4 Simple Ways to Boost Your Immune System
Cold and flu season is right around the corner.
While Covid-19 is still circulating in our communities, there are other bugs that are also going around, including stomach viruses, strep, and other cold viruses. That’s a whole lot of germs!
Fortunately, there are some simple ways you can give your immune system a boost so that it can work more effectively during cold and flu season - and the rest of the year, too.
Ways to boost your immune system
When you boost your immune system, you’re actually supporting key immune functions so that your immune system can work more effectively at fighting off illnesses. This won’t keep you from ever getting sick, but it may help reduce the number of times you get sick or reduce the duration of your illnesses.
How sleep boosts your immune system
Although you may not be doing anything while you sleep, your body is hard at work. Nerve cells reorganize and communicate, your brain processes new information, cells repair, hormones are released, new tissue grows, and proteins are made - all while you’re asleep.
Your immune system is also hard at work when you sleep. Peak production for cytokines, which increase in your body to fight infection and tell your immune system to get to work, occurs while you’re asleep. Sleep also helps improve the functioning of T-cells, which are white blood cells that fight off viral infections and boost the immune functions of other cells.1
Sickness and lack of sleep also go hand in hand. Scientists have actually discovered that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to get sick after exposure to illness.2 You may have experienced this during a sleepless season, like when there’s a new baby at home or while staying up late to work on a project. It’s okay to have a few nights where you don’t sleep very well, but if you’re in the habit of skimping on sleep, you’re not doing your immune system any favors.
While your body usually lets you know if you’re not getting enough sleep, most adults do best with at least 7 hours of sleep a night. If you’re having difficulty sleeping, be sure to talk with your primary care doctor.
Reduce stress to boost your immune system
We’re living in stressful times. The typical stresses of life have been compounded by the additional stresses of the pandemic. Unfortunately, chronic stress can suppress your immune system and make it more difficult to fight off illness.3
When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, a stress hormone. When a stressful event happens, your cortisol levels rise and then fall back to normal as the event passes. This normal stress response is designed to keep you safe when your body perceives a threat.
But if you’re dealing with one stressful event after another, your body is constantly in a stress response. The cortisol that’s being released performs an important function, but overexposure can lead to a reduction in the number of lymphocytes (white blood cells) in your bloodstream. This makes it harder for your body to fight off antigens, which is anything in your body that stimulates an immune response and causes your body to make antibodies.
While you can’t control all of the stressful events in your life, you can help your body better manage stress. Moderate exercise produces endorphins, which are a natural mood booster, and can actually lower stress hormones such as cortisol. Other strategies to manage your body’s stress responses include:
- Deep breathing or meditation
- Prioritizing sleep
- Staying connected to others
- Practicing gratitude
- Talking with a trusted friend or therapist
Reducing stress will help boost your immune system as well as benefit every other system in your body. Talk with your primary care doctor if you are feeling overwhelmed by stress or anxiety.
How exercise boosts your immune system
Exercise is a great way to relieve stress, but exercise can also help directly boost your immune system.4 You don’t need to train for a marathon or become a bodybuilder to reap the immune benefits of exercise. In fact, moderate, consistent exercise that elevates your heart rate such as walking or jogging, biking, or strength training will provide the most benefit to your immune system.
Exercise improves your circulation, which allows antibodies and white blood cells to circulate more effectively through your body. Moderate exercise has also been shown to stimulate cellular immunity, although it’s important to note that prolonged, high-intensity exercise without rest periods can actually decrease your immune response.
While exercise does boost your immune system, it may not be a good idea to exercise when you’re sick - especially if you have a fever. Because exercise raises your core temperature, you don’t want to increase your temperature any more when you have a fever. Most doctors say that light exercise is okay as long as all of your symptoms are above the neck (like a head cold with no fever).
If you haven’t been active in a while, you should talk with your primary care doctor before starting a new exercise plan. Your doctor can help you choose an immune-boosting exercise plan that is safe and effective for you.
Supplements that can boost immunity
No one eats a perfect diet. While it would be ideal to get all of your nutrients from your diet, that can be hard to do. Supplements can help make up for what your diet lacks. Some supplements have been shown to boost immunity and can be a helpful addition to your daily routine.
Vitamin D can have beneficial effects on your overall immune function.5 While you can get Vitamin D from a few foods and from sunlight, many people are deficient in this vitamin. Your primary care doctor can easily test your Vitamin D levels to see if you would benefit from a supplement. You won’t get enough Vitamin D from simply taking a multivitamin.
Vitamin C supports the production and function of your white blood cells.6 Natural sources of Vitamin C include citrus fruits (like oranges and grapefruit), bell peppers, broccoli, and kale. While this is easier to get from your diet than Vitamin D, a supplement may be helpful if you’re starting to feel a cold coming on or if you’ve been exposed to someone who is sick. Dr. Michael Vaughn recommends a temporary dose of Vitamin C of 2000 to 6000mg a day to shorten the course of a cold or upper respiratory infection.
Before starting a new course of supplements, it’s important to always talk to your primary care doctor. Your doctor can help you determine your appropriate dose as well as help you choose other supplements that may be beneficial to your health.
Stay healthy this season
You can also help yourself stay healthy with frequent handwashing, staying away from people who are sick, and getting your flu shot this year. And if it’s been a while since your last check-up, it may be time to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor.
These four simple tips can help support a healthy immune system, but this doesn’t mean you won’t get sick this year. Instead, you’re helping your body have the resources it needs to fight off the illnesses you do get. And if you do get sick, our urgent care doctors are here for you too.
1Besedovsky, L., Lange, T. & Born, J. (2012). Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch - Eur J Physiol 463, 121–137. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0
2Cohen, S. et al. (2009). Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Archives of internal medicine, 169(1), 62-67. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2008.50
3Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological bulletin, 130(4), 601–630. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601
4da Silviera, Matheus Pelinski et al. (2021). Physical exercise as a tool to help the immune system against COVID-19: an integrative review of the current literature. Clinical and experimental medicine, 21(1), 15–28. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10238-020-00650-3
5Prietl, B. et al. (2013). Vitamin D and immune function. Nutrients, 5(7), 2502–2521. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu5072502
6Carr, A.C.; Maggini, S. Vitamin C and Immune Function. Nutrients 2017, 9, 1211. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9111211