The Total Guide to Scientifically Supported Ways to Boost Your Immune System
With widespread health concerns across the United States, it is now more important than ever to learn how to support your immune system.
Although there is no specific supplement or pill proven to prevent COVID-19, there are scientifically supported steps you can take to keep your immune system operating at its optimal level.
The following guide to supporting your immune system is a great way to get proactive about your internal health and well-being.
What is the Immune System?
The immune system is an internal network of cells, tissues, proteins, and organs that work together to help defend the body against illness and infection. When working properly, the immune system identifies foreign threats such as bacteria, pathogens, parasites, microbes, or viruses.
The immune system then activates a chain of reactions known as the immune response. This immune response works in conjunction with white blood cells to help destroy these threats.
There are two broad categories of the human immune system: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system.
- Innate Immunity – Innate immunity is the structural immune system a person has at birth. It is the body’s first defense mechanism against foreign invasion. For example, upon detecting a threat, the innate system immediately activates to flush out invading cells. We can often see this process at work in the form of extra mucus or a fever as the body heats up to fight infection.
- Adaptive Immunity – Adaptive immunity is the accumulation of defenses the body obtains through exposure to illnesses or required vaccines. This immunity occurs because the body tends to keep a record of microbes it has defeated in the past. The record helps the body recognize the threat quickly if it enters the body again. Upon identifying a previous threat, the body produces antibodies to destroy and eliminate the threat from the system.
As you might imagine, the immune system involves complex processes to defend our bodies against potential invasion. Although there is no “magic pill” to alter the immune system, the scientific consensus is that you can take steps to support the immune system. These steps include consuming a healthy diet, increasing activity levels, getting enough sleep, and keeping stress levels under control.
How Can a Healthy Diet Help Support the Immune System?
A healthy diet provides the vitamins and nutrients needed for a stronger immune response. Since a critical portion of the immune system is found in the gut, it is essential that you provide your body with the resources needed to ward off unwanted invasions.
- Antioxidants – Antioxidants are compounds that help slow down oxidation (the rapid aging or destruction of cells). Oxidation is a chemical reaction that releases loose molecules known as free radicals. These free radicals cause oxidative stress to nearby cells, thereby damaging cells and tissue. Fortunately, antioxidant-rich foods contain natural compounds that can terminate these chain reactions and inhibit oxidation. Antioxidants are also associated with increased white blood-cell count. Some of the most antioxidant-rich foods include wild blueberries, spinach, salmon, kale, and legumes.
- Vitamin C – Vitamin C is an essential nutrient that helps form antibodies and may strengthen your body’s immune response. It is also heavily involved in tissue repair. You can find vitamin C in citrus fruits like oranges as well as common groceries like strawberries or red bell peppers.
- Vitamin D – Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin essential for the absorption of calcium and other essential nutrients. Humans obtain much of their vitamin D through sunlight. When possible, go for an outdoor walk to increase sun exposure (be sure to follow the appropriate social distancing rules for your region).
- Vitamin E – Vitamin E is a well-known, fat-soluble antioxidant that helps protect cells from oxidative stress. You can obtain vitamin E from foods like sunflower seeds, almonds, peanut butter, or wild-caught salmon.
- Vitamin A – Vitamin A is a regulatory antioxidant important for maintenance of your immune system. You may often encounter this vitamin on ingredients lists in the form of beta-carotene. Food high in vitamin A include sweet potatoes, carrots, yams, broccoli, spinach, and squash.
- Inulin Fiber – Fiber helps keep gut bacteria healthy, thereby strengthening the immune system’s response to potential infections. Scientifically, inulin fiber is known as one of the major prebiotics that gut bacteria use to help your body break down and digest food, reduce inflammation, and activate immune system defenses. Sources of soluble inulin fiber include bananas, plantains, Jerusalem artichokes, Jicama root, and asparagus.
- Allicin – Allicin is an organic compound that supports the immune system by reducing inflammation and helping the body ward off infection. The most common source of allicin is crushed or chopped garlic.
- Zinc – Zinc supports the immune system and plays an important role in how wounds heal. Good sources of zinc include wild salmon, beans, nuts, and seeds.
- B-Complex Vitamins – B vitamins are essential to the production of red blood cells and the function of neurotransmitters that activate immune system response. Various types of B vitamins on ingredients lists include thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), biotin (B7), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12). Foods rich in B vitamins include spinach, avocados, lentils, and kale.
- Resveratrol – This nutrient helps raise the expression of the human cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide (CAMP) gene. The CAMP gene is critical to innate immune system function. You can find resveratrol in blueberries and red grapes.
- DHA – This omega-3 fatty acid has been shown to increase B cell activity and play a role in adaptive immune system function. Fish oil (found in foods like salmon) is a good source of DHA.
- Probiotics – Probiotics help support a healthy gut microbiome. Keeping this ecosystem healthy makes it easier required cells to activate in the even that something is wrong. Fermented foods with replenishing live and active cultures (such as yogurt and kefir) are excellent sources of probiotics. These probiotics go on to “feed” on the prebiotics from soluble fiber and help keep your gut healthy.
- Protein – Protein provides the amino acids necessary for immune system function. This nutrient also plays an important role in internal healing and muscle recovery. Good sources of protein include eggs, seafood, lean meat, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
- Water – Hydration helps keep the body’s cells and organs functioning properly. Drinking enough water is also imperative for the circulatory system to disperse blood cells and antibodies. Follow the current guidelines for drinking sufficient water, and keep in mind that certain fruits (such as watermelon) and meals (like soup) also count toward your daily water intake.
It is important to note that just as healthy foods help reduce inflammation and strengthen the body’s immune response, unhealthy foods can raise inflammation and weaken immune response.
When the body has to deal with increased inflammation and widespread free radicals, there is less of a chance it can sufficiently correct a foreign that. For this reason, it is best to avoid foods that cause inflammation. Examples include high amounts of white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, white flour, processed meat, and preservatives.
Similarly, scientists also link obesity to an impaired immune system. In fact, the body can respond to increased levels of visceral fat (“belly fat”) the same way it might react to a bacterial infection. This lowers the chances your body will have the resources needed to fight actual infections. By eating a recommended diet and increasing physical activity, you can potentially keep body mass index (BMI) at a healthy level.
How Does Physical Activity Help Support the Immune System?
Physical exercise is one of the best elective activities for supporting the immune system. Cardiovascular exercise promotes efficient blood circulation. This allows white blood cells and antibodies to reach different parts of the body faster, thereby increasing the chance that these cells can do their job.
Research published in the U.S National Library of Medicine found that even 20 minutes of exercise five days a week can stimulate the body’s immune response. Furthermore, a study published in the British Journal of Health Medicine individuals who exercised at least five times a week were half as likely to come down with the common cold.
Supporting your immune system is a powerful incentive for following the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommendation of getting at least 180 minutes of moderate exercise each week.
How Can Getting Enough Sleep Help Support the Immune System?
Getting sufficient sleep is another important way to fine-tune the immune system. During sleep, the body releases cell-signaling proteins known as cytokines. These proteins help reduce inflammation and play an important role in helping your body repair itself. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation decreases the production of cytokines, thereby making your body susceptible to other problems.
If that is not bad enough, sleep deprivation can cause the release of the cortisol stress hormone. While the cortisol hormone is an important way that your body prevents shock and complete shutdown, the downside is that excessive cortisol levels can compromise the immune system.
Furthermore, sleep deprivation can lower the body’s immune response by decreasing the production and circulation of white blood cells. In contrast, getting enough slow-wave sleep (also known as rapid-eye movement REM sleep or deep sleep) can increase white blood-cell count.
A recent study found that individuals got a full eight hours of sleep had higher levels of white T cells than individuals who slept fewer hours. A possible reason is that eight hours is sufficient time for the body to undergo all four stages of sleep and for the organs to rest completely. If you need help sleeping, try downloading a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-I) app for insomnia or using an essential oil diffuser in your bedroom at night.
How Can Reducing Stress Levels Help Support the Immune System?
Stress management is imperative for helping the immune system operate at optimal levels. When the body feels stressed, it releases a hormone called corticosteroid.
This hormone can lower the amount of lymphocytes (white blood cells) in the blood and compromise the body’s ability to fight antigens. Stress can also truncate DNA telomeres, effectively shortening the length of cells that fight off sickness.
It is understandable that circumstances like social isolation, unemployment risk, and general anxiety can all cause stress. While it may not be possible to eliminate stress complete, you can take steps to reduce and manage its occurrence. Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, guided imagery, and spending time with pets and loved ones can all help reduce stress.
In fact, several studies have shown that activities as simple as clapping and singing can reduce the body’s stress response. Although you may not be able to join large gatherings, you can gather for fun family activities (like singing, painting, or board games) while staying at home.
The Bottom Line on Boosting Your Immune System
Although there is no special pill or supplement to prevent COVID-19, there are decisions you can make to support your body’s defenses against harmful pathogens
Eating a nutritious diet, exercising, getting enough sleep, and managing stress levels can all support immune health. Combine with current guidelines for social distancing and proper hygiene to make a good-faith effort to stay safe and healthy during challenging times.