How strong is your immune system? Do you feel confident enough to go to the supermarket, a restaurant, or a public gathering right now? Even if you’re not too concerned about current viral infections on the rise, it’s always a good idea to strengthen your immune system and boost your health.
With a strong immune system, you’ll likely have far greater defenses against any virus, bad bacteria, or even toxins that you come into contact with. It doesn’t mean you’ll never get sick—but even if you do, it won’t be as severe and you’ll recover much faster.
What are the signs of a weak immune system?
Do you have a compromised immune system? Answer these questions:
- Do you have any autoimmune disorders (such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Hashimotos, etc.)?
- Do cuts, scrapes, and bruises tend to get infected or take a while to heal?
- Do you come down with the flu, colds, or other illnesses fairly often?
- Have you experienced any inflammation issues (achy joints, cold hands, headaches, and more)?
- Do you have digestive problems fairly often, such as cramping, loss of appetite, nausea, and diarrhea?
- Do you regularly feel more fatigued than you used to?
- Are you under a lot of stress?
If you answered “yes” to more than one of those questions, you’re likely having immune system issues. And while I like to keep things breezy on my blog posts, a weakened immune system is no joke—particularly now.
What does your gut health have to do with your immune system? Everything.
The gut is home to 70% of the cells that make up your immune system. If your gut is healthy, your immune system will be robust. The gut turns our food into energy and helps get rid of toxins.
There’s plenty of information already available on gut health. Here are a few great sources of info:
- A 3-part series on Gut Health and your Immune System on our website
- “Gut Health: Where Bacteria and the Immune System Meet” by Johns Hopkins Medicine
- “How Good Gut Health Can Boost Your Immune System” by Dr. Mark Hyman
- “Why Gut Bacteria Are Essential for a Healthy Immune System” by Medical XPress
Now that you know the importance of your gut, here are specific ways you can keep it healthy, and help improve your immunity in the process.
1. Eat the right foods. Which ones are the best to strengthen your immune system?
Whole plant foods are the key to immune system health. Start by increasing the number of fruits and vegetables you eat. Also, focus on nutrient-dense superfoods, with their vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants. Here are a few examples:
CITRUS FRUITS. They are high in Vitamin C, as well as plant compounds that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
BROCCOLI. It’s packed with vitamins, fiber, and many other antioxidants. Try to eat it raw, if possible, to get the most benefit.
RED BELL PEPPERS. In addition to a high amount of Vitamin A, brightly-colored bell peppers contain three times as much Vitamin C as a navel orange.
GARLIC. Containing natural compounds that work to destroy bacteria and infection, garlic has been strengthening immunity for centuries.
SPINACH. Filled with Vitamin C, spinach is also packed with antioxidants and beta carotene. Like broccoli, it’s best eaten raw.
ALMONDS. Not just a healthy fat, almonds are full of Vitamin E, which is key to a healthy immune system. A half-cup of almonds contains 100% of the daily recommended serving of Vitamin E.
There are many more examples of the best foods to eat. Google “Foods to Boost the Immune System,” and you’ll get a ton of great information.
2. Fats make food yummy! They’re also good for you, as long as you stick with the healthy ones.
Healthy fats, like those found in olive oil, avocado, and nuts, have been shown to strengthen your immune system—as long as you eat them as part of a generally low-fat diet.
A study by the National Institutes of Health found the following: “A low-fat diet can reduce the development of disease by maintaining normal immune responses. The data also suggest that unsaturated fat may influence T helper cell activity and therefore antibody production, whereas saturated fats may affect cellular immune responses which are dependent on membrane contact.”
So keep those good fats handy, and toss out the bad ones! Get rid of processed foods in your home. Remove anything that contains trans fats. Stick to foods that contain healthy fats, such as cheese; nuts; avocados; salmon and other fatty fish; dark chocolate; and whole eggs.
Find out all you need to know about good and bad types of fat in our article on Healthy Fats.
3. Yogurt? Kimchi? Kombucha? Yes, please!
Remember the gut thing I mentioned earlier? Well, eating fermented foods can have a dramatic effect on your immune system because of what they do to your gut health. Fermentation promotes the growth of probiotics, the beneficial bacteria that improve gut health.
If you’re a fermented food lover like me, this is easy and yummy. But if you’re not sure about the sauerkraut, try to start with some yogurt. Stick with plain yogurt and add some berries and nuts to make it a delicious, healthy treat.
4. When it comes to this ingredient, RUN AWAY! You’ll boost your immune system quickly.
Now that you know what to eat, here’s what NOT to eat: SUGAR. You’d be shocked at the amount of added sugar in the foods you eat every day, mainly processed foods.
Sugar has a direct effect on immune function. Added sugars are a major culprit in obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, which can all suppress your immune system. By cutting out sugar and complex carbohydrates (which turn to sugar in your system), you’ll start to lower your inflammation and boost your immunity immediately.
Is it easy? Nope, since sugar is addictive and coming off of it is no fun. Once your body gets used to creating its own sugar again and your blood sugar stabilizes, you’ll love how much extra energy and mental clarity you have.
Sugar goes by so many names that ingredient lists can be daunting! Beware of anything that ends in “-ose,” such as fructose, glucose, maltose, and dextrose. Also, to give you an idea of how sneaky food manufacturers can be, check out these 56 different names for sugar:
YIKES! So yes, work on getting added sugar out of your diet and give a massive boost to your immune system.
5. Drink! Drink! Drink! Why hydration is so vital.
I’ve written about the importance of water before, but I can’t say it too much. Hydration is the most loving thing you can do for your health. But what does hydration do for your immune system? Glad you asked!
Staying hydrated helps your body flush out toxins and other bacteria that may cause illness. Water helps to oxygenate your blood, which in turn allows cells to function at their full capacity. Plus, the more water you drink, the better your kidneys will be able to flush out toxins. Oh, and don’t forget the brain: when you are well hydrated, your brain produces melatonin, which can help you sleep.
Then there’s the lymphatic system: Drinking enough water helps your lymph nodes to do more work in getting rid of bacteria. And the more water you drink, the more moisture you’ll have in your eyes and mouth, preventing those nasty germ particles from gaining access to your body.
Have I convinced you yet? I know that drinking water may not be a thrill, but you can always add a bit of lemon or lime for an immune system double-whammy! It may be tough to start drinking a lot of water at first, but if you keep it next to you at all times, you’ll get the hang of it. When I first started drinking water, I was a Coke Zero-aholic. Within a week, I forgot all about that craving, and I’ve been well hydrated ever since. If I can break that habit, believe me, so can you.
6. Supplements to strengthen your immune system: Yay or Nay? It depends.
To supplement or not to supplement? If you’re eating the right foods, including fermented foods, you don’t necessarily need more supplements. However, many of us—myself included—are low on specific vitamins and need to supplement what we eat.
There are some pretty cool tests that can be done to see what your body is deficient in and based on that, you can tailor your supplements more specifically to what you need most.
In their excellent article on vitamins and the immune system, the Cleveland Clinic put it like this:
“Your body absorbs and uses vitamins and nutrients better when they come from a dietary source. When it’s a vitamin or supplement, it’s often questionable how much you’re actually getting. Because supplements are regulated as foods, not as drugs, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t evaluate the quality of supplements or assess their effects on the body.”
7. Let’s get physical: How much exercise is enough for your immune system?
There’s no question that regular exercise can help strengthen your immune system. A 2019 review published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science discusses how exercise improves immune function, and how much to do for long-term positive effects.
The study found that regular aerobic exercise for up to 60 minutes, either moderate or high intensity, was most effective. The study focused on walking, but there are many options, such as taking a spin class, using an elliptical trainer, or running.
Here’s how it works: As your muscles contract through exercise, it increases blood and lymph flow throughout your body. It also increases the circulation of immune cells, so they move through the body at a higher rate and number. At the same time, this exercise reduces inflammation in your body, which also improves immune function.
The key here is REGULAR Exercise. Taking a 45-minute walk once and hoping it helps your immune system isn’t going to do you much good. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. If you take a brisk walk for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, you’re all set.
HealthKick offers some good tips that make it easy for you to get in regular exercise. Check them out here:
8. Regular ZZZZs are fantastic immune system helpers.
There are so many studies about the benefits of getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night that I won’t bore you with all that info. But I will explain how getting enough sleep can strengthen your immune system (non-boringly).
When you sleep, your body both produces and releases proteins called cytokines, which target infection and inflammation. Cytokines also help with stress, and some of them promote better sleep. When you skimp on sleep, you produce less of these cytokines, so you won’t have them available when you need them.
If you have trouble sleeping in general, try a few things: Put away your smartphone or tablet two hours before shut-eye, since the blue light may keep you awake. Get some blackout curtains for your bedroom. Try to sleep and wake at consistent times. Don’t drink caffeine too close to bedtime. Check out this HealthKick article on many more ways to improve your sleep.
9. Chill out! How stress kills your immune health.
Chronic stress and anxiety can be a significant player in your immune system health. In response to anxiety and stress, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. This anxiety triggers a flood of chemicals and hormones into your system, particularly cortisol, which can suppress your immune system’s effectiveness.
If it’s a one-time stressor, no biggie: Your pulse and breathing rate increase to give your brain more oxygen so you can respond fast, and your immune system may get a temporary boost. Then, when the stress is over, your body goes back to normal functioning. But if you’re always stressed, your body never gets a signal to return to normal. That wreaks havoc on your immune system.
Then there are the other things we do to cope with stress: smoking, eating unhealthy foods, drinking alcohol. These will damage the immune system even more.
So what can you do to reduce stress and strengthen your immune system? Practice mindfulness. Do some yoga. Surround yourself with people you love. Start a gratitude journal.
Read this HealthKick article about stress and things you can do to ease your stress levels: https://www.healthkick.info/damaging-effects-stress/
And check out this article which contains a bunch of useful tips on lessening stress during this pandemic.
Also, if you do what I’ve discussed above—eat well, exercise, hydrate, get regular sleep—these will all reduce stress. So, yay!
Now that you know these nine tips to strengthen your immune system, it’s time to put them into action.
There’s a lot of info here, but it’s not hard to get going on your immunity-boosting ways. Start by drinking more water and eating more veggies and fruits. Get rid of as much sugar from your diet as you can. Replace your processed foods with more healthy ones.
Once you form a daily water habit, you can add on the next, and the next. Before you know it, you’ll feel better than you have in years. You’ll wonder where those aches and pains went (hint: less inflammation). You’ll be sleeping better. You’ll feel calmer for “no apparent reason.” Your mind will be clearer. It’s all because you’ve done the work to boost your immune system.
Here’s to your health! You’re worth it!