Your immune system is always working to keep you healthy by fighting off infectious organisms and protecting itself against harmful pathogens. However, a lack of sleep, stress, alcohol and even obesity can weaken the immune system, leaving your body wide open to infection. By now we all know the best ways to avoid sharing germs, such as hand-washing and mask-wearing, but are there things we can also do to give our immune systems a boost?
Science says yes. Let’s first start with a quick overview of how the immune system works and then dive into some lesser-known ways you can enhance your immunity and stay healthier this cold season.
How does the immune system work?
The immune system is made up of various cells, tissues, organs, and proteins to fight off pathogens, like bacteria and viruses, to keep you healthy [2
]. Your body battles infection with proteins called antibodies that distinguish your own tissue from foreign particles, like pollen or infectious organisms. When the immune system encounters a pathogen such as a virus or bacteria, it creates an immune response that triggers antibodies to directly attack and destroy it [1
]. Once an antibody has been produced, a copy will remain in the body so that if you encounter that same pathogen again, you can fight it off faster.
Causes for a weak immune system
If you have a weak immune system, you’re more prone to infection from harmful bacteria and viruses, and it becomes increasingly difficult for your body to fight them off. External factors like stress and lack of sleep can significantly reduce the body’s ability to fight infection. Additionally, medical conditions like obesity, pneumonia, bronchitis, certain cancers, and HIV also contribute to a weakened immune system [12
6 unique ways to enhance immunity
If you want to stay healthier, try some of these science-backed immunity boosters.
Eat more healthy fats.
A diet rich in plants and plant foods helps support a healthy immune system by decreasing inflammation and improving your body’s response to pathogens. While fruits and vegetables have immune-boosting antioxidants like vitamin C, E, and A, research has found that omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that can help your body fight off disease-causing bacteria and viruses [5
]. For an immunity boost, incorporate plenty of healthy fats into your diet, such as those found in olive oil, salmon, walnuts, avocados, and chia seeds.
Avoid alcohol and cigarettes.
Toxins (like alcohol and tobacco) can weaken your immune system. Research shows chronic alcohol consumption (> 4 drinks/day for men or > 3 drinks/day for women) lowers B and T cell levels in your body, which weakens your ability to fight infection [6
]. Moreover, tobacco smoke from cigarettes increases susceptibility to infection and lowers levels of protective antioxidants in the blood [7
]. If you really want to help out your immune system, limit your consumption of alcoholic beverages (no more than 1 drink per day for women, or 2 for men) and ditch the cigarettes if you smoke.
Boost gut health.
If you’re looking to boost immunity, go no further than your gut. This may sound surprising, but gut health and immune function are strongly connected. Research shows that healthy gut bacteria help your immune cells recognize any harmful organisms [8
]. To enhance gut health, try adding fermented foods (such as kimchi, yogurt, or sauerkraut) or probiotic supplements to your daily diet.
Limit your sugar intake.
Studies show high sugar intakes suppress the immune system.
Sugary foods like candy, baked goods, soda, and energy drinks, spike blood glucose levels and increase the production of certain inflammatory proteins that can negatively affect immune function [9
]. Other research suggests elevated blood sugar levels may hinder neutrophils and phagocytes, two types of immune cells that help protect against infection [14
]. For better immunity, save the sweets for special occasions and enjoy them in moderation.
Manage chronic conditions.
If not managed correctly, chronic conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease) can impact the immune system and increase the risk of infection [10
]. For example, if you have diabetes and don’t properly monitor your blood sugar, this can trigger a low-grade inflammatory response which weakens your body’s defense system and increases the chance of contracting any harmful pathogens. To help your body fight off infection, be sure to stay on top of any medications and schedule regular appointments with your healthcare provider.
Stay current with vaccines.
Diet and lifestyle changes go a long way when it comes to improving your immunity, but it doesn’t hurt to give your body a little extra boost by way of vaccines. These prime your immune system to fight off infections before they enter your body, which bolsters your body’s natural defenses and lowers the rate of sickness (and even death) when compared to those who are not vaccinated [11
]. Thus, staying current with your vaccinations is a good way to stay healthy and boost immunity.
Your immune system plays an important role when it comes to overall health, as it fights off bacteria, viruses, and other harmful pathogens. However, if you have weakened immunity, it increases the chance of contracting an illness and makes it more challenging for your body to fight it off. Factors such as stress, poor sleep, obesity, and alcohol can negatively impact your immune system, so if you make some positive lifestyle changes, you can keep illness at bay. To boost immunity, eat more omega-3s, boost your gut health with probiotics and fermented foods, manage chronic diseases, limit alcohol, smoking, and sugary beverages, and stay up-to-date on vaccines.
Disclaimer: The text, images, videos, and other media on this page are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to treat, diagnose, or replace personalized medical care.