After the events of 2020, and with winter now upon us, the majority of us are more health-conscious then ever. While the winter season can bring festivities and cosy evenings in, it can also lead to a bout of colds and sicknesses. And during a time when our health is taking centre stage, the importance of boosting our immune system has never seemed more relevant.
Having a healthy immune system can help defend your body against sickness and disease, and while this can be easier said than done, there are several ways you can bolster your body’s natural defences. Here are 10 ways to help boost your immune system.
1. Eat a healthy, balanced diet
Making changes to your diet is one of the easiest and most effective ways to boost your immune system. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the single-best thing you can focus on is incorporating more whole plant foods like fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds into your diet. These foods are rich in antioxidants and can help decrease inflammation in your body. Chronic inflammation can suppress your immune system and is associated with numerous health conditions like heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
What’s more, whole plant foods contain nutrients that can help ward off harmful pathogens. Fruits and vegetables contain lots of vitamin C, which can help us get over a common cold much faster, and studies suggest that being deficient in vitamin C can actively increase the likelihood of infection. Because our bodies don’t produce vitamin C, we have to get it from our diet. Foods like citrus fruits, kiwis, cauliflower, broccoli and brussels sprouts are all great sources of vitamin C.
If that weren’t enough reason to reach for the fruit bowl, the fibre in plant foods feeds the healthy bacteria that lives in your gut. Having a healthy gut can improve your immunity and lower your susceptibility to illness. It’s also important to eat enough healthy fats and protein. Healthy fats are associated with a decreased risk of diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and can help your body fight off harmful bacteria and viruses. To ensure you’re getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids, try to incorporate foods like salmon or chia seeds into your diet. Protein is also important for healing and recovery, so you should try to include foods like seafood, lean meat, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and nuts and seeds in your diet.
Finally, try eating fermented foods regularly. Fermented foods are packed with probiotics, which improve the health of your digestive tract and can make it easier for your immune cells to distinguish between normal cells and harmful cells. Multiple studies show that people who regularly eat fermented food have a stronger immune response, so foods like miso, yoghurt, kimchi, kefir and sauerkraut are always good to add to the shopping list. Miso in particular is enormously healthy – so much so that one of the world’s premier wellness destinations serves it for breakfast. To find out more about healthy eating, you might want to read our article on the Mediterranean diet.
2. Drink lots of water
Ensuring you’re hydrated is also one of the easiest and most effective ways you can boost your overall health. While drinking plenty of water doesn’t necessarily ward off germs and viruses, it does still help support your immune system. In our circulatory systems, there’s a fluid called lymph, which is predominantly made from water and transports infection-fighting cells around our bodies. When you’re not sufficiently hydrated, the movement of lymph is hindered, which can lead to a weakened immune system.
Not drinking enough water can cause headaches and adversely affect your focus, mood and digestion, as well as the function of your heart and kidney, which can increase your susceptibility to illness. Try to limit your intake of sugary fruit juices, soft drinks and sweet teas, and drink plain water, which is free of additives and sugars. It’s also advisable not to wait until you’re thirsty to drink, but to ensure you’re drinking water regularly throughout the day. As we get older, science suggests that the innate desire to drink water declines. We don’t know why specifically this happens, but it’s still beneficial to try to get into the habit of drinking water regularly, even if you’re not thirsty.
3. Get plenty of sleep
Getting enough sleep is vital for boosting your immune system, and your overall physical and mental health. When you’re asleep, your body takes the chance to heal and regenerate. Specifically, it produces essential immune cells like cytokines (a protein that fights inflammation) and T cells (a white blood cell that controls immune response). The reason why people tend to sleep more when they’re ill is to give their body a chance to fight off the illness and repair itself.
Multiple studies show that if you don’t get enough sleep, your immune system can weaken, putting you at increased risk of becoming ill. Ideally, you should try to get at least seven or eight hours of sleep a night, and practice good sleep hygiene. This means limiting the use of electronic devices before bed and getting into a routine where you go to bed at the same time each night. It’s also helpful to avoid stressful conversations in the hours before bed, and to sleep in a completely dark room.
Even with good sleep hygiene however, some people can still struggle to get a good night’s sleep – if this is you, you may find our article, Can’t sleep? Try these 8 tips, helpful. If your sleep challenges persist for more than a few days it may be worth speaking to your GP so they can talk you through the available support.
4. Minimise stress
Learning to manage stress and anxiety can also be helpful in boosting your immune health. While most people recognise that stress isn’t good for us, many of us aren’t aware of just how harmful it can be to our overall health and wellbeing. If we’re stressed, our body responds by instigating a stress response which inhibits our immune system, increasing our chances of falling ill or developing an infection.
Long-term stress can be especially harmful. According to a 2015 review, chronic stress can lead to elevated levels of the steroid hormone cortisol. While cortisol is helpful on a short-term basis, like when your body goes into fight or flight mode, on a longer-term basis it can obstruct the immune system and prevent it from protecting your body. It’s almost impossible to avoid stress altogether, so what you can do is try to identify feelings of stress when they first kick in, and then try to manage them. There are several activities you can do to reduce stress – read on for more details.
5. Exercise regularly
Regular exercise isn’t just a good way to strengthen your body, it’s also an effective de-stresser. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, or ‘happy hormones’, while reducing cortisol levels at the same time. Because of this, doing regular (but moderate) exercise is one of the best ways you can reduce stress and improve your health. But exercise also has a direct effect on the immune system. Studies show that just half an hour of moderate exercise a day stimulates your immune system and improves circulation, making it easier for immune-cells to pass through your body and detect cells that are damaged or infected.
Research also suggests that even a single session of moderate exercise like cycling, swimming or jogging can improve the effectiveness of vaccines in people with compromised immune systems. There’s also powerful evidence that people who exercise regularly have significantly lower rates of acute illnesses, like viral and bacterial infections, and chronic ones, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. To find out more about fun ways you can exercise, have a read of the healthy body section on the Rest Less website.
6. Practice deep breathing
Lymph flow is directly related to immunity, and anything we can do to improve lymph flow can improve our overall immunity. In addition to staying hydrated, another effective way of managing stress also has a knock-on effect on lymph flow – deep breathing. The idea that simply breathing can boost your immune system may sound far fetched, but it’s grounded in science. Each time we breathe, our diaphragm moves up and down, causing a sequence of pressure differences that create movement in the body – including lymph flow, which sends those essential infection-fighting white blood cells through our bodies.
One of the best ways to make sure you’re regularly practising deep breathing is to have a go at mindfulness or yoga, which are both focused around becoming more aware of your breathing. Or try practising these three breathing exercises.
7. Limit your alcohol intake
We know drinking too much alcohol isn’t good for our health – but it’s also linked to decreased immune function. Alcohol is a toxin, and when you drink it, your body works hard to expel it and detoxify your system. This takes effort, and so normal immune function is neglected. If you regularly drink too much alcohol, your body may struggle to process excess toxins and maintain normal immune system function.
Studies show that drinking large quantities of alcohol can undermine your body’s ability to fight infection and also hold up your recovery time. As a result, heavy drinkers are much more likely to suffer from acute respiratory distress syndrome, liver disease, certain cancers, and pneumonia. If you enjoy a glass of wine or an evening whisky, you don’t need to stop altogether, but where possible, you should try to limit your alcohol consumption to 14 units per week (according to the NHS). You can find out how to accurately calculate units here.
8. Give up smoking
While we all know that smoking isn’t good for us, many of us aren’t aware of the effect it has on our immune health. Anything that’s a toxin can have a harmful effect on your immune system, and cigarettes are no exception. Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide, nicotine, nitrogen oxides, and cadmium, and research has shown that these chemicals interfere with the growth and performance of immune cells like cytokines, T cells, and B cells.
Smoking cigarettes also aggravates viral and bacterial infections, particularly post-surgical infections, those that affect the lungs, (e.g. pneumonia, flu and tuberculosis), and rheumatoid arthritis. If you currently smoke and would like help and support giving up, there are plenty of free, helpful resources that can make it just a little bit easier – have a look at the NHS stop smoking services to learn more.
9. Keep chronic symptoms in check
Chronic conditions like asthma, heart disease and diabetes can alter the immune system and heighten the risk of infections. If you have asthma, for example, you’re more susceptible to catching – and suffering serious health consequences from – the flu. Equally, if you have type 2 diabetes and don’t manage your blood sugar properly, this can create a low-level yet chronic inflammatory response which may harm your immune system.
If you’re living with a chronic condition, it’s important to do everything you can do to manage your symptoms as best you can. This means ensuring you take any medications as directed, staying on top of doctor visits, and trying to practice health-boosting habits. Keeping your chronic symptoms in check means you’ll free up more reserves to fight infection and give your immune system a helping hand.
10. Choose supplements wisely
Experts believe that our bodies absorb vitamins more efficiently from food than supplements, but if you’re concerned you’re not getting enough of a certain vitamin or mineral, then you may want to consider taking a supplement. Some scientific studies suggest that the following supplements might improve your body’s immune response – and while they won’t necessarily prevent you from becoming sick, they might make it easier for your body to fight infection:
● Vitamin C: According to a study of over 11,000 people, taking up to 2,000 mg of vitamin C per day reduced the duration of colds by 8% in adults.
● Vitamin D: Being deficient in vitamin D can increase the likelihood of becoming sick, so if you’re low in vitamin D you might want to supplement it.
● Zinc. A study of 575 people with the common cold found that supplementing more than 75 mg of zinc per day reduced the duration of the cold by 33%.
However, it’s important to highlight the fact that while supplements may help strengthen your body’s general immune response, they shouldn’t be used as a substitute for a healthy diet, which remains the most important and beneficial step you can take to boost your immune system.
It’s also vital not to take too much of any given supplement as this can cause significant health problems too. If you think you might have a vitamin deficiency, it’s worth speaking to your doctor about your symptoms first, so you can ensure you get an accurate diagnosis before taking any supplements.
If you’re looking to give your immune system a boost, it’s important to take things one day at a time. Try to make a gradual transition towards a healthier lifestyle; it’s always best to look for sustainable lifestyle changes, rather than looking for a quick fix. Overhauling your diet, quitting smoking, restricting your drinking and going for a run – all on the same day, for example – will be difficult to maintain in the long-term… but introducing healthy habits gradually is something you can keep up with and feel good about.