It's officially cold and flu season, and coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and rising fears about the omicron variant, you may be feeling stressed and worried about getting sick. You've probably heard people say that in order for your body to have the best chance at fighting off viruses, you should focus on "boosting" your immune system. This isn't entirely wrong, but unfortunately, taking one attractively packaged supplement here and there won't do the trick. In addition to proven ways to prevent infections, like getting your flu and COVID-19 vaccines (and your booster!), handwashing, mask-wearing, and social distancing, there are steps you can take that can you give the best chance at fending off a virus.
What Is the Immune System and What Does It Do?
Before going any further, it's important to know what your immune system is and its purpose. "Our immune system is essentially a system in our body to allow us to stay healthy, fight infections, and to heal when we come in contact with viruses, pathogens, or if we simply just get ill," Nicole Avena, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told POPSUGAR. Our immune system keeps us safe and well, "and a lot of things go into making it function well," Dr. Avena said. Your diet and nutrition, stress, sleep, and exercise all impact how well our immune system works. And for some, it just comes down to genetics.
How to Strengthen Your Immune System
Making changes to your lifestyle such as getting the recommended seven hours of sleep each night and reducing your stress are two proven ways to improve your immunity as poor sleep and high levels of stress negatively impact our body's ability to fight infection, Dr. Avena explained. "And so I tell people, 'Don't worry so much about taking a supplement, or taking some special tea, or whatever latest drink is going to affect your immune system. It's really just a matter of just trying to chill out and get more rest,'" she explained.
Adults should aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night, because when we don't get enough sleep, "our body is essentially having to work overtime during our waking hours just to keep it functioning correctly," Dr. Avena explained. Caffeine can make you feel like you're functioning great, but ultimately, a lack of sleep means the resources that would go to helping your body be prepared to fight diseases, conditions, and pathogens is directed toward helping you get through the day. It's like playing a team sport but being short a few players, Dr. Avena said. You may be able to win (in this case fight off illness and pathogens), but it's going to be a lot harder.
The same goes for stress. If you're experiencing chronic stress, your hormones, specifically cortisol (aka the stress hormone), can be impacted, which can lead to more problems that can be "disruptive to your immune system," Dr. Avena said. "So the stress, I think, is really something that can be difficult for a lot of people to manage, but it's very important to keep under control, because it can really open a Pandora's box of problems when it comes to helping support your immune system."
In addition to getting more sleep and reducing your stress levels, exercise can also help support your immune system, according to Dr. Avena. When you exercise, your body gets stronger. Dr. Avena explained that the better shape you're in, the easier it is for you to exist, meaning your body doesn't have to work as hard to make sure your joints and cardiovascular system, for example, are functioning at an optimum level. The best part is, any type of movement will help strengthen your immune system. You can run, you can walk, you can do 10 minutes of stretching - "it all counts toward helping to keep you in shape and to keep your immune system being able to function as best it can," Dr. Avena said.
What Foods Can Help Strengthen Your Immune System
Food can also impact how well your immune system functions, but there isn't an exact list of items you should eat to improve your immunity. Dr. Avena recommends limiting the amount of processed, high-salt, and high-sugar foods you're consuming. "All those things are going to have a negative impact on our health, and in turn, on our immune system," she said. You can still have foods like donuts and chips, but like most things, it's about balance. Dr. Avena emphasized getting a range of nutrients in your body and not following restrictive diets as they can lead to nutrient deficiencies, which can have a negative impact on how your immune system functions.
Consuming foods that naturally contain vitamin C (citrus fruits, leafy greens, and sweet potatoes, for example) and zinc (red meat, legumes, and nuts and seeds) can help. If you aren't getting these nutrients from food sources, supplementing with vitamin C and zinc can work, Dr. Avena said. When possible, she recommends trying to get these nutrients from food as your body will absorb and utilize them better. Taking a single supplement won't suddenly boost your immune system, and Dr. Avena recommends taking a holistic approach and making lifestyle changes in order for your immune system to function well.
Getting more sleep, reducing stress, exercising, and eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods, are your best bet if your goal is to have a stronger immune system. "You might find that you're able to accomplish what you need to do for your health just by making the lifestyle changes in and of themselves," Dr. Avena said. And as always, if you have any questions or concerns about your health, consult a medical expert such as your primary care doctor.