It’s cold and flu season, and just as we’ve experienced the past few years, these typical winter illnesses aren’t the only health threat we’re facing. Cases of COVID-19 are continuing to spread alongside other causes of stuffy nose and sore throat, so you may find yourself wondering if there’s anything you can do to kickstart your immune system this time of year.
The good news is, there are a lot of effective, science-backed ways to protect yourself and others from getting seriously ill from the germs you may encounter. What might be tougher to hear is that there’s no silver bullet to protect you from getting sick entirely—and those supplements you’ve been eyeing at the drug store might not be the best investment in your health.
The truth about boosting your immune system
“People are often looking for quick fixes to boost their immune system, and the reality is, there’s no such thing as an immune boost through supplements and superfoods,” says One Medical provider, Natasha Bhuyan, MD.
To understand how to strengthen your immune system, it’s helpful to understand how it works. Your immune system is made up of cells that protect your body from potentially harmful substances and germs that can make you sick. Whether you’re exposed to the common cold or COVID-19, it’s your immune system’s job to recognize and fight off those pathogens.
To do that effectively, your body needs to be otherwise strong and healthy. “Your immune system cells go through a lot of turnover, and the way to keep those cells healthy is to keep yourself healthy,” says Bhuyan. “That way, your body is primed to fight if you do come into contact with pathogens that could make you sick.”
How to keep your immune system healthy
Instead of spending your time and money on products that probably won’t help you, Bhuyan suggests making some lifestyle changes that can help your immune system function well long-term. Here’s what you need to know about how to increase your immunity to winter bugs and more.
Eat a nutritious, balanced diet
The best way to strengthen and maintain your immune health, says Bhuyan, is to do all the things your doctor suggests you do for your overall well-being. For starters, try to focus on eating a balanced diet filled with fruits and vegetables. Healthy food, of course, nourishes your body and helps you maintain a healthy weight. But nutrition is also important as as a diet lacking in nutrients can actually impair the production and activity of immune cells needed to fight off disease.
While malnourishment can weaken your immune response, there’s no one food, ingredient, vitamin, or mineral that strengthens it. Your body needs a variety of nutrients and micronutrients to function healthily. One tip from Bhuyan: At each meal, try to fill up half your plate with vegetables to up your nutritional intake. And don’t forget to drink enough water, too. Your cells (and every part of your body!) require hydration to function.
Routine exercise doesn’t just make your muscles stronger. Studies suggest exercise stimulates the immune system, even preparing it to fight off COVID-19 infection. Boosting your overall fitness can also strengthen your lung function, making you less susceptible to complications with respiratory illnesses like the flu and COVID-19.
Bhuyan recommends getting a combination of strength and aerobic exercise for thirty minutes, five days a week. While walking your dog a few blocks is better than no exercise at all, aim for activity that’s intense enough you have trouble speaking while you're doing it. “If you’re not short of breath, it’s probably not a vigorous enough activity,” she says.
Exercise is most useful to health when you do it regularly, so choose activities you actually enjoy doing. Find an online yoga video you like, sign up for a membership at a gym with a variety of classes, or enlist some friends to go on brisk walks—the longer you stick with it, the more your immune system will benefit.
Fight off stress
If you’ve ever experienced a tension headache or sore muscles after a stressful day, then you’ve experienced the power of the mind-body connection. The state of your mental health, says Bhuyan, can also negatively impact your immune system’s functioning. Have you ever noticed you get sick more when you’re under more stress? Researchers and public health experts think stress decreases the body’s lymphocytes, the white blood cells that help fight off infection, which makes our bodies more vulnerable to viruses and more susceptible to sickness like the common cold or flu. Likewise, when stress becomes chronic, the body gets used to high levels of cortisol in its system, altering its ability to regulate the inflammatory system, further making us more prone to sickness.
So as you attempt to strengthen your immunity, do what you can to improve your mental health. Manage your stress with mindfulness and meditation, talk to your loved ones about your struggles, and if you need more support, check in with your primary care provider. They will be able to help advise lifestyle changes, connect you to a mental health specialist, or point you towards other resources. Exercise can help stave off stress, too, along with boosting your overall health.
Another way to fight off the physical effects of stress is to get adequate sleep. Bhuyan recommends aiming for eight hours each night, and promoting sleep hygiene by keeping electronics out of your bedroom and going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Learn more ways to revamp your sleep cycle here.
If you’re looking for a surefire solution to stave off illness, getting vaccinated is the best way to do that. Vaccination is a safe, scientifically-proven way to help your body form an immune response to winter illnesses like influenza and COVID-19, so if you haven’t already, now’s a great time to get your flu and COVID-19 shot at your local clinic or pharmacy. (Don’t forget your COVID-19 booster!) If you have kids who qualify for any of those, take them to do the same. Learn more about COVID-19 vaccination at One Medical here.
While vaccination can prevent serious illness and hospitalization, it’s still possible to get an infection when you’re immunized. Bhuyan suggests minimizing the spread of infectious disease by continuing to wear a mask in public and washing your hands frequently. Just as importantly, when you’re not feeling well—even if you think you just have a cold—stay home. “I try to encourage people to stay home until they fully recover,” Bhuyan says. “It’s good for you to have a chance to heal, and it’s good for other people who would otherwise be exposed to an illness.”
Have more questions about strengthening you immune system? Book an appointment today to talk with a provider.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.
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