Ways to Boost Your Immune System

Ruben Castaneda, Michael O. Schroeder

Give your body the best chance to fight infection and illness.

Perhaps you're nursing a cold -- loading up on vitamin C and zinc, maybe even sipping some warm chicken noodle soup. Taking time to recover is important to help your immune system do its work, says H. James Wedner, an allergist at Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

In addition, if you find yourself frequently fighting illnesses, experts say it's worth talking to a health provider who can determine if an underlying medical cause, including an immunodeficiency, is to blame. Taking such precautions is particularly crucial now, with public health authorities scrambling to contain the coronavirus pandemic. People who have underlying medical conditions -- such as heart disease, lung disease or diabetes -- are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, experts say. But you don't have to wait until you're sick to boost your immune system.

Here are preventive measures you can take to optimize your body's defense against infection and illness.

Live well.

If you're looking for a magic bullet to boost your body's ability to fight off bugs, you might be disappointed. But if you want added motivation to improve your overall well-being, look no further: "Healthy immune systems live in healthy bodies," Wedner says. So think big picture -- from eating right and staying active to getting enough sleep.

"It's important to recognize the things that are most supportive of a good immune system are a healthy lifestyle," says Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Call on good bacteria.

Bacteria are everywhere: on our skin, hair and nails, and also inside our body. In our intestines, these organisms are called the gut microbiome. We don't notice they're there until they are changed or imbalances in the types due to illness or a condition give us symptoms such as gas or diarrhea, says Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietitian nutritionist and assistant professor of nutrition at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Some research supports the use of prebiotics and probiotics to promote gut health by creating a healthier balance of bacteria type in your gut microbiome, Zeratsky says.

Since supplements are not regulated, it's best to consume prebiotics and probiotics from food first, she advises.

Eat plant-based foods and whole grains to get prebiotics. Prebiotics help create a healthy environment in the gut for the "good" bacteria to flourish, Zeratsky says. Probiotic foods contain live organisms. Fermented foods including yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha and kimchi are good sources of probiotics.

Including both prebiotic and probiotic foods in a nutritious diet is your best bet for overall good health. Your body needs energy from healthy carbohydrates, fats and protein for maintenance and repair. Whole foods that provide these will also have vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients such as the phytonutrients found in plants. "All show promise in disease prevention and promotion of our health," Zeratsky says.

Imbibe responsibly.

Drinking in moderation is OK. But consuming alcohol in excess can lead to the deterioration of your immune system, Stanford says. There's evidence from both human and animal research that overconsumption of alcohol decreases immune reactivity, reducing the body's ability to fight infection, Wedner says. The 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises women who choose to drink to have no more than one a day; men should consume no more than two drinks a day.

Get your shots.

Immunizations are an important way to boost immunity, Wedner reminds. In addition to making sure children get recommended vaccinations, he suggests adults get an annual flu shot as well. Experts say parents should get questions about vaccines answered by health providers to separate myth from fact.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also provides information on vaccinations, from those that are recommended to circumstances when a person should not get a particular vaccine, such as if he or she has previously had a severe allergic reaction to that particular vaccine.

Fit in your recommended activity.

Current guidelines advise Americans do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, like brisk walking, every week. Research shows the immune system benefits from engaging in regular physical activity, says Dr. Edward Laskowski, co-director of Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine and a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation based in Rochester, Minnesota.

Exercise boosts the production of microphages, cells that attack the bacteria that can trigger some of the upper respiratory tract infections we get, he says. And physical activity increases the circulation of many cells in our body that help fend off viruses and harmful bacteria. Just know your body's limits, and allow adequate time for recovery between workouts to ensure you're receiving the maximum boost from exercise.

Stop lighting up.

In case you need one more reason to quit smoking -- here you go: "Smoking impairs our ability to fight off an infection," Stanford says. "So if we can avoid at all any cigarette smoking (or) tobacco smoking ... that will do wonders, in terms of improving our immunity."

The effect is similar to what's seen when a person drinks alcohol in excess, Wedner notes, in terms of reducing -- at a cellular level -- the body's ability to defend itself from infection. "Smoking can affect the entire body -- it's not just the lungs," he says.

Go to bed already.

A lack of sleep is frequently the culprit when people find that they're getting sick more often or unable to fend off ailments, experts say. While seven to nine hours of sleep is generally recommended, work burdens or the business of life in general can significantly reduce the amount of rest a person actually gets.

"Sleep restores our bodies," Stanford says. Though much remains unknown about what happens when we close our eyes, that same restorative process is at work with our immune system, which can be compromised when we don't get enough rest, she adds.

Stress less.

If you're worried about strained finances or job insecurity or any number of life circumstances, it may be difficult to reduce the wear stress can have on your mind or body. But as best you're able, try to reduce your stress level, Stanford says, since stress can increase inflammation in the body.

"With inflammation comes impaired immunity," she says. As with tackling stress, it can be challenging to make important changes in your life to improve overall well-being. But experts say taking steps to do so can help make all the difference in bolstering your immune system's ability to protect you -- in sickness and health.

Wash your hands thoroughly.

A number of infectious diseases are spread by contaminated hands, says Joe Marino, a wellness specialist at AtlanticCare Regional Medical Center in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey.

People with contaminated hands can infect themselves -- and unleash diseases that attack their immune system -- by touching their face. They can also pass the infection to other people by shaking hands. Insufficient hand hygiene can lead to respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses. To safeguard your health, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds.

Here is when you should wash your hands:

-- Before and after handling or eating food.

-- After sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose.

-- After shaking hands with another person.

-- After using the bathroom.

-- After touching an animal or handling animal waste.

-- After using public transportation.

-- After handling garbage.

-- After treating a sick person.

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Your body produces harmful free radicals when it's defending itself against infection, Marino says. Free radicals are molecules associated with chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Antioxidants -- substances that are abundant in many plant-based foods -- help protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals.

Foods that are high in antioxidants include:

-- Artichokes

-- Beans.

-- Beets.

-- Blackberries.

-- Blueberries.

-- Dark chocolate.

-- Pecans.

-- Plums.

-- Strawberries.

-- Red cabbage.

-- Spinach.

-- Sunflower seeds.

-- Walnuts.

Cut down on added sugar consumption.

Eating foods that contain added sugar has been found to have temporary negative effects on your immune system, Marino says.

Added sugar found in processed foods like cookies and candy may weaken the ability of white blood cells in the body to fight against bacteria and viruses. This compromises your immune system's ability to safeguard your health.

If you crave something sweet, reach for fresh fruit, Marino advises.

To recap, here are 11 things you can do to boost your immune system:

-- Live well.

-- Call on good bacteria.

-- Imbibe responsibly.

-- Get your shots.

-- Fit in your recommended activity.

-- Stop lighting up.

-- Go to bed already.

-- Stress less.

-- Wash your hands thoroughly.

-- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.

-- Cut down on added sugar consumption.