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How to Boost Your Immune System

Mar 30, 2020

This is a guest post from Dr. Anita Bennett with eDoc America.

If you are like most people, you have probably been wondering if there is a way to boost your immune function to protect you against infection.  Unfortunately, there is also plenty of misinformation that can make it challenging to know what to do.  Let's talk about what you can do to strengthen your immune function.

How to Boost Your Immune System

Your immune system is a complex system that includes different types of cells, tissues, and organs that all work together in a complicated pathway.  Healthy immune function is dependent on many factors.  Those factors include your genetic make-up, the germs that you have been exposed to over your lifetime, and your lifestyle.  Lifestyle factors that impact your immune function include:

  • Stress level
  • Sleep pattern
  • Dietary factors
  • Exercise

Here are some things that you can do to strengthen your immune system:

Exercise - We have talked about this in previous Health Tips, but it is worth repeating.  Depending on your level of exercise, it can be good or bad for your immune function.

  • Maintaining a regular exercise routine, which consists of at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, has been shown to improve your immune response and lead to significantly fewer respiratory infections.
  • Excessive exercise, such as participating in high-intensity workouts for more than 90 minutes at a time on a regular basis, has been shown to be associated with significantly more respiratory infections than occur in people who perform moderate exercise.

Stress - Your immune system works better at fighting illness when your body is not under stress.  Several studies back this up.  In one series of studies from Carnegie Mellon University, people were given nose drops containing a cold virus.  The people who reported less stress in their lives were significantly less likely to develop cold symptoms even though they were exposed to the same amount of cold virus.
Worrying about the coronavirus, or the stock market doesn't help your stress level!  Learning techniques to help manage your stress can help your immune system to function better.  This would include things like meditation, controlled breathing exercises, or talking with a therapist.
Sleep - Improving your sleep habits is a good way to strengthen your immune system.  You should try to sleep 7-8 hours per night.  Try to get into a regular routine, with your bedtime and wake time not varying more than about 30-45 minutes each day.  Avoid excessive lighting in the evening, especially screen time late in the evening.  You need the dim light to trigger your natural melatonin release to help you get a better night's sleep.
Dietary factors - Several dietary factors can affect your immune function.

  • Vitamin D - There is promising research to suggest that maintaining a normal vitamin D level could help your body fight off respiratory infections.  You might talk with your doctor about checking your vitamin D level, and taking vitamin D supplements if it is low.  There are no clinical recommendations for taking vitamin D supplements for immune function if you have a normal vitamin D level.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption - There have been many studies that show a link between excessive alcohol consumption and immune function.  Research indicates that people who drink alcohol in excess are more susceptible to respiratory infections and that they recover from infections and wounds more slowly.  There are several ways that excessive alcohol can decrease immune function.  This is true for binge drinking as well as chronic, daily excessive alcohol use.
  • Maintain a balanced diet - A healthy, balanced diet, with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains, with low levels of simple sugars, can improve the health of the microbiome of your gut.  You may be surprised to know that your gut microbiome has a huge effect on your immune function. 
  • Don't waste your money on unproven supplements - Despite many claims to the contrary, there is no single food or natural remedy that has been proven to improve immune function.  You can read various claims about the immune-boosting properties of a number of foods, spices, and supplements, including ginger, turmeric, oregano oil, bone broth, zinc, and more.  According to Dr. Krystina Woods, hospital epidemiologist and medical director of infection prevention at Mount Sinai West, "There are people who anecdotally say 'I felt great after I took whatever.'  That may be true, but there's no science to support that."  There is no harm in eating foods that are touted as immune boosters as part of your balanced diet, especially if you enjoy them, but don't rely on supplements that are unproven instead of a balanced, healthy diet.

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