As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread around the world, many people are looking for ways to strengthen their immune systems and better resist infection from the virus. And it’s more important than ever.
Your immune system is your body’s defensive line against infection. And despite plenty of clever marketing by companies, there’s no one vitamin or pill you can take to boost it and become invincible to viruses and bacteria.
Boosting your immune system doesn’t just help you avoid the nuisances that come with getting sick. It can also help you save money by helping you avoid high health care costs and life-threatening circumstances associated with serious complications of diseases like COVID-19. And by making some of these lifestyle changes and adopting healthy habits, you can give your body’s immune system a better chance to do its job — namely, keeping you alive.
How to Naturally Boost Your Immune System
1. Wash Your Hands
Yes, you’re reading this mantra everywhere right now, and it certainly bears repeating. Washing your hands is the most critical thing you can do to prevent the spread of illness. There’s a good reason doctors emphasize this tactic, and it’s because it works.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands at these key times:
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before eating food
- Before and after caring for someone who is ill
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the toilet
- After changing a diaper or cleaning a child who has used the toilet
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching garbage
- After touching an animal, animal feed or food, or animal waste
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC also recommends you wash your hands:
- After you’ve been out in public and touched an object or surface other people have touched, such as door handles, tables, gas pumps, and shopping carts
- Before touching your face
When you go into a public place, don’t touch your face. If possible, as soon as you touch a door handle, phone, or other “public” object, use hand sanitizer or wash your hands with (cold or warm) running water for at least 20 seconds. Use soap and be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your fingernails.
To ensure you’re washing your hands long enough, it can help to hum a tune or sing a song that takes 20 seconds. According to NPR, there are several good candidates:
- Sing “Happy Birthday” twice
- Sing the ABC song
- Sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” twice
- Sing the Final Jeopardy theme song (which is actually 30 seconds long)
- Sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” twice
Always use a clean towel to dry them. If no clean towels are available, you can air-dry them.
2. Eat More Fruits & Vegetables
The adage “You are what you eat” has stuck around for a reason. The foods we consume play an essential and direct role in our body’s ability to function and thrive. The more balanced and diverse your diet, the stronger and healthier you’ll be.
According to Penn State Health’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, food rich in beta carotenes and vitamins C and E can help strengthen your body’s ability to fight off infection.
Foods high in vitamin C include:
- Berries (including strawberries)
- Sweet potatoes
- Snow peas
- Red, green, or yellow peppers
Foods that are high in beta-carotene include:
- Sweet Potatoes
- Turnip and collard greens
Foods high in vitamin E include:
- Mustard and turnip greens
- Red peppers
- Sunflower seeds
Mushrooms (especially shiitake) contain beta-glucans, which according to a 2010 study published in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research, are complex carbohydrates that help strengthen your immune system against illness and disease.
So how much of all these fruits and vegetables should you be eating? The United States Department of Agriculture makes it simple by recommending that you fill 50% of your plate with fruits and vegetables, 25% with whole grains, and 25% with protein.
Pro tip: If you’re interested in having fresh fruits and vegetables sent to your doorstep, check out Farm Fresh to You. Add the items you’d like to receive and they will deliver to your front porch. You can also receive items like eggs, honey, jam, and more.
3. Exercise Regularly
It’s well known that regular, moderate exercise leads to a healthy body and even improves your immune response. A 2005 study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that mice who engaged in moderate exercise were 82% more likely to survive the influenza virus compared to the sedentary control group.
Regular exercise, which the Mayo Clinic defines as 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week, is especially important as we age. A 2019 study published in the journal Nursing Older People reports that exercise can help improve older adults’ vaccination response and increase the number of T-cells in the blood. T-cells are the white blood cells that are a critical part of the immune response.
Remember that frequent intense exercise can actually depress your immune system for a short time. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology notes that prolonged, intense exercise without sufficient recovery time may increase the risk of illness.
Scientists aren’t sure why. However, a 2008 study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity further illustrates the risk of prolonged intense exercise. For the study, researchers put mice in two groups: a control group that rested in their cage and an exercise group that ran for 120 minutes per day on a treadmill for three days. On the third day, both groups of mice were infected with the influenza virus. After monitoring the mice for 21 days, researchers found that the exercise group was more susceptible to infection and had more severe symptoms than the control group. So moderate exercise is an effective way to stay healthy and keep your immune system strong. But don’t overdo it.
And you certainly don’t need a gym to stay fit. There are plenty of ways to work out at home without equipment, and even taking a daily 30-minute walk can improve your health and help lower stress. You can also do other exercises, such as yoga and tai chi, at home with your entire family. If you’re struggling to find workouts that keep you motivated, check out Aaptiv. They have thousands of workouts to choose from and add dozens more each week.
4. Reduce Your Sugar Consumption
Scientists don’t definitively know whether or not sugar affects the immune system. The immune system is incredibly complex, and it’s an oversimplification to say that eating a candy bar can put you at risk for getting sick. Some research suggests that excessive sugar consumption lowers your body’s immune response, while other studies suggest it might not play such a significant role in immunity.
James Hamblin, writing a 2016 article for The Atlantic, interviewed Ruslan Medzhitov, a professor of immunobiology at Yale. Medzhitov studied how glucose affected the immune system response to certain types of illnesses, namely bacterial and viral infections, and published his findings in the journal Cell.
According to his research, our bodies might know better than we do what we need to beat back an infection. His advice is that if you’re sick with the flu and you’re craving tea and honey, make yourself some, as this might be your body’s way of telling you it needs glucose to fight off the virus.
That said, WebMD notes that sugar might lower your immune response, and cutting back could give your body its best chance at fighting off illness and disease.
The verdict is still out on whether or not sugar affects the immune system. However, Harvard Health reports that excessive sugar consumption contributes to a host of unhealthy conditions, such as weight gain, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. So it’s still a good idea to limit your sugar intake as much as possible, especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
If you’re craving a sweet treat, grab some fruit instead of a cookie. Or indulge in a piece of dark chocolate, which contains less sugar than milk chocolate.
5. Avoid Stress
Many of us know from experience that stress weakens our immune systems. That’s because when you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol. The Cleveland Clinic reports that in the short term, cortisol can boost your immune system because it limits inflammation. However, long-term stress does the opposite. When cortisol is pumped into your system regularly, your body gets used to its presence. That can actually lead to greater inflammation and increase your risk of infection.
The Cleveland Clinic also reports that stress limits the production of lymphocytes, or white blood cells, which fight off infection. The lower your levels of lymphocytes, the more at risk you are for getting sick.
So it’s essential you do whatever you can to reduce your stress levels. Work out at home to make sure you get enough exercise (which can help reduce stress), meditate regularly to relax and still your thoughts, and make sure you get enough sleep every night.
6. Increase Your Consumption of Probiotics
According to Dan Peterson, assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, a considerable portion of the body’s immune system is in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. A 2008 study published in Clinical and Experimental Immunology put the percentage at 70% to 80%. That means if your GI tract is healthy and flourishing, so is your immune system, barring any unrelated medical conditions.
One strategy to improve GI tract health is to increase your consumption of probiotics.
There are two different ways to increase your consumption of probiotics: purchasing a probiotic supplement or consuming probiotics naturally in foods. Probiotic supplements can be expensive, and the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate them, so some doctors recommend consuming probiotics found naturally in certain foods. However, you should talk to your doctor first. Harvard Medical School says that some people, especially older adults, might have an increased risk of illness after taking probiotics.
According to Harvard, the best food sources of probiotics are:
- Yogurt, especially plain Greek yogurt
- Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut or pickles
Other sources of probiotics include kimchi, sourdough bread, aged cheeses, miso, and tempeh.
Another way to improve your gut health is to limit your consumption of highly processed foods. According to Healthline, processed foods can cause inflammation in the GI tract because our gut doesn’t recognize what we’ve eaten as “real food.” Instead, it sees this food as something foreign that needs to be attacked, just as the body attacks an infection.
7. Take Elderberry Syrup
For centuries, people have used elderberry to treat illnesses, especially influenza and the common cold. If you can find it — it’s in short supply right now due to the pandemic — taking elderberry syrup can help boost your immune system.
A 2019 study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that black elderberry might effectively treat upper respiratory infections.
Elderberry can also help treat influenza, especially if you take it at the very onset of infection. A 2009 study published in the journal Phytochemistry found that elderberry works by binding to the H1N1 virus, which helps prevent ongoing replication and infection of new host cells.
Elderberry has not been studied against COVID-19, and it’s unknown if it can offer any protection against this particular virus. However, because so many studies have confirmed its immune-boosting properties, it certainly can’t hurt to try it.
8. Limit Alcohol Consumption
According to the Cleveland Clinic, drinking alcohol daily weakens the immune system. And scientific research backs this up.
A 2015 study published in the journal Alcohol Research linked excessive alcohol consumption with multiple adverse health effects, including the susceptibility for pneumonia. One reason is its effect on the GI tract, which is the first point of contact for alcohol as it passes through the body and absorbs into the bloodstream. Alcohol has been shown to disrupt the number of microbes in the gut and damages the very cells we need, like T-cells, to fight off infection.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services Dietary Guidelines for Americans, men should consume no more than two drinks per day and women one drink per day.
9. Get Enough Sleep
If you’re not getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep every night, it’s time to change your habits.
The Mayo Clinic says that lack of sleep can negatively affect your immune system. That’s because while you sleep, your body releases cytokines, a type of protein. These cytokines help you sleep, and they also help your body fight off inflammation and infection when you’re sick. When you don’t get enough sleep, cytokine production decreases, which increases your risk of getting sick.
One strategy you can use to get better sleep is to avoid looking at screens, including your phone, two hours before your regular bedtime. That’s especially important right now, when news of the pandemic can cause anxiety for some people. Instead of watching television or staring at your phone, read a book, do some gentle yoga, call a friend, or play games with your family.
Right now is a perfect time to start making lifestyle changes that can increase your overall health and ensure your immune system is functioning properly. Not only will you feel better overall, but you’ll give yourself the best chance to fight off illness and stay productive. It could also save you a significant amount of money if you’re able to avoid an expensive doctor’s visit or hospital stay.
And remember, part of staying healthy means preventing illness at work, especially since you spend most of your day there. If you can’t negotiate working from home with your boss, simple habits like wiping down door handles with bleach wipes and cleaning your phone every day can go a long way toward keeping you healthy.
What are you doing right now to boost your immune system and stay healthy?