7 Research-Backed Ways to Improve Immunity

improve immunity
Photo Credit: Irina Efremova

February 8, 2021

By Gretchen Lidicker

We all know by now the importance of washing your hands and practicing good respiratory hygiene (covering your mouth when coughing and sneezing). But there’s a lot more you can do to stay healthy than simply avoiding germs. In fact, there are dozens of scientifically-proven ways to improve immunity.

Try one (or all) or these research-backed tips and see if they make the difference. A few may seem obvious, but often it’s the simple things that matter the most.

1. Monitor your stress.

Ever noticed how you get sick at the most inconvenient time, like right before a big presentation at work or over the holidays? That’s because stress sabotages a healthy immune system and leaves you more vulnerable to infection.

“If you are chronically stressed or experiencing adrenal exhaustion, you have high cortisol and that is what decreases your immune system,” says Dr. Bindita Gandhi, integrative and functional medicine doctor and founder of Revive Atlanta MD. “Many of us get sick once or twice a year, but if you’re getting sick multiple times during cold and flu season, it’s likely that your stress levels are to blame.”

To combat chronic stress, try meditation, yoga, journaling, and take an honest look at your schedule to see what responsibilities you might be able to cut down on.

Read More: 5 Super-Simple Ways to Combat Stress

2. Supplement for the season.

Not getting adequate amounts of certain nutrients has been linked to negative alterations in the immune system. “Nutrient deficiencies can create inflammation in your body and lead to you getting sick more often,” says Dr. Gandhi. If you fall victim to every cough, cold, and flu that goes around, it may be worth a trip to the doctor to get tested for nutrient deficiencies. Be sure to look into these research-backed immune-boosting supplements when your body needs a little extra support.

  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C has been used to prevent and treat the common cold since it was isolated in the 1930s. And for good reason. Studies have shown that regular supplementation has a “modest but consistent” effect in reducing cold symptoms and that vitamin C can reduce your risk of the common cold by as much as half in certain scenarios. Our favorite vitamin C supplement is PuraTHRIVE’s Micelle Liposomal Vitamin C because of its absorbability, which is essential to make sure you’re getting the amount of vitamins you need.
  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, is produced by the body in response to sunlight hitting the skin. This means that for many of us, vitamin D is in short supply over the winter and unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency has been linked to respiratory infections such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis. The good news is that supplementing with vitamin D has been shown to reduce your change of colds and respiratory infections. Costing about $10, it’s also one of the most affordable supplements out there.
  • Quercetin: Quercetin is a polyphenol compound found naturally in certain plants that has displayed anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties, which means it has the potential to keep you healthy this winter in more ways than one. When taken daily, quercetin is thought to reduce the risk for upper respiratory infections and is often suggested to people with asthma or allergies to lower inflammation and keep the immune system in check.

3. Eat more health-supporting foods.

In addition to supplements, eating more health-supporting foods can help keep your immune system in fighting shape all winter long. In general, stick to colorful fruits and veggies, which are full of beneficial antioxidants. Then, focus on the following research-backed immune boosters:

  • Elderberry: Elderberry, which you may also know as the ingredient Sambucus nigra, is a berry with almost endless health benefits. It’s high in vitamin C as well as vitamin A, potassium, iron, B6, fiber, and beta-carotene. Research has shown that elderberry is an effective remedy for shortening the duration of flu- and cold-like symptoms. In fact, one study showed that air travelers who took elderberry colds with a shorter duration and less intense symptoms; another study showed that adults who took 15 mL of elderberry syrup four times a day had their flu symptoms clear up an average of 4 days earlier. If you think you might be fighting something, an elderberry tea or syrup are research-backed natural remedies to lean on.
  • Garlic: The main compound in aged garlic, called allicin, is responsible for its strong antimicrobial and immune-boosting properties. Allicin has been shown to enhance immune function to help fend off viruses like the common cold and flu. Studies have shown that garlic can not only prevent you from getting sick, it can also help you get better faster if you already are. Adding extra garlic to your meals or taking a garlic supplement may just make the difference between getting sick — and not.
  • Ginger: You may have already noticed that ginger is a staple ingredient in most immune-boosting supplements and teas; and well, there’s a good reason for that! Ginger influences the immune system response and activation of T-cells, which play a central role in our ability to respond to illness and infection. Studies have also shown that ginger displays antiviral activity against a virus called the human respiratory syncytial virus, a very common seasonal illness that causes cold-like symptoms. Whipping up some ginger tea once or twice a day can help you take advantage of these benefits.

4. Keep alcohol to a minimum.

Alcohol affects your body in myriad ways, but did you know that it has scientifically backed effects on your immune system? According to Cleveland Clinic, “If you drink every day, or almost every day, you might notice that you catch colds, flu or other illnesses more frequently than people who don’t drink.”

So why is this? As they explain it: “This is because alcohol can weaken the immune system and make the body more susceptible to infections.” Therefore, saying “no” to that glass of wine or beer — even if it’s just sometimes — is a great way to support your ability to fend of illness during the winter.

5. Pour another cup of tea.

Tea, which comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, is one of nature’s most incredible creations. And you don’t have to stick to just green tea, either. Black tea is also incredibly good for you and your immune system. In fact, as the authors of one study published in Nutrition Research concluded: “…there is evidence to suggest that [black] tea may have beneficial effects on certain immune parameters, which has implications for improving gut health and resistance against infections such as the common cold.”

…Excuse us while we whip up an Earl Grey latte.

6. Move your body.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly why or how exercises boost immunity — but they know that it does. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, it may be because exercise helps flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways; or, it could be because physical activity boosts our white blood cell count. It may also work by way of reducing stress, which can make you more efficient at fighting infections.

This winter, make sure you’re moving your body — whether that means dancing around the house, a HIIT workout, taking a walk when the sun is out or prepping for that 5K.

7. Make sleep a priority.

Finally, skimping on sleep is one of the worst things you can do for your immune system. According to Mayo Clinic, “Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as a common cold virus.”

If you want to stay healthy all winter long, make sure you’re getting your full 8 hours. If you’re having trouble sleeping, Dr. Gandhi suggests leading on natural remedies like magnesium and CBD oil. And even more importantly, make sure you’re maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, which means you go to bed and wake up at around the same time every day. This will support your circadian rhythm, which is also known as your biological clock.