The immune system is our body’s natural defense system. It works on our behalf 24/7, protecting us from a constant stream of cellular changes. Simply put, our immune system works around the clock to keep us healthy.
A robust immunity is gained and maintained by good health — and good health is something largely gained and maintained by diet and lifestyle. We can see the connection between robust health and robust immunity in the scientific literature.
But even those of us with strong immune systems can benefit from immune system support right now.
The good news is that we can support our immune systems with specific, targeted nutrition, supplements, and lifestyle strategies. And those strategies go beyond washing hands, though those practices play an important role protecting ourselves, too. Rather, it’s critical for everyone, now more than ever, to evaluate their immunity and work to make it stronger by using food and lifestyle as a preventive approach.
Immune System Basics
Keeping the immune system strong starts by knowing some basics about how the immune system works.
The human immune system has several lines of defense. The first line of the defense is the skin, which literally stops pathogens at the gate. Like a fortress wall, the skin is a physical barrier that keeps unwanted pathogens out of the body. We also have mucous membranes that line our nose, eyes, and mouth. Studies show that these membranes help trap and kill bacteria. If a virus or bacteria breaches the skin and mucous membranes and enters the body, the internal immune system kicks into gear, producing white blood cells that scavenge for dangerous invaders. Other parts of the internal immune system kick in, too, to attack unwanted bacteria or viruses. In the face of perceived danger, our bodies produce antibodies, macrophages, and cytokines (among other compounds) to keep us safe. These compounds all work in varied ways to protect us.
This is a broad strokes view of immune system function, but it gives a sense of how multifaceted the immune system is — and how supporting the immune system requires a multifaceted approach.
Does your immune system need a boost?
How you feel on a day to day basis gives you clues about the health of your immune system.
- Do you feel tired and worn out (no energy) even after a good night’s sleep?
- Do you catch colds and flus easily?
- Do colds last longer than they should?
- Does it take a long time for cuts and scrapes to heal?
- Do you have regular gastrointestinal distress (gas, bloating, pain, or cramps)?
- Do you have dysregulated blood sugar?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, your immune system might need a boost. Even if you answered no to these questions, it is still worth being proactive about your immune health. We are living through an unprecedented time when everyone can benefit from immune system support.
The Immune System & How to Give it A Boost
There has been some debate among experts about the advisability of actively working to boost immune function but there is broad-based consensus that working to enhance immune function before infection is a smart strategy. Here are some of the top science-backed strategies for boosting immune system function:
Cover the basics.
The lifestyle strategies that promote good health also promote immunity, so the first step to a stronger immune system is to lock down the basics. Get enough high-quality sleep, make stress management a priority, and carve out time for leisure. Chronic negative stress erodes immune system function, as does poor quality sleep. Regular exercise is an immune booster, too. So find a form of exercise or other movement that you love and make it a regular part of your routine. Immune boosting foods are a must, too. Incorporate foods high in zinc (like shellfish and legumes), magnesium (hey dark chocolate!), and selenium (Brazil nuts) to give your body a natural immune boost.
Eat a variety of nutrient dense, low glycemic foods.
A diet rich in nutrient-dense foods like leafy green vegetables, low-glycemic fruits like berries, nuts, seeds, whole grains, pastured eggs, legumes, and small oily fish supports optimal immunity. Micronutrients matter! Making these foods the centerpiece of your diet is a key way to help prevent infection.
Add an immunity boosting smoothie to your daily diet.
You can pack a lot of immune-supportive foods into a morning smoothie, think kale, ginger, cucumber, berries, parsley, lettuce, Brazil nuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and more. The abundance of nutrients in green smoothie washes over the immune system and helps directly enhance immune system function. It’s a smart, strategic approach to natural immune enhancement.
Sugar depresses immune system function. Keep your intake of added sugars to a minimum. The natural sugar found in fruit is more slowly absorbed by the body (thank you, fiber!) and easier on your body’s systems. That said, if you are worried about blood sugar swings from high-glycemic fruit, or if you are especially sensitive to any type of sugar, stick to low glycemic fruits like berries.
Vitamin D is a powerful immune system modulator, according to research, and very few of us get enough of it. Vitamin D tends to be best absorbed when taken as part of a meal high in healthy fats and many experts recommend taking between 400 and 5000 IUs/day.
Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the body and it has antiviral properties, but melatonin production can decrease as we age. A low-dose melatonin supplement of 0.5 mg to 1 mg per day can help promote healthy sleep and support optimal immunity.
Taking a high-quality probiotic can help support robust immunity because so many of our immune cells are located in the lining of the gut. A healthy gut is essential for overall good health.
Read more: What Are Spore Probiotics?
This potent member of the allium family is antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral. Eating garlic as part of your daily diet can help support the immune system as it fends off the dangerous interlopers we come into contact with every day. Some experts also recommend eating one or two cloves of raw garlic at the first signs of a cold or flu. The beauty of an intervention like one or two cloves of raw garlic is that it very well may help, but at the very least it won’t hurt you.
Some recent research suggests that drinking green tea may help reduce the likelihood of contracting a respiratory infection. Plus, green tea is chock full of compounds that support cellular health and immune system function. If you like the taste and you aren’t too sensitive to green tea’s caffeine content, you can go wrong with a cup or two a day.
Mushroom extracts have been shown to help modulate immune system function and increase the body’s ability to fight infection. Mushrooms have also been shown to reduce inflammation, which is another win for the immune system.
Like echinacea, astragalus is a traditional herb that has immune enhancing properties. It’s a relatively safe supplement that can help keep your immune system in good fighting shape.
The immune system requires zinc for optimal functioning and it may confer protective effects specifically when it comes to respiratory tract infections. Most zinc lozenges are 15 to 30 mgs. You can also incorporate whole foods that contain zinc as part of your daily diet, like pumpkin seeds and (hooray!) dark chocolate.
Incorporate immunity boosting essential oils
Many essential oils have antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties — oils like eucalyptus, oregano, and thyme. Always diffuse essential oils before using topically or diffusing into the air, and never ingest an essential oil (diffused or otherwise) without the guidance of a licensed healthcare practitioner.