Six ways you can help to strengthen your immune system

Your immune system is working twenty four hours a day to protect you. It protects you from viruses, toxins, bad bacteria and other foreign invaders. Like your heartbeat or your digestion, the immune response is a function you don’t control. There are many natural things you can do to support a healthy immune system.

Reduce Stress

Stress can drain your ability to have a strong immune system. Cortisol, the stress hormone, reduces the activity of the immune system. If you have daily stressors, your system is constantly pushed to overcome that stress. Stress can also impact your sleep. “When you’re anxious and you’re turning things over in your mind and can’t stop thinking about them, your sleep will be negatively affected by that,” says Dr. Ford. The same goes for eating habits. When we’re stressed, we’re more likely to make bad decisions, like eating unhealthy foods with high sugar or processed foods. This can have a negative domino effect on your overall health. One of the most important ways to strengthen immunity is to reduce stress. In order to reduce stress, it is key to ensure you have decent work-life balance, take breaks when you need them (vacations), and to employ some calming or relaxing stress-reduction techniques, like practicing yoga. There are many benefits to practicing yoga. You can reduce the impact of stress on your life. Also yoga is moving your body or exercising which can actually strengthen your immune system.

Prioritize sleep

It might be hard to sleep right now, with heightened anxiety about viral protection, but now is an important time to be getting enough sleep to combat stress levels. Sleep is a regenerative process for your body. Sleep and immunity are closely tied. Inadequate or poor quality sleep is linked to a higher chance to get sick due to impaired immune system. Also a weak immune system can create an increase in inflammatory cytokines (inflammation cells). Getting adequate rest can strengthen your natural immunity. Sleep is essential for good health, adequate energy and DNA repair. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the light from digital screens can keep your body from producing melatonin that controls your sleep cycle. Also, the content of what you read on your digital device can keep you from relaxing. In Chinese medicine, a weak gallbladder can also make falling asleep difficult as the gallbladder is working to process fats.

Natural sleep support tips

  • Avoid drinking coffee or caffeine drinks (soft drinks) after 2 PM (best to avoid them completely).
  • Avoid difficult to digest foods, especially meat, dairy and nuts.
  • Avoid food chemicals (MSG, aspartame, preservatives, etc.) that can stress the liver and cause sleep problems.
  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Exercise regularly, ideally earlier in the day.
  • Avoid eating after 7 PM; eating within 2 to 3 hours of bedtime can strain your digestion and affect sound sleep.
  • Avoid drinking fluids right before bed.
  • Get 20 to 40 minutes of sunlight outside daily.
  • Installing blackout curtains to sleep in a completely dark room or use a sleep mask.
  • Go to bed at the same time every night

A poor sleeping area (too hard or soft bed, synthetic bedding materials, noisy area, too much light in the room, leaving radio or TV on, high electromagnetic fields) can disrupt your circadian rhythm, your body’s natural wake-sleep cycle. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle. They respond primarily to light and darkness in one’s environment. Sleeping at night and being awake during the day is an example of a light-related circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms are found in most living things, including animals. Circadian rhythms help determine our sleep patterns. The body’s master clock, or SCN, controls the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy. It receives information about incoming light from the optic nerves, which relay information from the eyes to the brain. When there is less light, like at night, the SCN tells the brain to make more melatonin so you get drowsy.

Another healthy habit vital to preventing sickness is getting a full eight hours of sleep each night, which may help regulate immune function[1]. A study of over 22,000 people found that those who slept less than six hours per night or who had a sleep disorder were more likely to have colds and other respiratory infections.[2] “Infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during periods when you don’t get enough sleep,” the Mayo Clinic reports. It’s scientifically proven that our bodies require more rest during very stressful events (like losing a loved one, job loss or coping with quarantine, etc.). So in addition to making sure you’re getting enough rest, also allow yourself added time for sleep if your body asks for it. Sleep allows the body to repair itself, heal wounds, regulate hormones and refresh the mind. Inadequate or poor-quality sleep weakens the immune system and invites cold and flu infections.

Reduce Inflammation

Inflammation can come from various injuries, such as a fall. But chronic inflammation can come from a combination of factors, many of them diet and lifestyle related. Sugar, processed meat, vegetable oils, and alcohol tend to be inflammatory foods so they create work for the immune system, leaving other problems in your body unaddressed. That's why it can be really helpful to remove these inflammatory foods if we want a healthy immune system. Some of the other contributing factors of chronic inflammation can be exposure to toxins, nutritional deficiencies, food sensitivities, the use of certain kinds of medications, chronic stress, insufficient exercise, insufficient sleep, low grade infections, and gut imbalances. There are many natural anti-inflammatory nutrients such as curcumin, quercetin, omega 3 fatty acids, ginger and Boswellia to support reducing inflammation. Inflammation can be measured from a blood test called CRP (C-reactive protein).

Eat a healthy diet

Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help keep you well. Add in a variety of colors with your vegetables and fruits daily to ensure you're getting good nutrients. Sea vegetables and Complex carbohydrates, like brown rice and quinoa, are also part of a healthy diet. Minimize processed foods, sugar, Trans fats and beverages like soda.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines probiotics as "live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit." Research shows that probiotics are some of the best foods to support immunity. Include regularly eating fermented and cultured foods that contain probiotics. Some foods that contain probiotics are:

  • Unpasteurized sauerkraut and kimchi
  • kefir (a thick, creamy and drinkable yogurt)
  • Miso, natto (fermented soybeans), shoyu or tamari (types of Japanese soy sauce) and tempeh (an Indonesian dish made from fermented soybeans)
  • kombucha (fermented, lightly sweetened black or green tea drink)

Probiotic foods can have strong flavors, so you may want to start with a little at a time so you can help you develop a taste for these beneficial foods to support the microbiome of the gut.

Exercise in moderation

Exercise can be one of the best things to do to support your immune system. There is a balance to exercise and immune function. Too much is stressful on the body and can be challenging on our immune system. According to Harvard University, examples of moderate exercise are; walking very brisk (4 mph), bicycling light effort (10-12 mph), recreational badminton and tennis doubles. The good news is that regular moderate-intensity exercise has several benefits for the immune system. A 2019 study shows that moderate exercise mobilizes immune system cells, helping the body defend itself against pathogens and cancer cell growth. Those who regularly engage in this type of exercise have fewer illnesses and less systemic inflammation.[3] Regularly engaging in intense, vigorous activity like running, on the other hand, may temporarily weaken your immune function and leave you more susceptible to viral infections.[4] Exercise can be a way to prevent chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and high blood pressure, or as a way to keep weight in control. Exercise can promote good blood circulation, which allows your white blood cells of the immune system to move through your body freely to do their job effectively.

Herbs to support immune function

Many herbs have traditionally been used to support the immune system. Echinacea is native to plains of North America. It was used by the Native Americans and white settlers for a variety of ailments, especially mouth sores, colds and snakebites. Echinacea, also known as purple coneflower, is used to support acute and continual immune health.

Echinacea Immunologic Effects:

  • Promotes nonspecific cellular immunity
  • Activates monocytes (white blood cells)
  • Stimulates macrophages (white blood cells)
  • Increased neutrophil (white blood cells)
  • Increasing total white blood cells
  • Increased NK number & activity (white blood cells)
  • Protection against free-radical induced collagen damage

Echinacea is “the most important representative of the herbal immunomodulators.” Weiss: Herbal Medicine, 2000

“There is no more reason to study echinacea to prevent colds than there is to study echinacea to prevent auto accidents.” Wallace Sampson, MD, editor, Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine

Astragalus membranaceus has been prescribed for centuries to enhance vitality, for general weakness and numerous chronic illnesses. It contains several immunomodulating polysaccharides, including glucans. It enhances immunoglobulin production and activation of NK cells & T-cells (white blood cells). It also enhances the effectiveness and decreases side effects from cancer chemotherapy; especially helpful for leukopenia (low white blood cell count). It has antibacterial effects against Shigella, Streptococcus hemolyticus, Staph aureus and enhances resistance to herpesvirus, HPV and coxsackie viruses. This herb is considered an adaptogen, helping support the body's adrenals by allowing the body to naturally adapt to daily stress.

[1] Faraut B, Boudjeltia KZ, Vanhamme L, Kerkhofs M. Immune, inflammatory and cardiovascular consequences of sleep restriction and recovery. Sleep Med Rev. 2012;16(2):137-49. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2011.05.001
[2] Prather AA, Leung CW. Association of insufficient sleep with respiratory infection among adults in the United States. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(6):850-2. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.0787
[3] Prather AA, Leung CW. Association of insufficient sleep with respiratory infection among adults in the United States. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(6):850-2. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.0787
[4] Nieman DC, Wentz LM. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. J Sport Health Sci. 2019;8(3):201–217. doi:10.1016/j.jshs.2018.09.009