When it comes to fighting viruses, everyday precautions such as washing your hands often and avoiding sick people are key. But experts say that boosting your immune system may also give you an edge in staying healthy. Here are five smart steps to add to your to-do list now.
1. Stay active
Working out is a powerful way to boost your immune system, says Mark Moyad, M.D., M.P.H., Jenkins/Pokempner director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center. It causes your body's antibodies and white blood cells to circulate more rapidly, which means they may be able to detect and zero in on bugs more quickly. Being active this way also lowers stress hormones, which reduces your chances of getting sick, Moyad adds.
Research suggests that exercise's effects may be directly relevant to virus fighting, too. According to a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, of 1,002 people surveyed, those who exercised at least five days a week had almost half the risk of coming down with a cold as those who were more sedentary. If they did get one, they reported less severe symptoms. There also may be a protective benefit from the sweat in your sweat session: Research has shown that simply raising your body temperature may help kill germs in their tracks.
The key to exercise, however, is to do it in moderation. “Like many other things, there's a sweet spot — doing too much can also put so much stress on your body, it depresses your immune system,” explains Moyad. He recommends 30 to 60 minutes of exercise (either vigorous or moderate) most days of the week.
2. Watch your diet
"Eighty percent of your immune system is in the gut, so when it's healthy, we tend to be able to fight off infections faster and better,” says Yufang Lin, M.D., of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “When it's not, our immune system is weaker and more susceptible to fighting off infection.”
In general, Lin recommends that people focus on a Mediterranean style of eating, which means a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, found in foods such as fatty fish, nuts and olive oil. “This eating pattern is high in nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc and other antioxidants shown to help reduce inflammation and fight infection,” she explains. Adults between the ages of 65 and 79 who followed a Mediterranean type of diet, along with taking a daily 400 IU vitamin D supplement for a year, showed small increases in disease-fighting cells such as T cells, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology.
It's also important to limit meat, especially processed and fried foods, all of which are more inflammatory, Lin adds. “Generally, I recommend a whole food diet,” she says. What's more, it's smart to include fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso and kefir, in your daily diet. These help build up the good bacteria in your gut, which, in turn, supports a healthy gut and immune system, Lin explains.