Can you boost your immune system?
The immune system is the body’s main mechanism of defense against viruses and bacteria. These pathogens are microbes which invade the body to cause infections.
The immune system is a complex system which uses many mechanisms to eradicate pathogens. Some of these mechanisms are physical barriers – like your skin – which can prevent the entry of viruses and bacteria. Other mechanisms are more like hunters which traverse the body in search of foreign invaders.
There is a lot of misinformation on the internet regarding whether it is possible to boost your immune system. A quick Google search lands almost 200 million results, many of which recommend supplements, natural remedies, and myriad other equally dubious suggestions.
So, can you boost your immune system?
Short answer no, long answer… kind of
The immune system is incredibly effective. Unless you are born with an immune deficiency or similar condition, it will protect you against most invading pathogens. So far, though there are many enticing possibilities, there are no proven ways to boost your immune system through supplementation or lifestyle1.
But – there are other factors which can lessen the effectiveness of your immune system. These factors may include poor lifestyle choices or dietary insufficiencies. So, by avoiding the pitfalls which can weaken your immune system, you can reduce your chances of infection and in a way strengthen your immune response.
The one scientifically proven way to boost your immune system against particular viruses or bacteria is through vaccination. The obvious downfall to this is that vaccines take time to develop, are expensive, work only against specific pathogens. So, while it is immensely important to utilise the vaccines that are available, it is also important to give your body the greatest chance of success by maintaining a healthy, functional immune system.
What can weaken your immune system?
To work out how to bolster the defense against pathogens we need to work backwards.
Factors which may weaken your immune system include:
· Lack of sleep
· Poor diet
· Certain medication
· Drinking alcohol
· Lack of exercise
You will note that these same factors reduce your health in other ways as well. This is because a functional immune system requires a functional body – as all of the bodily systems are intertwined in complex and important ways.
So, if these things can weaken your immune system, how can you strengthen it?
Do the opposite to strengthen your immune system
So, to maintain a strong immune system, flip the weaknesses on their head. Below are seven strategies to keep your immune system effective.
1. Maintain a healthy diet2
Eating fresh fruit and vegetables, keeping sugar and unhealthy fats low, and avoiding heavily processed foods as much as possible will help to keep your immune system healthy.
While some supplements may be beneficial (especially depending on other preexisting conditions), it is generally better to source your nutrients (including vitamins and minerals) from a balanced, healthy diet.
2. Exercise regularly3
It is unsure whether exercise actively boosts your immune system. One theory posits that aerobic exercise helps to flush bacteria and viruses from your lungs4. Other plausible mechanisms for strengthening immunity include increasing the amount of antibodies in the bloodstream and increasing body temperature.
Either way, it is proven beyond doubt that overall health improves with regular aerobic exercise. Doing 30-minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise daily is recommended. Just be careful not to overdo it, as this may have the opposite effect!
3. Try to avoid stress
Positive mental health is very important to health overall, as it can have several knock-on effects – including on your immune system5.
While stress cannot always be avoided, try to minimise its effects with breathing techniques or mindfulness meditation, or by taking some time with relaxing activities.
4. Don’t smoke
Smoking is bad for your health in several ways. Avoiding smoking is one surefire way to improve your health and your immune system. Further, nicotine is a potent immunosuppressant – meaning it actively impairs your immune system6.
5. Drink responsibly, or avoid alcohol altogether
Drinking is also bad for your health and therefore bad for your immune system. Drinking in moderation or avoiding alcohol altogether is effective for maintaining a strong immune system.
6. Get quality sleep
Sleep is one of the most important things for maintaining your physical and mental health – and this goes for your immune system as well7. While everyone is different, eight hours a night of uninterrupted sleep is generally recommended. Try to sleep in a cool, dark room, and avoid bright screens for up to an hour before bed.
7. General hygiene
Now more than ever it is important to understand and use general hygiene techniques.
By now, everybody has heard of the 30s handwash. It is important to maintain clean hands to avoid the transmission of pathogens from surfaces to your body, and vice versa.
Wearing a mask can also help to reduce the risk of transmission by preventing the viral particles from becoming airborne.
Finally, social distancing at least 1.5 meters away from other people is another verifiable habit to reduce the chances of pathogen transmission between people.
The facts about boosting your immune system
There are no evidence-based approaches which are proven to strengthen your immune system other than vaccination. More research is needed to uncover much of how the immune system works and what we can do to enhance it.
But – the immune system is an intricately complex and large system. It involves many moving pieces and interconnected pathways throughout the body. This means that to have a good immune system largely relies on having a healthy body in total. Eating well, exercising frequently, and avoiding things which suppress your immune system is the best strategy for maintaining a healthy, strong immunity.
- Cassa Macedo, A., Oliveira Vilela de Faria, A., & Ghezzi, P. (2019). Boosting the Immune System, From Science to Myth: Analysis the Infosphere With Google. Frontiers in medicine, 6, 165. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmed.2019.00165
- Childs, C. E., Calder, P. C., & Miles, E. A. (2019). Diet and Immune Function. Nutrients, 11(8), 1933. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081933
- Nieman, D.C., & Wentz, L.M. (2019) The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. J Sport Health Sci 8(3), 201-217.
- Exercise and immunity. Medline Plus Available at: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007165.htm
- Morey, J. N., Boggero, I. A., Scott, A. B., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2015). Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function. Current opinion in psychology, 5, 13–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007
- Piao, W.H., Campagnolo, D., & Dayao, C. et al. (2009). Nicotine and inflammatory neurological disorders. Acta Pharmacol Sin 30, 715-722.
- Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Haack, M. (2019). The Sleep-Immune Crosstalk in Health and Disease. Physiological reviews, 99(3), 1325–1380. https://doi.org/10.1152/physrev.00010.2018