If you’re reading this, you might be battling the sniffles, or gearing up for cold and flu season, and looking for ways to boost your immune system. But first, it’s important to understand what the immune system actually is and how it works.
Basically, your immune system is the body’s defense against infection and other invaders. The immune system—a network of cells, tissues, and organs—attacks harmful pathogens like bacteria, viruses, parasites, or fungi. In some cases, the immune system can also attack the body’s own cells if they have become dangerous due to an illness, like cancer.
When your immune system is running normally, you’re healthy and feel great. It’s when the system becomes compromised—you’re stressed, overtired, or your body came into contact with a pathogen it’s not familiar with—that you get sick and find yourself here, looking for ways to boost your immune system quickly.
Read on to learn about the best vitamins, foods, and lifestyle choices that can help boost your immune system.
6 Immune System Boosters
Sure, it may sound boring, but eating a balanced diet is key to keeping your immune system healthy. The next time you hit the grocery store, be sure to load up on these foods, which are good sources of immune-boosting nutrients. And in some cases, it might be worth considering a vitamin supplement.
Yes, you often associate oranges with high levels of vitamin C, but strawberries actually offer more of the disease-fighting vitamin—85 milligrams per cup versus 70 milligrams in an orange. But why is vitamin C the go-to vitamin when you feel the sniffles coming on? In the simplest terms: It helps with the production of white blood cells, which fight disease, says Natalie Rizzo, a registered dietitian in New York City.
That said, taking as much vitamin C (either in your diet or as a supplement) as possible won’t make you invincible.
“Because it’s a water-soluble vitamin, any extra—more than 400 milligrams a day—is flushed out,” says Rizzo.
We get that these guys aren’t for everyone, but to really give your immune system a kick in the pants, try oysters. They pack 74 miligrams of zinc per serving; that’s more than any other food (other good sources include red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, and fortified breads and cereals). While vitamin C is more of a preventive nutrient, says Rizzo, research has shown that zinc can help you kick that cold more quickly (1).
“It’s really interesting that people take mega doses of vitamin C when they get sick, but zinc has really been shown to shorten the duration of a cold,” says Rizzo.
Zinc helps strengthen your immune system much like vitamin C, but it helps boost the production of T-cells, which are a type of white blood cell.
While the research is still fairly new, it’s becoming more evident that the probiotics found in fermented foods, such as kefir, have significant ties to a healthy immune system. And that’s because much of the immune system seems to be located in the gut (2).
“Kefir is a fermentable yogurt, with almost the same amount of protein and calcium,” says Rizzo. “But during fermentation, it creates probiotics that are good for the gut. And the better you treat your gut, the healthier you’re going to be.”
Sunflower Seeds (and Sunflower Butter!)
One of the best sources of the fat-soluble vitamin E is sunflower seeds (talk about tiny but mighty). Not only does vitamin E help the body boost the immune system to fight infection, it also serves as an antioxidant.
Antioxidants, found in many fruits and vegetables, help protect the cells from damage by free radicals, which are formed when the body converts food to energy. Free radicals also come from cigarette smoke, air pollution, and the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
There’s a reason you keep Grandma’s chicken soup recipe on hand for when you come down with a cold or the flu, but it’s not for the reason you think. Chicken soup isn’t the cure-all people make it out to be, but it is rehydrating. When you’re under the weather, you need fluids and in some cases, electrolytes to replace the ones lost through vomiting or diarrhea.
“Being hydrated is one of the most important things you can do for your health,” says Rizzo.
Hands down, turmeric is one of the best anti-inflammatory herbs. Its main ingredient, curcumin, has been shown to fight the effects of chronic inflammation, says Rizzo. Why is that important for your immune system? When the body is sick or injured, it’s inflamed, and that’s what kick-starts the immune system’s response.
While you can add turmeric spice to foods—1/2 to 1 teaspoon may have certain digestive and cognitive benefits—most researchers study the effects of turmeric extract (found in supplements), which is about 95 percent of the curcumin compound (3).
Other Ways to Boost Your Immune System
Making healthy lifestyle choices—outside of your diet—is another way to keep your immune system on the up and up.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. But when you burn the midnight oil too often, your body doesn’t have those precious hours of sleep to help repair and rebuild. And that’s when you can become sick, says Rizzo. Research has shown that sleep plays a role in strengthening the immune system (4).
Aim for at least seven to nine hours of shuteye per night.
Engaging in regular exercise—daily walks or runs, weight-lifting, yoga, swimming—is good for your all-around health. It helps keep your weight in check and your heart healthy. That said, researchers aren’t sure if or how exercise increases immunity to certain illnesses. There are theories, but none of them have been proven (5).
Like staying active, being smoke-free promotes your overall health, says Rizzo. Studies have also found that cigarette smoke has negative effects on the immune system and are associated with chronic illnesses like Crohn’s disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (6).
Drink Alcohol in Moderation
Too much booze has been shown to depress the immune system, making you more prone to illness and disease. What’s more, Rizzo points out, is that recent research found that people who drank more than the recommended amount—one drink per day for women and two per day for men—had shorter lifespans (7).