9 Easy Ways to Boost Your Immune System When Sick
The immune system is a complex, hard-working, and life-preserving organ system. Many of its cells, enzymes, chemical messengers, and hormones are involved in complex chains of chemical reactions that require nutrients, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fats, and amino acids to function properly. So, while you can’t boost your immune system, i.e., you can’t make it better than its physiology and immune potential, you can support its function.
The immune system is a system with interconnections that must remain balanced. So far, no scientific research supports the premise that lifestyle changes can make your immune system work better. As scientists continue to work on understanding the immune system, your best strategy for boosting your immune system is to optimize your overall health.
So, what can you do to help your immune system function at its best?
Table of Contents
1. Avoid Infection
This seems a bit counterintuitive. Your immune system works hard to fight infections, so why would you want to minimize its exposure to pathogens that make you sick? Fighting infections is hard work, and your immune system is constantly challenged by bacteria, fungi, protozoans, helminths, and viruses you breathe into your sinuses and lungs, that live on your skin, enter your gastrointestinal tract and other bodily cavities, and invade your eyes, nose, mouth, and hair follicles. Your immune system is constantly working to fight infections and keep you from getting diseases.
Support your immune system by:
- Getting all the recommended immunizations.
- Wash your hands frequently throughout the day.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces you touch frequently and prepare food on.
- Prepare and store food safely.
- Practice safe sex.
- Don’t share personal items.
- Travel safely by checking which vaccinations and water safety measures you should take.
2. Reduce Stress
Stress causes cortisol release. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone released by the adrenal gland that increases blood pressure and blood glucose. Cortisol also helps control your sleep-wake cycle and regulates how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins for energy. Your immune system responds to infection by increasing inflammation, and since cortisol interferes with appropriate regulation of inflammation, it should be no surprise that chronic stress is associated with getting more infectious diseases.1
Reduce chronic stress and cortisol by:
- Getting enough high-quality sleep.
- Exercising regularly.
- Meditating or practicing deep breathing exercises.
- Maintaining healthy relationships.
- Identifying stressful situations and developing strategies to reduce anxiety.
3. Get Plenty of Sleep
Sleep is necessary for your body to restore chemicals and enzymes depleted throughout the day, remove cellular waste, and repair damaged cells.
Tips to improve sleep:
- Prioritize getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
- Limit screen use to an hour or so before bedtime.
- Stick to a sleep schedule, even on weekends.
- Avoid caffeine use after mid-afternoon, especially if you are sensitive to its stimulant effects.
- Sleep in a cool, quiet, dark room.
- Create calming bedtime rituals.
4. Get Your Antioxidants
Cellular metabolism, environmental toxins, and exercise cause the formation of highly unstable molecules called free radicals. These are unpaired oxygen molecules that have a free electron and are compelled to bind to another free electron. Free radicals can cause oxidative stress. Unpaired electrons bind to proteins and DNA, which can trigger cellular damage.
Fruits and vegetables are great sources of dietary antioxidants. Other sources of antioxidants include:
Exercise increases blood flow, reduces blood sugar spikes, and helps mobilize immune cells to fight infection. It also reduces inflammation, which improves immune function.
Vigorous exercise may temporarily weaken your immune function. Scientists define vigorous exercise that affects the immune system as an exercise that uses 60% or more of oxygen uptake and heart rate reserve and lasts 60 minutes or more.2
Follow exercise recommendations to support your immune function (choose one):
- Exercise at a moderate intensity for a total of 150 minutes of exercise per week.
- Exercise at a vigorous intensity for a total of 75 minutes per week.
- Do a combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity exercise.
6. Moderate Alcohol Intake
Alcohol consumption can change the gut microbiome, affecting your immune system. Alcohol also affects how well immune system cells attach to pathogens. Like blood glucose, alcohol consumption affects cytokine levels, which disrupts immune balance. Alcohol’s effects on the immune system seem to be dose dependent. Low to moderate amounts of alcohol may reduce inflammation and enhance the ability of phagocytic cells to eat and destroy pathogens. Heavy doses of alcohol increase cytokines and temporarily reduce immune-fighting cells.3
7. Stop Smoking
Nicotine suppresses the immune system and reduces inflammation.4 Smoking affects how well neutrophils, a key immune-fighting cell, can localize and fight pathogens. In addition, smoking causes inflammation in the lungs, which leads to tissue destruction and an increased risk of infection.
8. Maintain A Healthy Weight
Carrying excessive weight can increase inflammation. Adipose cells (fat tissue) are hormonally active and secrete chemicals into the bloodstream, which may impact your immune system. Blood sugar spikes and persistently high blood sugar can increase cytokine production. Cytokines are chemical messengers in the immune system. When cytokines are at abnormally high levels, it may cause an imbalance in your immune system. High blood sugar can also make it harder for some of your immune cells to recognize pathogens and reduce their ability to fight infection.
9. Choose A Healthy Diet
Scientists have studied the effect of micronutrient deficiencies on the immune system. While it is a giant step to translate the effects of micronutrients on the immune system in cells or animals in a laboratory to humans, there is some evidence that micronutrient deficiencies adversely affect the immune system. So, if you are not getting these micronutrients in your diet, ask your doctor whether you should supplement them.
Important micronutrients for the immune system:
- Zinc: An essential mineral involved in over 300 chemical reactions, zinc is a cofactor that supports carbohydrate and protein metabolism.
- Selenium: A trace element essential in small amounts. Selenium deficiency has been linked to impaired immune function and chronic inflammation.5
- Iron: A mineral that is an essential part of hundreds of proteins and enzymes. Iron is best known for shuttling oxygen in red blood cells throughout the bloodstream.
- Copper: A mineral and cofactor, copper deficiency has been linked to impaired immune function. How copper affects the immune system is not fully understood.
- Folate: A water-soluble B-vitamin, folate is essential for red blood cell, nucleic acid, and amino acid production.6
- Vitamin A: A fat-soluble vitamin found in animal products and as provitamin A carotenoid in fruits and vegetables. Vitamin A is key to immune cell function, especially in protecting the membranes that line your body cavities.
- Vitamin B6: Is a water-soluble vitamin involved in over 100 chemical reactions, mostly in protein metabolism. Inflammation from chronic diseases can interfere with vitamin B6 metabolism.
- Vitamin C: A water-soluble vitamin that must come from the diet or supplements. Vitamin C is a cofactor in numerous chemical reactions and is an important antioxidant.
- Garlic: A rich source of organosulfur compounds, garlic extracts have antibacterial and antifungal properties.7
- Probiotics: Foods containing probiotics (contain live bacteria) and prebiotics (feed bacterial colonies) can support the gut microbiome and the immune system.8
- Beta-glycans: naturally occurring polysaccharides found in mushrooms, beta-glycans activate cells in the immune system.9
- Berberine: an isoquinoline alkaloid, is one of the main active ingredients extracted from medicinal herbs and seems to have anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating properties.10
- Sulforaphane: is an antioxidant found in Brassica vegetables such as kale, turnips, and radishes.11
- Elderberry: Rich in anthocyanins, elderberry is used by some people to treat cold and flu symptoms.12
- Vitamin D: Synthesized by exposure to UVB radiation from the sun, consumed in the diet or as supplements, vitamin D regulates calcium levels and plays an important role in immune function.
Start a treatment plan with Vitamin D3 today!
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.
1. Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Doyle WJ, et al. Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2012/04/17 2012;109(16):5995-5999. doi:10.1073/pnas.1118355109
2. Nieman DC, Wentz LM. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. Journal of Sport and Health Science. 2019/05/01/ 2019;8(3):201-217. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2018.09.009
3. Barr T, Helms C, Grant K, Messaoudi I. Opposing effects of alcohol on the immune system. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry. 2016/02/04/ 2016;65:242-251. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pnpbp.2015.09.001
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7. Lissiman E, Bhasale AL, Cohen M. Garlic for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2014;(11)doi:10.1002/14651858.CD006206.pub4
8. Hu YM, Zhou F, Yuan Y, Xu YC. Effects of probiotics supplement in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus: A meta-analysis of randomized trials. Med Clin (Barc). Apr 21 2017;148(8):362-370. Efectos del suplemento de probióticos en pacientes con diabetes mellitus tipo 2: metaanálisis de ensayos aleatorizados. doi:10.1016/j.medcli.2016.11.036
9. Akramiene D, Kondrotas A, Didziapetriene J, Kevelaitis E. Effects of beta-glucans on the immune system. Medicina (Kaunas). 2007;43(8):597-606.
10. Ehteshamfar SM, Akhbari M, Afshari JT, et al. Anti-inflammatory and immune-modulatory impacts of berberine on activation of autoreactive T cells in autoimmune inflammation. J Cell Mol Med. Dec 2020;24(23):13573-13588. doi:10.1111/jcmm.16049
11. Mahn A, Castillo A. Potential of Sulforaphane as a Natural Immune System Enhancer: A Review. Molecules. Feb 1 2021;26(3)doi:10.3390/molecules26030752
12. Porter RS, Bode RF. A Review of the Antiviral Properties of Black Elder (Sambucus nigra L.) Products. Phytother Res. Apr 2017;31(4):533-554. doi:10.1002/ptr.5782