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8 Ways to Boost Your Body’s Natural Defenses

Written by SaVanna Shoemaker, MS, RDN, LD on April 1, 2020 — Medically reviewed by Kathy W. Warwick, R.D., CDE

If you want to boost your immune health, you may wonder how to help your body fight off illnesses.

While bolstering your immunity is easier said than done, several dietary and lifestyle changes may strengthen your body’s natural defenses and help you fight harmful pathogens, or disease-causing organisms.

Here are 8 tips to strengthen your immunity naturally.

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1. Get enough sleep

Sleep and immunity are closely tied.

In fact, inadequate or poor quality sleep is linked to a higher susceptibility to sickness.

In a study in 164 healthy adults, those who slept fewer than 6 hours each night were more likely to catch a cold than those who slept 6 hours or more each night (1).

Getting adequate rest may strengthen your natural immunity. Also, you may sleep more when sick to allow your immune system to better fight the illness (2).

Adults should aim to get 7 or more hours of sleep each night, while teens need 8–10 hours and younger children and infants up to 14 hours (3).

If you’re having trouble sleeping, try limiting screen time for an hour before bed, as the blue light emitted from your phone, TV, and computer may disrupt your circadian rhythm, or your body’s natural wake-sleep cycle (4).

Other sleep hygiene tips include sleeping in a completely dark room or using a sleep mask, going to bed at the same time every night, and exercising regularly (3).

 

2. Eat more whole plant foods

Whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes are rich in nutrients and antioxidants that may give you an upper hand against harmful pathogens.

The antioxidants in these foods help decrease inflammation by combatting unstable compounds called free radicals, which can cause inflammation when they build up in your body in high levels (5).

Chronic inflammation is linked to numerous health conditions, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and certain cancers.

Meanwhile, the fiber in plant foods feeds your gut microbiome, or the community of healthy bacteria in your gut. A robust gut microbiome can improve your immunity and help keep harmful pathogens from entering your body via your digestive tract (6).

Furthermore, fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients like vitamin C, which may reduce the duration of the common cold (7).

3. Eat more healthy fats

Healthy fats, like those found in olive oil and salmon, may boost your body’s immune response to pathogens by decreasing inflammation.

Although low-level inflammation is a normal response to stress or injury, chronic inflammation can suppress your immune system (8).

Olive oil, which is highly anti-inflammatory, is linked to a decreased risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Plus, its anti-inflammatory properties may help your body fight off harmful disease-causing bacteria and viruses (910).

Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those in salmon and chia seeds, fight inflammation as well (11).

 

4. Eat more fermented foods or take a probiotic supplement

Fermented foods are rich in beneficial bacteria called probiotics, which populate your digestive tract (12).

These foods include yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and natto.

Research suggests that a flourishing network of gut bacteria can help your immune cells differentiate between normal, healthy cells and harmful invader organisms (13).

In a 3-month study in 126 children, those who drank just 2.4 ounces (70 mL) of fermented milk daily had about 20% fewer childhood infectious diseases, compared with a control group (14).

If you don’t regularly eat fermented foods, probiotic supplements are another option.

In a 28-day study in 152 people infected with rhinovirus, those who supplemented with probiotic Bifidobacterium animalis had a stronger immune response and lower levels of the virus in their nasal mucus than a control group (15).

5. Limit added sugars

Emerging research suggests that added sugars and refined carbs may contribute disproportionately to overweight and obesity (1617).

Obesity may likewise increase your risk of getting sick.

According to an observational study in around 1,000 people, people with obesity who were administered the flu vaccine were twice as likely to still get the flu than individuals without obesity who received the vaccine (18).

Curbing your sugar intake can decrease inflammation and aid weight loss, thus reducing your risk of chronic health conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease (1920).

Given that obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease can all weaken your immune system, limiting added sugars is an important part of an immune-boosting diet (182122).

You should strive to limit your sugar intake to less than 5% of your daily calories. This equals about 2 tablespoons (25 grams) of sugar for someone on a 2,000-calorie diet.

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6. Engage in moderate exercise

Although prolonged intense exercise can suppress your immune system, moderate exercise can give it a boost.

 

Studies indicate that even a single session of moderate exercise can boost the effectiveness of vaccines in people with compromised immune systems (23).

What’s more, regular, moderate exercise may reduce inflammation and help your immune cells regenerate regularly (23).

Examples of moderate exercise include brisk walking, steady bicycling, jogging, swimming, and light hiking. Most people should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week (24).

 

7. Stay hydrated

Hydration doesn’t necessarily protect you from germs and viruses, but preventing dehydration is important to your overall health.

Dehydration can cause headaches and hinder your physical performance, focus, mood, digestion, and heart and kidney function. These complications can increase your susceptibility to illness (25).

To prevent dehydration, you should drink enough fluid daily to make your urine pale yellow. Water is recommended because it’s free of calories, additives, and sugar (25).

While tea and juice are also hydrating, it’s best to limit your intake of fruit juice and sweetened tea because of their high sugar contents (2627).

As a general guideline, you should drink when you’re thirsty and stop when you’re no longer thirsty. You may need more fluids if you exercise intensely, work outside, or live in a hot climate (28).

It’s important to note that older adults begin to lose the urge to drink, as their bodies do not signal thirst adequately. Older adults need to drink regularly even if they do not feel thirsty.

8. Manage your stress levels

Relieving stress and anxiety is key to immune health.

Long-term stress promotes inflammation, as well as imbalances in immune cell function (79).

In particular, prolonged psychological stress can suppress the immune response in children (29).

 

Activities that may help you manage your stress include meditation, exercise, journaling, yoga, and other mindfulness practices. You may also benefit from seeing a licensed counselor or therapist, whether virtually or in person.

The bottom line

You can make several lifestyle and dietary changes today to strengthen your immune system.

These include reducing your sugar intake, staying hydrated, working out regularly, getting adequate sleep, and managing your stress levels.

Although none of these suggestions can prevent COVID-19, they may reinforce your body’s defenses against harmful pathogens.

Last medically reviewed on April 1, 2020

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