diabetes, and a whole slew of other problems, it compromises your immune system. One of the first steps in reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is #4: Eating more fruits and vegetables. Onion rings and apple pies don’t count, either. Swap out some of your unhealthy vices for veggies, keep an eye on portion sizes, and do #1: get regular exercise.
Zinc deficiency can suppress your immune function. And because zinc isn’t stored in the body — you need consistent dietary intake — deficiency isn’t all that uncommon. However, even in healthy individuals, zinc supplementation has been shown to improve immunity and decreased susceptibility to illnesses like diarrhea.
Protein deficiency can lead to decreased immunity. But protein deficiency is rare. But two particular amino acids found in animal and plant protein sources — glutamine and arginine — may play a role in immune health, even in healthy (non-deficient) people. Dietary sources of beneficial compounds like these are always best, but a good whey protein supplement will contain these two (and other) branched chain amino acids, if you aren’t getting enough in your diet.
Chronic stress isn’t only a pain in the ass — it can make you physically ill. How this happens isn’t entirely clear, but we do know that both childhood and adulthood stress can have lasting effects on immune function. As we get older, these effects can be compounded, and even mild stress or depression can suppress older adults’ immune systems. The solution: get serious about managing your stress now. Mediate, exercise, and maintain strong social supports.
A good night’s sleep doesn’t only feel good, it keeps you well. According to researchers, some aspects of your immune system cycle with your circadian rhythm, or the sleep-wake cycle that happens every night and day. When these sleep cycles are out-of-whack, the immune response follows. A relatively recent twin study found that in identical twins with different sleep patterns, the twin who got less sleep had a depressed immune system when compared with the twin who slept more.
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