How to boost your immune system through diet and lifestyle changes

Lisa Ballehr advises people to "eat the rainbow" in order to boost the immune system.fcafotodigital / Getty Images
  • You can boost your immune system by making sure to get enough of vitamins like A, C, E, B6, D, and minerals like zinc, iron, and selenium.
  • It is also helpful to eat enough protein, consume prebiotic foods, and eat brightly colored fruits and vegetables which contain immune-boosting antioxidants.
  • You should also get sufficient sleep, quit smoking, and get regular moderate exercise.
  • This article was medically reviewed by Tania Elliott, MD, who specializes in infectious diseases related to allergies and immunology for internal medicine at NYU Langone Health.
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If you're looking to "boost" your immunity against harmful germs, the first thing to understand is no one magical supplement or diet can do the job.

The immune system is a network of cells, tissues, and organs that help the body fend off infection from outsider invaders, like bacteria, virus, fungi and toxins. It's a highly adaptive, complex biological system that requires balance between all parts to function properly.

This means optimal immune health relies on a multifaceted approach that focuses on making healthy lifestyle choices.
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To ensure your immune system is as strong as it can be against outside invaders, here are practical tips worth incorporating into your everyday life.

1. Eat more fruits and vegetables

An easy way to make sure you're getting enough immune-boosting antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals is to "eat the rainbow," says Arizona based Osteopathic Physician and Functional Medicine Practitioner, Lisa Ballehr.

This includes a rainbow of fruits and vegetables like, "red apples, potatoes, cherries or grapes; orange sweet potatoes, pumpkin, mango, yams or tangerines; green kiwi, broccoli, olives, limes or grapes; yellow apples, pears, bananas, or pineapple; blueberries, cabbage, kale, grapes or raisins; and tan cauliflower, dates, coconut, nuts or sauerkraut."
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"The more variety of fruits and vegetables you consume daily builds a broader spectrum of nutrients the body uses to boost its immune system," she says.

2. Get sufficient sleep

If you lack restful sleep, you will be more susceptible to infections since sleep is when your body works its hardest to combat inflammation and infection. "While at rest, the body is quite busy. During this time, it repairs itself and releases toxins so one can arise feeling renewed. Those that practice irregular sleep patterns may struggle with their health simply due to lack of sleep, which can result in chronic inflammation," says Ballehr.
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This inflammation can overstress the immune system making it less effective at fighting viral or bacterial infections. Although the amount of sleep you will need is highly individual, it's recommended that most adults get between seven to eight hours each night.

3. Make sure you eat enough protein

According to Harvard Health Publishing, you should be getting a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight in order to avoid getting sick.

Not enough protein in the body can have detrimental effects on your T-cells, which are an essential part of the immune system because they dispatch disease-fighting antibodies to viruses and bacteria.
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Protein also contains high amounts of zinc, which is a mineral that aids in the production of infection-fighting white blood cells. Good places to find lean protein rich in zinc include oysters, crab, chicken (dark meat), pork chop (loin), chickpeas, and baked beans.

4. Don't overlook prebiotic foods

Prebiotics are found in foods such as onion, garlic, banana, and asparagus. They assist in maintaining a balanced gut microbiome, which is a vital player in how your immune system functions.

Prebiotics work by increasing the population of "good bacteria" in the gut which in turn sparks the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines, which are tiny proteins that help the immune system function.
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5. Manage stress

There is a wide body of research that links stress levels with immune function.

When we're stressed, the immune system doesn't function as well. That's because stress causes the body to release hormones, such as adrenaline, dopamine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, which can decrease the body's ability to make lymphocytes — the white blood cells that help fight off harmful viruses or bacteria.

Some activities that help alleviate stress include meditation, yoga, and grounding techniques like mindful breathing.
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6. Get enough vitamins through your diet

Nutrition is our primary protection in the battle against infection. Key soldiers in the fight include vitamins like A, C, E, B6, D, and minerals like zinc, iron, and selenium.

The reason many of these vitamins help maintain a strong immune system is that they are also antioxidants. Some foods that are rich in these vitamins include carrots, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, strawberries, almonds, avocados, salmon, oysters, tuna, lean chicken breast, and beef. Usually, the body absorbs essential vitamins and minerals best from food, which is why it's important to eat a healthy, balanced diet. However, if you're deficient in a certain nutrient, you should consult with a healthcare professional about whether taking a supplement would help.
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7. Stay moderately active

Starting and staying active has been shown to help immune health. According to a 2019 study, exercise has a multitude of benefits including decreasing inflammation and improving immune regulation, which can delay the negative effects of aging. The study also found that moderate exercise — like walking, dancing, or yoga — can reduce the risk of illness. Learn more how exercise can help your immune system fight off infections.

8. If you smoke, quit

"Smoking increases the risk of developing infections by destroying antibodies from our bloodstream" says Ballehr. Antibodies are the proteins produced by the immune system to fight foreign infections.

"Smoking cigarettes also damages our lung's ability to clear infection as well as destroying lung tissue," says Ballehr, making smokers especially vulnerable to respiratory infections like the flu and COVID-19.
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The bottom line

With all this in mind, it is also important to remember that handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent infections from viruses or bacteria. It won't boost your immune system, but it can help keep you protected, nonetheless.

"You should wash your hands for a 20-second duration before and after any risky exposure such as preparing food, caring for a sick loved one, treating a wound, or when you have an active cold, sneezing, coughing, or runny nose," says Ballehr.

The immune system plays an essential role in helping us fend off attacks from viruses and bacteria. And while there is no cure-all pill that can help strengthen your immunity, changes to your diet and lifestyle can maximize your immune system's ability to protect you from outside invaders.
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