UNC Health Talk

7 Ways to Strengthen Your Immune System Naturally

As we enter cold and flu season in the midst of surging cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the need to strengthen your immune system and keep illnesses at bay may be greater than ever.

While you may be tempted to stock up on pills that promise a boost of vitamin C, studies show there is no evidence that it does anything as far as preventing or making a big difference in the duration of an illness, says UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD.

“While it’s not harmful, taking vitamin C won’t prevent you from getting sick,” Dr. Ruff says.

Although there is no magic pill you can take, having a healthy lifestyle is your best option for naturally keeping your immune system strong and healthy.

“Boosting your immune system really means everything that makes our bodies function properly so we can fight off diseases like we’re supposed to,” Dr. Ruff says. “It’s not one organ that we’re giving a boost to. It’s just that we want our bodies to be functioning in a way that can fight off anything that we come into contact with like it should.”

Dr. Ruff offers these seven tips for boosting your immune system this winter.

1. Eat a healthy, balanced diet.

Healthy foods provide nutrients, vitamins and minerals to keep us strong and well. It’s better to get your vitamins and minerals from food rather than from supplements because your body uses and absorbs nutrients more efficiently when they come from whole food sources such as fruits and vegetables.

Eat a varied diet that focuses on high-quality foods such as whole grains, nuts, and fresh fruits and vegetables. The more colorful your plate is, the better.

2. Exercise regularly.

Although prolonged, intense exercise can suppress your immune system, moderate exercise can give your immune system a boost. Plus, being active has been shown to have many physical and mental health benefits.

“Exercise 150 minutes a week, which is about 30 minutes a day for five days a week,” Dr. Ruff says.

Examples of moderate exercise are jogging, swimming and walking at a brisk pace.

3. Maintain a healthy weight.

There is strong evidence that obesity negatively impacts your body’s immune system. In fact, obesity is a common risk factor in complications from the flu and COVID-19.

“Try to maintain a healthy weight with a BMI that’s less than 25,” Dr. Ruff says.

4. Get enough sleep.

Not getting enough sleep can make you more susceptible to illness. Adults need seven to eight hours of sleep every night, teenagers need nine to 10 hours of sleep, and younger children usually need 10 or more hours of sleep.

And the quality of your sleep matters, too.

“It’s not just a number but getting enough sleep so that you can feel rested. You need good sleep hygiene, so that the sleep that you get is restful and restorative,” Dr. Ruff says.

5. Minimize stress.

Long-term stress can cause imbalances in immune cell function. It’s difficult to reduce stress, but lifestyle measures such as exercise and adequate sleep can help, as can embracing mindfulness. If your stress feels unmanageable, talk to your doctor or find a therapist.

“Trying to minimize stress has so many different aspects, but try to have good relationships and find calming activities,” Dr. Ruff says. “Most people also can lower their stress with exercise.”

6. Limit alcohol.

Research shows excessive alcohol consumption can have adverse immune-related health effects, including susceptibility to pneumonia.

“Drink alcohol only in moderation,” Dr. Ruff says.

Typically, this means no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men.

7. Don’t smoke.

Smoking, including vaping, harms the immune system and can make your body less successful at fighting disease. It compromises your lung health, which is especially dangerous for a virus that attacks the respiratory system, such as COVID-19.

“Smoking is proven to decrease your ability to heal and to decrease your ability to fight disease,” Dr. Ruff says. “Quitting smoking can be one of the best things you can do to help yourself not get really sick or to recover well from any disease that you have.”

It is important to note that the best way to prevent COVID-19 is to adhere to the following safety measures: Wear a mask, stay at least 6 feet apart from people outside your household and clean your hands often.

You’ll also want to wash your hands and disinfect surfaces frequently to avoid getting other viruses that are prevalent in the winter, such as RSV. Washing your hands often with soap and water or using hand sanitizer can prevent germs from entering your body and making you sick. You should clean your hands before, during and after preparing food; before eating food; after going to the bathroom or helping a child go to the bathroom; after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing; before and after caring for someone who is sick; after touching an animal, pet food or animal waste; and after touching garbage.

Need a doctor? Find one near you

Photo credit: ©Thomas Barwick – gettyimages.com