How To Support Your Immune System On A Daily Basis, So It's Ready For Anything
Kristine Thomason is the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen.
Many of us tend to only consider our immunity when there's an immediate threat: a cold going around the office, a seasonal flu, air travel, the list goes on. However, the reality is, keeping your immune system strong should take precedence at all times. "It's so important for people to think about their immunity beforehand, and take a more proactive approach," says Ella Davar, R.D., CDN. "It's not just one month a year—we need to celebrate it all day, every day."
To help you strengthen your own body's natural defenses and begin to build up some immunity armor,* we've compiled some of our top advice from experts.
Lifestyle behaviors that aid in immune support.
The choices we make each and every day have a profound impact on our immune system's resilience. Here are a few specific lifestyle choices to note if you're aiming to keep your immunity strong:
Get plenty of sleep.
Sleep plays a vital role in so many of our body's functions—and immunity is no exception. "The No. 1 lifestyle habit I recommend is getting sufficient deep, restorative sleep," says Davar.
That's because hormones connected to immune function, such as melatonin1, are elevated when we sleep, Heather Moday, M.D., previously explained to mbg. "Also, sleep enhances the formation of memory antibodies to bacteria and viruses, to help build a stronger immune system for the future." Whereas, lack of sleep can negatively affect immune function2.
Sleep hygiene practices like setting a bedtime, reducing blue light exposure before bed, and creating a soothing nighttime ritual are all valuable ways to promote deep, restorative rest.
Move your body.
In addition to countless other benefits (heart health, mood support, and more), exercise is also a vital tool for immune support. Regular exercise can help the immune response3, lower illness risk, and reduce inflammation, according to a 2019 review published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science. Plus, Davar notes, it gets your blood flowing, and helps your body metabolize all the important nutrients you consume for immune function (more on that later).
All that said, it's important to note that there's a bit of a catch when it comes to exercise and immunity—chronic rigorous fitness and overtraining can actually be a detriment to your immune system. That's not to say you can never do a high-intensity workout—just maybe not every single day. Instead, aim for regular moderate-intensity movement that leaves you feeling strong and energized, not absolutely wiped out.
Sprinkling in restorative exercise such as yoga, tai chi, and walking can also be great daily practices. Not to mention, these types of movement offer some stress-reducing benefits, too—win, win.
Manage your stress.
While "minimize stress" may seem like a lofty task these days, it is an important piece of your immune-support puzzle. In fact, chronic stress actually suppresses4 our immune response by releasing the hormone cortisol, Moday previously told mbg. "Cortisol itself interferes with the ability of specific white blood cells called T-cells to proliferate and get signals from the body," she says. "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 against invading pathogens."
Luckily, some simple lifestyle interventions can help decrease stress and increase immune function. For example, one study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine suggests that meditation can increase levels of IgA. Other stress-minimizing practices such as journaling, yoga, or even a gratitude practice may be helpful, too—the important thing is to find what works best for you.
Wash those hands.
While we may sound like a broken record at this point, keeping those hands clean is important every day, year-round. Studies have shown that the average person touches their face 23 times per hour5, which means there's plenty of opportunity to spread a cold, flu virus, and much more.
As a general rule of thumb, it's smart to wash your hands any time you go to the bathroom, touch something dirty, prepare food, or eat a meal, according to infectious disease specialist Aaron Glatt, M.D. "It's relatively common sense. If you think you should be washing your hands, you probably should."
(For even more natural habits to support your immune system, check out this comprehensive guide.)
The best foods for immune support.
In addition to smart daily lifestyle habits, nutrition is essential for nurturing a strong immune system. You've likely heard the famous phrase "let food be thy medicine" from ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. That sentiment is a mainstay with functional medicine doctors, and it certainly rings true when it comes to bolstering immune defenses.
For example, Davar advises her clients to eat oysters once or twice a month—due to their high zinc content. "If you're out at a restaurant and see oysters on the menu, have at least three of them. Consider it medicine; after all, every time you eat, it's your chance to optimize immunity."
Other wonderful nutrient-rich, immune-supporting foods include:
- Zinc-rich foods: oysters, crab, lobster, meat, beans, hemp seeds, yogurt, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, whole grains
- Vitamin-C-rich foods: guava, sweet peppers, kiwi, oranges, grapefruit
- Quercetin-rich foods: capers, red onion, shallots, red apples, grapes, berries, cherries, scallions
- Vitamin-D-containing foods: UV-irradiated shiitake and button mushrooms, mackerel, sockeye salmon, cod liver oil, sardines, eggs, fortified milk, and OJ
- Spices and herbs: turmeric, garlic, ginger
- Veggies: Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, kale, sweet potato
- Omega-3 foods (for EPA and DHA): Mackerel, salmon, cod liver oil, herring, sea bass, sardines, anchovies, trout, oysters, caviar
And don't forget about hydration! Water keeps your mucus membranes lubricated and protected, so viruses, bacteria, and other potentially harmful pathogens can't latch on to the tissue, Catherine Waldrop, M.D., previously shared with mbg.
(For a more comprehensive list, check out this immune-supporting foods guide.)
Targeted supplements for immune support.*
While taking in an array of immune-supporting nutrients is crucial, it's often difficult to get all of the required amounts through food alone every single day. That's where a high-quality, research-backed supplement, such as mindbodygreen's immune support+, can come into play.*
While there are a number of immune-promoting vitamins, minerals, and bioactives out there, these are a few that we're particularly excited about:*
This powerhouse plant antioxidant has been a favorite among functional medicine doctors and practitioners for years—and it's now becoming a part of the mainstream immunity conversation. "Quercetin is getting popular these days—it's a healthy antioxidant and a no-brainer for immune support,"* says Moday. Quercetin builds immune resilience through antioxidant actions, plus it also has antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties to support the natural immune response.*
(Read more about this plant-based antioxidant in our quercetin guide.)
Another vital antioxidant, vitamin C is a go-to for immune support.* It supports normal development and function of immune cells, the inflammatory response, and healing.* Vitamin C is also a helpful free-radical scavenger that helps defend against oxidative damage and significantly protects6 our immune cells.*
Conversely, inadequate vitamin C status has been associated7 with lower immune strength and resilience.* And it's important to note that vitamin C is an essential nutrient, meaning we can't produce it naturally, so it's crucial to get through dietary sources.
(You can read more about the benefits of vitamin C here.)
Often referred to as the "sunshine vitamin," it is possible to get small amounts of vitamin D through sunlight and foods. However, most adults around the world don't consume adequate vitamin D from their diet. In turn, that means we don't get enough vitamin D necessary to modulate the immune system.* That can be a problem, considering it's a micronutrient your body and immune system need on a daily basis to function optimally.*
(Learn more about vitamin D and its benefits.)
Zinc is an important nutrient for a number of functions in the body, including immune support.* It affects various aspects of the immune system and acts as an antioxidant9 by fighting off free radicals.*
Like vitamin C, zinc is an essential nutrient and is a very common nutrient gap worldwide.* Most food sources of zinc are found in meat or seafood, which is why Moday notes vegetarians and vegans, in particular, may have a harder time getting enough zinc. This is where a supplement can be helpful.*
(Get to know more about the best form of supplemental zinc.)
Beta-glucans are a type of fiber found in the cell walls of certain plants, yeast, and fungi. These unique phytochemicals serve as a source of energy and structure. In supplement form, they're unique immunomodulators, which promote immune resilience.* In fact, the clinical trials indicate that beta-glucans actually "train" the body's natural immune response, priming it for action.*
(Discover more about beta-glucans and their benefits.)
Beyond the ingredients above, Davar says she's also a proponent of traditional botanicals like echinacea, elderberry, curcumin, ginger, licorice, and more. "They all create stronger stimuli for our immune cells."* Both Davar and Moday are fans of medicinal mushrooms (like reishi, chaga, and mitaki), as well.*
Supporting your immune system isn't solely important when you start to come down with something. In order to build strong, resilient immunity—it's important to get proactive. Incorporating immune-supporting practices into your daily life—such as restorative sleep, stress management, movement, optimal nutrition, and potential supplementation—can help your body prepare for anything that comes its way.*
Kristine Thomason is the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen. Kristine is a New York University graduate with a degree in journalism and psychology, and also a NASM-certified personal trainer. She has spent her editorial career focused on health and well-being, and formerly worked for Women’s Health and Health. Her byline has also appeared in Men’s Health, Greatist, Refinery29, HGTV, and more. In her current role she oversees, edits, and writes for the health, food, and movement sections of mindbodygreen.