11 Ways To Strengthen Your Immune System Naturally, According To An Immunologist
As an immunologist and allergist, I'm often asked, "How can I strengthen my immune system naturally?" In reality, it's about training our immune system to do its job correctly.
That is, we want to be able to fend off the things that can hurt us, while remaining non-reactive to benign things like pollen and foods.
The bottom line is that a healthy body is dependent on a strong immune system.
There are many ways to perform immune-system upkeep and not just by avoiding some destructive habits, stressors, and toxins but by embracing natural immune supporters and adopting behaviors that encourage immunity.
These are some of the key ways I recommend all my patients support their immune function:
Take this nutrient triad on a daily basis.*
Although there are several vitamins and minerals that support our immune system, these three really pack a punch.*
Instead of a reactive approach, I recommend you prioritize and take this essential micronutrient trifecta daily to support the critical and numerous functions of your innate and adaptive immune systems.*
Along with prioritizing nutrient-dense food sources from our diet, a high-quality immune supplement designed for daily use can be prudent.*
- Zinc: Zinc affects multiple aspects of the immune system and even acts as an antioxidant1 by fighting off free radicals.* It's also a very common nutrient gap worldwide, which is why a supplement can be helpful.* In terms of the diet, rich sources of this essential mineral include meats, seafood, whole grains, dairy, nuts, and seeds.
- Vitamin D3: Although you can get a small amount of vitamin D through sunlight, there are many factors that impact your ability to get a meaningful amount, (read more about that here), and thus, many adults don't get the levels of vitamin D required to modulate the immune system.*
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is really a powerhouse vitamin and antioxidant for daily immunity.* Suboptimal vitamin C status has been associated2 with lower immune strength and resilience.* It's also a crucial free-radical scavenger that significantly protects3 our immune cells as they work hard to defend us.* In addition to incorporating lots of fruits and vegetables in your daily nutrition habits, a vitamin C supplement can provide additional immune insurance where gaps may exist.*
Take a probiotic that has a broad array of species.*
One of the most important thing one can do to cultivate strong immunity is to start where the majority of the immune system really resides: the gut.
The gut is where about 80% of your immune cells4 hang out, and it's one of the primary locations where our bodies decide what is friend and what is foe. By strengthening our gut health, we are benefiting our immunity.
Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are two of the most important families of bacteria that populate our gut from birth, and they have been shown to positively affect our immune health.*
Look for a digestive health-focused probiotic that has 30 billion or more colony forming units (total).
Remember, these are live organisms, and it pays to spend a little more on a good-quality brand (find our favorites here).
In addition, adding fermented foods—like sauerkraut, naturally fermented pickles, yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, kimchi, tempeh, miso, natto, and kombucha—to your everyday routine is beneficial.
I also recommend including plenty of prebiotic-rich foods in your diet (such as psyllium husk, larch arabinogalactan, and Acacia powder), which help feed the good bacteria in your gut.
One of the benefits of being breastfed as a baby is the protective antibodies we get from our mother.
Colostrum is the "first milk" from nursing mammals, and it's a rich source of these protective antibodies, as well as substances with anti-inflammatory properties, like lactoferrin.
Luckily, we can harness the power of colostrum even as adults to help maintain a healthy inflammatory response and strengthen our immune system.
In powder form from grass-fed cows, goats, and other mammals, it can be mixed into smoothies and juices.
Incorporate bone broth.
Our grandmothers knew what they were talking about, seeing as how the bone broth industry has exploded. The benefits of drinking and cooking with organic bone broth have far-reaching effects on the immune system.
The natural gelatin, collagen, and amino acids tend to the gut and help support the health of individual immune cells such as lymphocytes.*
So, there is definitely good reason to drink homemade chicken soup when dealing with a cold or the flu.
- Reishi: Although not edible, these mushrooms have powerful7 antiviral properties. They are best taken as a dried capsule supplement or in a tea or tincture.
- Shiitake: The delicious mushroom easily found in grocery stores contains substances called beta-glucans, which stimulate the immune system8 and strengthen our white blood cells.*
- Maitake: My personal favorite, these are also called "Hen of the woods" and are not only delicious but increase our immune cells' responses.9
Harness the power of the sun.
Immune cells are favorably affected by healthy vitamin D levels10, which can be obtained in small amounts via the sun. In fact, vitamin D deficiency (which affects 29% of U.S. adults11) is associated with lower immune system functioning.
Soaking up the sunshine safely, and spending time in nature are both valuable for overall well-being. However, one of the most effective ways to raise and maintain your 25(OH)D levels (aka your vitamin D status) is to take a supplement with 5,000 IU vitamin D3 in each serving.*
Sweat it out in a sauna.
Eat foods with antimicrobial properties.
One way to support your immune strength daily is through a few key superfoods. You can eat these foods on a daily basis, so that you are constantly improving and supporting your immunity.
Raw garlic: This superfood has very strong antimicrobial and antiviral properties. The potent sulfur compound allicin in garlic is known to helps support a healthy gut. If you're feeling off, start eating one raw garlic clove daily, or use concentrated allicin extract.
Manuka honey: Quite a bit of research14 exists on the benefits of honey as a natural immune supporter, with anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial actions. Manuka honey, in particular—native to New Zealand and Australia—has substances15 that can speed up th immune response both when eaten and used topically.
Get your exercise on.
Beyond the obvious cardiovascular, mood, and weight management benefits of regular exercise, moderate physical activity can improve our antibody response.
It's important not to overtrain, however, as strenuous exercise without recovery days has been associated with16 a lowered immune response, as well as a higher risk of getting hurt. (Try these cortisol-conscious workouts, which are effective without putting too much stress on the body.)
Take to your bed.
Lack of sleep and disruption of the sleep-wake cycle can impact immune health, by lowering the activity of T-cells (a crucial type of immune cell). Studies of identical twins show that those with better sleep had a healthier inflammatory and immune response than the those who got less sleep.
Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep on a regular basis and avoid all-nighters. If you travel through time zones frequently, use small amounts of melatonin (two to three milligrams) to reset your circadian rhythm.
Manage your stress.
Cortisol itself interferes with the ability of specific white blood cells called T-cells to proliferate and get signals from the body.
In addition, cortisol also lowers an important antibody called secretory IgA, which lines the respiratory tract and gut and is our first line of defense.
I also highly recommend fostering connection and gratitude practices—to help manage stress and promote overall well-being.
For both men and women, taking stock of the health of your immune system on a regular basis can not only keep you from getting sick, but it can help you age more gracefully, too.
Dr. Heather Moday received her medical degree from Tulane Medical School in New Orleans. She completed a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in allergy and immunology. She completed a fellowship in integrative medicine with the Arizona Integrative Medicine program and is board-certified in integrative and holistic medicine. She completed her functional medicine training with the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Kalish Functional Medicine Fellowship.
She started the Moday Center for Functional and Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia, where she practices both traditional medicine and integrative medicine. You can learn more about Dr. Moday through her blog and website and follow her on her YouTube channel, Functional Medicine TV.