How to Boost Your Immune System Naturally: Everything You Need to Know
As we slowly recover from a worldwide pandemic, there has never been a better time to check in with your immune system. Are you concerned about a weak immune system? How can lifestyle habits and diet help boost immune system function? Today’s post will answer these questions plus provide you with everything you need to know about our immune system's role, how to keep it as strong as possible with foods that boost immune system function, and other ways to boost immune system health
What Is the Immune System?
Rather than give you an immune system definition, we’ll explain how and why it works. The immune system defends the body against infection while also protecting the body’s own cells. It is comprised of a complex network of immune system organs, cells, and proteins - hence the name “system.” The human immune system is actually quite remarkable. It keeps a record of every germ (a.k.a., microbe) it has ever defeated, so it can recognize and destroy it quickly if it enters the body again.
The main parts of the immune system include white blood cells, antibodies, complement system, lymphatic system, spleen, bone marrow, and the thymus.
How Does the Immune System Work?
The immune system helps our bodies fight infections. However, to do this job, it must first understand the difference between the body's own cells and foreign invaders or pathogens, like fungi, bacteria, parasites, and other microorganisms. Easier said than done; however, our mighty immune system has its own “system” for distinguishing between what belongs and what does not.
Basically, the cells and tissues of our bodies have proteins called self-antigens. Similarly, living organisms that can cause infections also have antigens, but they are different than those in the body’s cells and tissues. Your immune system identifies the foreign antigens in the invading microorganisms and destroys them, which protects your body from infection and harm.
What Is the Function of the Immune System?
Many species, including humans, have two subsystems of the immune system that use molecules and cells to perform their functions, which are identified as innate and adaptive immunity. The innate immune system responds systematically to broad groups of situations and stimuli. The adaptive immune system, however, provides a tailored response to each stimulus by learning to recognize molecules it has previously encountered.
Vaccines are a great demonstration of the immune system's abilities. When a vaccine is administered, your immune system builds up antibodies to the foreign cells in the vaccine and will quickly remember these foreign cells and destroy them if you are exposed to them in the future. Therefore, if you feel bad after a vaccine shot, it’s simply your body working very hard to identify and eliminate the threat while documenting it for future reference.
When your immune system cannot instigate a successful attack against a foreign invader, a problem, such as an infection, can develop. Also, your immune system sometimes attacks when there is no invader or doesn’t stop an attack after the invader has been killed, resulting in allergic reactions or autoimmune diseases.
5 Signs of a Strong Immune System
Now that you know how critical the immune system and its responses are to our body's healthy function, how do you know if your system is operating as it should? Since it can be tough to tell how your immune system is actually functioning, let’s identify some indicators of a strong immune system, which are detailed next.
You Recover Fast from Colds
One of the primary functions of your immune system is to fight off illnesses, as it provides defense against everything from a minor cold to a major infection like bronchitis. However, if you always recover quickly when you get sick, this means your immune system is likely in good shape.
Your Wounds Heal Quickly
Do you recover from cuts and scrapes quickly without further incident, like an infection? You can probably thank a healthy immune system, which plays an important role in healing. Wounds are prone to infection while healing, especially if not kept clean. However, a healthy immune system will work hard to ward off disease and heal the affected area by regenerating skin. So if your cuts, scrapes, or burns tend to heal quickly without infection, your immune system is doing exactly as it should, which is functioning properly.
You Feel Rested and Refreshed
As the first line of defense against infection or illness, our immune systems help keep our bodies working well and functioning properly. So, if you feel refreshed, rested, and have good energy throughout your days, you can thank your immune system for lending a hand. However, this means that you should consult your primary caregiver if you begin feeling tired without explanation or a specific reason, like a poor night’s sleep.
You Have Good Gut Health
Research shows that nearly 70 percent of your immune system lives1 in your digestive tract. The beneficial bacteria and microorganisms that live there defend your gut from infection and support the immune system. Signs of a healthy immune system include regular bowel movements, digestive ease, and lack of excessive gas or bloating.
You Don’t Have Infections Often
If you find yourself saying (often), “I never get sick,” then you likely have a strong immune system at work. It turns out it isn’t just luck that keeps you infection-free during the winter months. Rather, it’s probably an efficiently functioning immune system - especially if you are eating right, sleeping well, getting regular exercise, and seeing your primary caregiver for well-checks as often as necessary.
How to Boost Your Immune System Naturally
Since our immune systems are a huge part of our body’s defense against harmful microorganisms, taking care of the body should be a priority - as well as knowing how to boost the immune system naturally for optimal defense. It all works together - a healthy body supports a strong immune system and vice versa. So, curious how to boost your immune system naturally? We’re covering the habits to keep and the ones to kick if you want to boost immune system function from the inside out.
Drink Enough Water
Our bodies are made up of a lot of water, i.e., the average adult human body is 50-65% water. We need it to keep our blood oxygenated, toxins flushed, and vital organs and muscles functioning. The best way to tell if you are sufficiently hydrated is by looking at your urine. If it’s, at a minimum light yellow - even better, is clear - then you are hydrated. If the urine is a darker yellow, get yourself a tall glass of water. Drinking water is one of the easiest ways to boost the immune system naturally every day.
Get Enough Sleep
The human body needs sleep to function, as several critical support processes occur while we snooze, like cell regeneration and more. Our immune systems are also busy during sleep, releasing proteins called cytokines (some of which help promote sleep).
Specific cytokines need to increase when you have an infection or inflammation - or even when you are under stress. The production of these protective cytokines and other infection-fighting antibodies and cells may decrease when you lose sleep.2 So, getting sufficient sleep is one of the best natural ways to boost immune system function.
Introducing Physical Activity
Get moving! Research indicates that regular, moderate exercise can have a profound effect on the normal functioning of the immune system, including reducing inflammation and helping your immune cells regenerate regularly.3 Furthermore, even a single session of moderate exercise can boost the effectiveness of vaccines in people with compromised immune systems.3
Moderate exercise includes brisk walking, steady bicycling, jogging, swimming, or light hiking, and most people should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week.
Learn Stress Coping Techniques
Anxiety and stress are immune system zappers. Research has indicated that long-term stress promotes inflammation, as well as imbalances in immune cell function.4 Therefore, it's wise to practice coping techniques to manage your stress levels regularly. These techniques can include light exercise (e.x. yoga), meditation, journaling, and other mindfulness practices.
We should all know by now that smoking is not good for your health, and the medical community wholeheartedly agrees. Not only do cigarettes contain known carcinogens, but nicotine is an immunosuppressive found in cigarette smoke and e-cigarettes. The adverse effects of smoking include inflammation, increased cortisol levels, decreased T cell response, and impaired immune response - all of which make it more difficult for the body to fight infection.
Alcohol disrupts the microbiome in our gut, which throws off the balance of bacteria and causes inflammation that could ultimately damage the liver. Drinking alcohol in moderation is your best bet if you cannot cut it out of your diet altogether, and you can consult your primary caregiver for advice on what “moderate” drinking involves for your age, gender, and size. When it comes to determining how to build immune system strength, a break from alcohol is an easy option for most.
Take Care of Hygiene
Hand washing became a hot topic during the COVID-19 pandemic as a tool to help prevent the spread of the virus. It turns out that regular handwashing benefits the immune system as well. The nose and mouth provide easy access for bacteria to enter the body, and guess what we use to touch our noses and mouths most? Yes, the hands. Experts recommend regular hand washing with a good soap lather for at least twenty seconds to kill bacteria on the hands.
However, don’t neglect regularly washing the rest of your body, especially if you sweat. Why? Because sweat left on your skin allows bacteria to grow by breeding fungus, which can cause an infection if it interacts with any open wounds on your skin.
Get Enough Sunlight
Sunlight supplies our bodies with Vitamin D - and more! Researchers report that exposure to sunlight appears to activate T cells, which play a critical role in natural immunity so that they can move more rapidly throughout the body. T cells are white blood cells that are crucial for hunting down invading pathogens and attacking them. When these cells become more mobile, they do a better job at fighting infections. When people ask how to boost the immune system, a daily stroll in the sun is an easy first step to recommend.
Stay up to Date with Vaccinations
As we pointed out earlier in the post, vaccinations or immunizations work by copying the body's natural immune response to help protect us from specific viruses, bacteria, or toxins. A vaccine, which is a small amount of a specially treated virus, is administered by injection into the body. The body then makes antibodies to it, so If a vaccinated person is exposed to the actual virus, they won't get sick because their body will recognize it and know how to attack it successfully.
Maintain Healthy Weight
Excess body fat can increase inflammation of the body. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology Metabolism discovered that losing even 10 pounds could help people struggling with obesity balance their immune systems.
One of the best strategies for boosting immune systems, maintaining weight, and improving overall health is to eat a healthy diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy proteins and fats, and limited sugar. Let’s take a look at the foods your immune system loves next.
Foods to Boost Your Immune System
Try adding these foods to your diet when considering how to strengthen immune system functions. Each one is rich in vitamins and/or minerals that support a healthy immune system and benefit the body’s nutritional needs overall. The key to successfully eating an immune system-supporting diet is to pick whole food options rather than processed ones.
Foods Rich in Tryptophan
Amino acids, including tryptophan, are used as building blocks in protein biosynthesis, and it’s required to sustain life. However, humans cannot synthesize tryptophan (which means it needs to come from dietary intake), making it an essential amino acid. There are a number of health benefits from the naturally occurring tryptophan found in foods, including the potential increase of niacin and, thus, serotonin.
Tryptophan can be found in many foods, especially those high in protein, including chicken, eggs, cheese, fish, peanuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, milk, turkey, tofu, and soy. However, it’s important to note that for tryptophan to be converted into niacin, your body needs enough iron, vitamin B6, and vitamin B2. Following are seven tryptophan food sources you can incorporate into an immune-boosting diet.
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds are full of tryptophan and other powerful nutrients and vitamins that support heart health, help naturally regulate blood sugar and boost the immune system, among other health benefits. For an immune-boosting snack rich in tryptophan, grab some peanuts containing 65 milligrams of tryptophan per ounce - or try pumpkin and squash seeds.
Seafood, like canned tuna, contains tryptophan and a host of other immune-supporting micronutrients, like Vitamin D, which can be hard to get from other foods. You can find 472 milligrams of tryptophan per ounce in canned tuna.
Whole milk is one of the richest sources of tryptophan available, serving up 732 milligrams per quart. If you prefer milk lower in fat, go with 2% reduced fat milk, which provides 551 milligrams per quart.
Chicken & Turkey
Turkey is commonly associated with tryptophan and contains about 612mg per 6 oz of ground turkey. However, it’s not the only light meat containing these amino acids. Chicken also contains high amounts of tryptophan at 687 milligrams in a 6 oz breast.
All kinds of beans contain tryptophan, with soybeans (a.k.a. edamame) topping the list at 416 mg per cup. Other tryptophan-rich and immune-boosting beans include lentils, pinto, kidney, black, and large white beans.
Oats have many nutritional benefits, including a healthy dose of tryptophan at 94 mg per cup.
One large egg contains 77mg of tryptophan, with approximately 15% coming from egg whites alone.
Foods Rich in Vitamin C
Vitamin C, a.k.a. ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin well known for supporting a healthy immune system. It is also essential for the growth and repair of the body’s tissue, helping heal wounds and repair and maintain healthy bones, teeth, skin, and cartilage (the firm tissue that covers the bones). As an antioxidant, vitamin C also fights free radicals in the body that promote healthy aging. However, because your body cannot make vitamin C, it must come from the foods you eat daily, including the following varieties.
Citrus fruits are chock full of vitamin C, making them excellent immune system boosters. Citrus fruits include oranges, lemons, and limes.
Another vitamin C-packed food is the tomato. This fruit (yes, it’s a nightshade fruit) is also rich in lycopene, potassium, folate, vitamin K, beta carotene, and more, which can benefit heart health and improve the skin.
Potatoes are rich in vitamin C and other micronutrients. For example, when eaten with its skin, a single medium-sized potato provides nearly half the daily adult requirement (100 mg) of vitamin C.
Wild cabbage, or Brassica oleracea, is a biennial or perennial plant that grows around the coasts of western and southern Europe - it also packs a healthy dose of vitamin C in each serving. Fun fact - Brassica oleracea is the wild ancestor of not only cultivated cabbages but also broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi.
One medium-sized whole bell pepper provides 169% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for vitamin C, making it one of the richest dietary sources of this essential nutrient.
Foods Rich in Zinc
Our bodies need zinc for a variety of functions, such as producing new immune system cells, metabolizing nutrients, and growing and repairing body tissues. It’s found primarily in animal foods, like red meat. However, it’s also present in vegetarian food sources like grains and beans. Our bodies don’t store zinc, so we need to eat enough daily to meet daily requirements. Here’s a complete list of zinc-rich foods that support immune system function.
Red meat is a particularly great source, providing 4.8 mg of zinc in a 3.5 oz serving. Lamb and pork also provide ample amounts of zinc per serving.
Legumes like chickpeas, lentils, and beans all contain substantial amounts of zinc. For example, 100 grams of cooked lentils contain around 12% of the daily recommended value of zinc. However, legumes also contain phytates, which are antinutrients that inhibit the absorption of zinc and other minerals. So, the body's zinc from legumes isn’t absorbed as well as the zinc from animal products, like red meat5.
Dairy foods like milk and cheese provide plenty of essential nutrients like calcium and zinc. In fact, milk and cheese are two sources that contain high amounts of bioavailable zinc, which means most of the zinc can be absorbed by your body.
What a sweet surprise! Dark chocolate actually contains a reasonable amount of zinc. A 3.5-ounce serving of 70–85% dark chocolate contains 3.3 mg of zinc or about 30% of the daily recommendation. However, since dark chocolate is a pretty high-calorie food, it should be used as a source of zinc in moderation.
Whole grains with zinc include wheat, quinoa, rice, and oats. However, like legumes, whole grains also contain phytates that bind to zinc and reduce its absorption. Despite this, whole grains are considered essential to a well-balanced diet, as they are packed with other health-boosting nutrients like fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, and selenium.
Foods Rich in Protein
Given the foods we’ve already mentioned, it’s no surprise that foods rich in protein are immune system boosters. In fact, getting too little protein can weaken your immune system. Protein-rich foods supply the amino acids you need to build essential proteins in the body, including antibodies. In addition, high-protein animal foods like lean meats are also high in zinc, which increases infection-fighting T-cells. Here’s a complete list of protein-rich foods that can benefit the immune system when eaten regularly.
Most of poultry’s calories are derived from protein when eaten without the skin, and a skinless roasted chicken breast contains 58 grams of protein. It’s also an excellent source of vitamin D, vitamin B, calcium, iron, and zinc.
Pork is a great source of high-quality protein in a healthy, balanced diet. Aside from being rich in high-quality protein, pork also contains a variety of healthy nutrients that are beneficial for your muscles, such as taurine, creatine, and beta-alanine.
Seafood, both fish and shellfish, provides a concentrated source of essential nutrients that keep our immune health functioning properly, including proteins. Fish and shellfish, like salmon, clams, and shrimp, are particularly high in protein plus vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B12, selenium, and zinc.
Quinoa is rich in minerals, vitamins, fiber, and vitamins. One cup of quinoa contains 8 grams of protein, as well as a healthy does of antioxidants and all nine crucial amino acids.
Tofu, or beancurd, is a plant protein that contains all nine essential amino acids that your body can't make on its own. All that protein packed into a 3-ounce slice does a great job keeping you fuller longer, plus many tofu brands use calcium sulfate to combine the protein and oil in the soymilk, which provides an extra calcium boost beyond tofu's natural calcium content.
Drinking Tea for Immune System
Not only a great source of hydration, drinking tea is also a great source of antioxidants and immune-boosting nutrients. Tea has been used in herbal medicine to treat minor illnesses for centuries, and contains antioxidants (like flavonols) that can help protect your body against free radicals generated by pollution, cigarette smoke, and ultraviolet rays, according to a study by Harvard Health6, and free radicals can have harmful effects on the body, including a weakened immune system.
Following are a variety of teas that are especially effective when it comes to boosting your immune system’s defenses.
Ginger tea contains gingerol, the main active compound that’s responsible for ginger’s spicy, peppery flavor and medicinal properties. Research7 has shown that gingerol offers antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and may also treat infections.
Many associate drinking chamomile tea with rest and relaxation. However, recent research also indicates that chamomile may contain antibacterial properties that can help ward off illness and keep your immune system in tip-top shape.8
Matcha tea has grown in popularity over the past few years. It’s made from the same plant as green tea and typically ground into a very fine powder for serving, and matcha tea is made with the entire plant, rather than just the leaves like green tea. Packed with more disease-fighting antioxidants than it’s cousin green tea, matcha is a great immunity-booster.
Made from the camellia sinensis plant, black tea is high in antioxidants and has a variety of other health benefits, like soothing inflammation and boosting heart health.
The turmeric in this tea variety contains a compound known as curcumin, which contains antimicrobial properties and can help to ward off illness.
Supplements to Boost Immune System
Although we intended this article as a resource for how to boost your immune system naturally through lifestyle and diet, there are also vitamins for immune system health worth considering, especially if you are not getting essential nutrients from the many foods that boost immune system function.
We highly recommend always checking with a Martin’s Wellness pharmacist or your healthcare provider before adding any new supplements to your routine.
The level of magnesium in the blood is an important factor in the immune system's ability to tackle pathogens, and research9 indicates that T cells need a sufficient quantity of magnesium in order to operate efficiently. We have a wide variety of magnesium supplements available, and one of our pharmacists can help you decide which, if any, are right for you.
Vitamin D activates the T cells, which detect and destroy foreign pathogens, like viruses. Although the body produces vitamin D by spending time in the sun, you can also maximize intake through supplements and food sources like mushrooms, eggs, and cheese. However, it can be difficult to get enough from diet alone, in which case a Vitamin D supplement can help.
As an essential vitamin our bodies use to grow and repair tissue throughout the body, Vitamin C is one of the best vitamins for immune system support. Many foods offer Vitamin C, so it’s likely your diet can fulfill your needs. However, a high-quality Vitamin C supplement can also be beneficial to immune system function.
Zinc benefits the immune system in several ways, including the production of new immune system cells, metabolizing nutrients, and the growth and repair of body tissue. In some cases, taking extra zinc above your normal intake may help shorten how long you stay sick, like with the common cold10.
If you are not getting enough zinc in your diet, a high-quality zinc supplement may help. For example, vegetarians may be more likely to need a zinc supplement because meats are the best source of zinc, and the extra grains and legumes in a vegetarian diet can decrease the body’s ability to absorb zinc.
Supplementing with a B vitamin complex can help ensure you are getting plenty of all the Bs in your diet. The B vitamins include thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folic acid or folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12). Getting enough of these vitamins provides many health benefits, like improving the immune system and helping ward off infections.
Vitamin E, a potent lipid-soluble antioxidant found in higher concentrations in immune cells compared to other cells in the blood, is one of the most effective nutrients known to modulate immune function.11 Vitamin E supplements have become popular as antioxidants, which protect cells from damage. However, vitamin E deficiencies are pretty rare, so check with your primary care provider before beginning supplementation.
Vitamin A is the generic term for a group of fat-soluble compounds that are important for human health, including immune system support. The best way to ensure you get your body’s balance right is to consume vitamin A-rich foods as part of your normal diet and avoid supplementing with excessive amounts.
Iron is a metallic element and a key nutrient in the body that helps make hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body. Iron is found in plenty of foods, but it is also supplemented in some cases. For instance, pregnant women not eating enough iron in their diet are at risk of developing anemia. Talk to your pharmacist or primary care physician about a high-quality iron supplement if you suspect your body is deficient.
Folic acid is the synthetic (i.e., made in a lab) form of folate, a B vitamin that your body makes naturally. Everyone needs adequate folic acid in their diet. This powerhouse nutrient does everything from helping boost the immune system to helping bodies make DNA. Appropriate levels of folic acid can be attained naturally through eating certain foods or through supplements.
When our clients ask how to strengthen immune system support, we are always happy to discuss the many ways, including diet, lifestyle habits, and supplementation of specific immune-boosting vitamins and minerals.
Although healthy habits, like a well-balanced diet rich in whole foods and regular exercise, are the primary drivers of immune defense, anyone can have deficiencies in any of the areas we covered in today’s blog - and it can be challenging to determine if there is an essential nutrient your immune system is lacking to support optimal function.
That’s where we come in. At Martin’s Wellness, we provide customized prescriptions and specialized drug compounding to support optimal health in folks of all ages. We have highly qualified pharmacists on staff to help you determine what your body needs to feel great, including a wide range of high-quality vitamin supplements.
At Martin’s Wellness, we take a thoughtful and considered approach to personalized medicine, and we look forward to helping you on your journey to better health. Reach out today to speak to a Martin’s Wellness specialist.