When you’re looking for “immunity boosters,” you might be tempted to run to the drugstore and pick up a packet of dissolvable vitamin C. We all know this micronutrient is great for our immune systems, as it helps to support a variety of cellular functions that keep your body in tip-top shape. But downing packets of vitamin C isn’t the only thing you can do to stay healthy this fall and winter (and it may not actually be all that effective on its own). What you eat and how you live play a big role in strengthening immune function, too.
This year, illness prevention is more important than ever. The ongoing threat of COVID-19, compounded by the incoming flu season, is a sobering reminder of the importance of taking precautionary measures for our health. Besides wearing masks and social distancing (which help prevent the spread of COVID and the flu!), there are plenty of things you can do to maintain a strong inner defense system.
First thing’s first, make sure to get your flu vaccine. “Vaccines are able to boost your immune response to specific pathogens to provide long lasting protection and prevent illness,” says Emily Hemann, Ph.D., an assistant professor of microbial infection and immunity at The Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus. This year’s flu vaccine is already widely available, and a vaccine for COVID-19 is also in the works and may be here by spring or summer 2021.
Besides vaccines, there is no foolproof miracle cure to protect you from infection. “There is currently no quick fix or supplement that can be taken to boost your immune system in general that has been proven effective,” Hemann says. (Sorry to break it to you, Emergen-C users.) “Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the best way to make sure your immune system is ready to respond and protect you from infection.”
What does this entail? Think of the basics—sleep, a whole foods diet, regular exercise, and minimizing stress. Research shows that a regular sleep routine (the Centers for Disease Control recommends at least seven hours per night for adults) can help improve the function of your T cells, which play a critical role in fighting foreign pathogens. “Invest in getting your seven to eight hours to sleep,” says Chris D’Adamo, Ph.D., director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. “You’re going to be so much more productive during the day, and it helps your immune system.”
It also helps to maintain an active lifestyle—not always an easy task during a global pandemic. A 2020 study in Exercise Immunology Review noted that regular bouts of moderate-intensity exercise can help strengthen immune response, especially among older adults and those with chronic health conditions. Aim for at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week.
Looking for less-conventional ideas? Here are some immune-boosting strategies you may not have considered.
Be intentional about your “off” time. Remember how we mentioned that stress can be a detriment to immunity? This is the perfect excuse to schedule some relaxation into your life. “Anything that can help manage stress, whether it’s playing with your dog or watching comedies, will actually help immune function,” D’Adamo says. To put it mildly, 2020 has been a stressful year, so the more you can prioritize your well-being, the better. Take a day (or even an hour) away from your technology, spend alone time outside, or chill out with people you love. Eat more mushrooms, onions, and garlic. Not only are these veggies delicious, but they may also help your body fight off infection. “All kinds of mushrooms—shitake mushrooms and maitake mushrooms, which are more on the exotic side, or conventional white mushrooms—can help increase the immune system’s production of cells to help fight off pathogens,” D’Adamo says. Mushrooms are widely known for their anti-inflammatory and medicinal properties, and they’ve even been studied as a promising complementary treatment for cancer. Onion and garlic, meanwhile, are members of the allium family of vegetables, which have also been shown in some studies to have immune-boosting benefits. “Those also work through increasing some of these immune cells,” D’Adamo says. “A great thing to do would be to make a stir fry with different types of mushrooms, onions, and garlic.” We’ve got your dinner plans on lock.
Stock up on fresh fall apples. There’s actually something to the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Apple skins contain a phytochemical called quercetin, D’Adamo explains, which helps bring zinc into your cells. “There’s good clinical trial data to show that zinc can help reduce cold virus severity and duration,” he notes. It’s also found in green tea and vegetables like onion, asparagus, and green pepper. Have fun with fermented foods. You’ve heard all about their benefits for your gut. As it turns out, your digestive health is closely tied to your immune system. “Our whole immunity starts in the gut,” D’Adamo says. A report in the journal Gut Microbes found that the gut microbiome helps to regulate immune homeostasis in the body. Stock up on kimchi, grass-fed yogurt, and probiotic supplements—just make sure the supplements are shipped cold to preserve their active bacteria. Don’t quit your healthy diet during the holidays. We’re entering the season of decadent food and chunky sweaters that cover up any weight gain from Thanksgiving dinner. As tempting as it is to let your health goals go in the winter, this isn’t doing your immune system any favors. “In the winter months, many of us tend not to prioritize our physical well-being, which may impact our immune system,” Hemann says. This, combined with the increased frequency of indoor gatherings in cold weather, contributes to the spread of viruses during the winter months. (No, it’s not actually possible to “catch a cold” from cold weather alone.)
Right now, masks and social distancing are our best tools for preventing viral spread—that and getting the flu vaccine ASAP. But hey, it never hurts to try multiple methods of prevention. If you’re in the mood to get creative, these at-home tips can help your body prepare for the challenging season ahead.