During the winter months, we’re not just contending with cold weather—it’s also time for the common cold and flu season, which means our bodies are doing their very best to fight off infection (and that’s not even to mention COVID-19). Add a little holiday stress to the mix and you just might have the perfect recipe for a cough and runny nose.
Thankfully, your body has a natural defense system in place—and how well it’s able to fight off those germs and viruses comes down to the health of your immune system. Of course, there’s no miracle method that promises “perfect” immune function, but rather, a series of healthy habits we can lean on to bolster immune support. Take a look at our list below to find out how you can up your self-care and boost your immunity in the process.
First things first—what does the immune system do? Its main job is to fight off harmful germs and unwanted toxins that could lead to a mild or serious sickness. It protects your body first and foremost by detecting disease-causing germs called pathogens, then mounts something called an immune response to flush them from your system.
The immune system is also a fast learner—when exposed to a new pathogen for the first time, it responds by first fighting it off. But it also remembers that specific invader, making it better prepared to fight it off again in the future.
The immune system is an important part of how vaccines work, too. Vaccines help develop immunity by mimicking an infection, though they almost never cause illness. Instead, after receiving a vaccine your body develops a “memory” of that illness, so as to better fight it off if your body should encounter it again down the line.
Getting enough servings of foods like fruits, vegetables and minimally processed foods will be your best bet when it comes to supporting your immune system. A healthy diet of fruits and vegetables with a variety of colors is a good rule of thumb, since “eating the rainbow” helps ensure that you’re targeting a wide variety of nutrients—which in turn can help support a healthy immune system.
Orange fruits, for example, such as carrots, squash, sweet potato, and pumpkin, are a great source of vitamin A, a nutrient that’s important for white blood cells and the immune response. Citrus fruits, on the other hand, are high in vitamin C, which also supports the immune system. You’ll also want to include fruits and veggies like grapefruit, red bell peppers, tomatoes and watermelon, as they contain lycopene, which is a powerful antioxidant.
Probiotic foods are those that contain live microorganisms (aka “good” bacteria), and have been shown to help out the immune system, too. Probiotics can help balance a gut that is experiencing unhealthy levels of certain bacteria.
By secreting protective substances, probiotics are thought to turn on the immune system and prevent pathogens from taking hold and creating major disease. Probiotics include fermented foods like sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, natto, or kombucha, as well as yogurts and kefir with live, active cultures.
Research on prebiotics, a type of dietary fiber that nourishes the good bacteria in your stomach, has suggested that they can help stimulate the immune system. Bananas, asparagus, onions, garlic, and leeks are considered prebiotic foods, and are easy to find in your local grocery aisle. Try to aim for a variety of prebiotic foods like beans, fruits, whole grains, and vegetables.
Five micronutrients—vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc—play roles in maintaining immune function. While these micronutrients can be found in specific foods, you can also take them in supplement form. B6 can be found in bananas and meats like chicken and pork. You can get that good vitamin C by eating fruits or vegetables like kiwi, citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli, and sweet peppers.
For vitamin E, try snacking on sunflower seeds, almonds, and peanut butter, and you’ll get a great dose of magnesium from foods like greens, nuts, seeds, dry beans, whole grains, wheat germ, wheat and oat bran. If you’re looking to add a bit more zinc to your diet, try eating some meats like turkey, oysters, or beef shank. If you’d rather take these in supplement form, you might consider a multivitamin.
Getting adequate sleep can also help boost your immune system. While you are sleeping, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines. Cytokines help promote sleep, and certain types of cytokines are needed when you’re stressed, or have an infection or inflammation. If you don’t get enough sleep, your body might not make enough cytokines to keep you healthy. If you’re wondering how much sleep you need to keep your immune system in tip-top shape, know that the optimal amount of sleep for most adults is seven to eight hours of good sleep each night.
Regular exercise is an important part of having a healthy working immune system. Not only does it improve cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, control body weight, and protect against a variety of diseases, but it also contributes to your overall good health and therefore a healthy immune system as well.
From vegetables and probiotics to sleep and exercise, there are a number of ways you can help give your immune system a much-needed winter boost. The important thing is to find a combination of ways to build your immune health that work for you. Maybe that’s broccoli and cross-country skiing, or squash and a nice long daily walk. Whatever you choose, know that you’re helping your body take care of itself so that it can take care of you.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Omicron variant: What you need to know. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Nutrition and Immunity. Hsph.harvard.edu. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2020, April 23). How does the immune system work? Eating the Rainbow to Boost Your Immunity. UCI. (n.d.). Retrieved December 13, 2021, from U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2011, October 27). Probiotics and immune health. Should you take probiotics? Harvard Health. (2019, August 20). Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2018, November 28). Can lack of sleep make you sick? Mayo Clinic.