How to Boost Your Immune System

Immune System
Medically approved by
Dr Earim Chaudry
Last updated
14th September 2020

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How to boost your immune system? Start with ensuring that your diet includes enough vitamins – including vitamins C, E, and B6 – and that you are well-rested and have any stress under control.
Your immune system is the system of all the different processes and organs in your body that fight disease and prevent infection. It is your body’s resistance to microbes and germs that have the potential to cause illness. However, your body needs the right things to ensure that it is optimised.
Alongside vitamins and sleep, try specific foods such as garlic and ginger. Quitting smoking might help too. Your immune system will thank you.

Boosting Your Immune System

Your immune system is your body’s defence against illness, infection, and hostile germs and microbes of all descriptions. There’s no single organ that does this job. Rather, lots of different parts of your body – from your skin to your bone marrow, from your lymph nodes to your tonsils – contribute to keep you as healthy and as disease-free as possible.

However, the immune system can’t do everything by itself. If you are tired or overworked, that system can become tired, too. And if you are not eating a balanced diet, it’s your immunity that will suffer.

In this article, then, we’re looking at how to boost your immune system. We’ll consider things you can eat as well as lifestyle changes that make a difference. It’s not just your ability to fight disease that’ll benefit. You’ll feel much better for it, too.

Which Vitamin is Best for the Immune System?

If there is one thing that we conventionally associate with boosting the immune system, it is vitamins. In general, these are the essential nutrients that our bodies need to function properly. However, they are not something that we produce ourselves – meaning that they need to be consumed through our diet.

Whilst not all vitamins are useful for the immune system per se, there are a few that are essential.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C – or ascorbic acid, as it is otherwise known – is one of the most well-known of the vitamins, and it plays an important role in boosting your immune system. It helps to protect and maintain the health of cells, it ensures that your bones, blood vessels and skin are healthy, and it helps to heal wounds.

You can find it in oranges and other citrus fruits, as well as in peppers, broccoli and brussels sprouts, and strawberries and blackcurrants – among other foods too. Importantly, though, your body cannot store Vitamin C, so you need to consume it regularly for your immune system to feel the benefit.

Vitamin E

Less famous, but equally important for your overall health, Vitamin E helps your skin and eyes to stay healthy – whilst boosting your immune system. Like Vitamin C, it’s an antioxidant, meaning that it helps to maintain the integrity and structure of your cells.

You can get Vitamin E from olive oil, and soya and corn oil too – alongside the variety of nuts and seeds. Don’t forget wheatgerm either, which is a great source of the vitamin. It’s part of the wheat plant and you can find it in a range of cereal products.

Vitamin B6

The majority of Vitamin Bs aid the functioning of your nervous system. Vitamin B6 is no different, but it has other powers too. These include its role in producing the protein interleukin-2, which aids immune function. In fact, research has suggested that large doses of Vitamin B6 can boost the immune response of patients who are already critically ill.

Vitamin B6 can be found in pork, chicken, and fish – as well as in a range of vegetables, beans, and cereals. As with other vitamins, you also can take Vitamin B6 in supplements.

Vitamin A

To finish the list of vitamins that boost your immune system, let’s turn to Vitamin A. Also known as retinol, it works with Vitamin E to help the health of your eyes – and aids your ability to see in reduced light. It is widely known as the ‘anti-inflammation vitamin’ for its role in managing the inflammatory response, too.

Vitamin A has also been shown to be an effective agent in the support of the human immune system – with an ability to enhance your body’s response to infectious diseases – yet it is not yet entirely clear precisely what chemical role it plays. It’s certainly not doing you any harm however.

A Caution on Vitamin Supplements

Supplements can be an excellent way to ensure that you have the right quantities of specific vitamins. However, it is really important that you do not go over the top with them. Just as vitamin deficiencies can cause impairment to your immune system, an excess can result in problems too.

For example, too much Vitamin A is believed to cause weaknesses of the bones in later life. So, don’t over do it.

Foods to Boost Your Immune System

We have mentioned plenty of foods already. However, it is not only vitamins that offer benefits to your immune system. Other foods and minerals help to strengthen your immune response too. Let’s take a look.

Garlic

Garlic is one of the most effective – and tastiest – ways to ensure that your immune system is as strong as it can be. It includes allicin, a compound that has been shown to help your white blood cells fight viruses. One study even found that people who eat a lot of garlic had a 63% lower risk of getting a cold.

Ginger

Ginger is used as a spice in curries, an ingredient in infusions and herbal teas, as well as something to add to desserts to give them an extra bit of warmth.

Besides being a versatile cooking ingredient, though, it is also an incredibly powerful inflammatory, and it has been used medicinally for centuries. Studies have suggested that it is great for your immune system too – alongside decreasing pain and combatting nausea too.

Green Tea

Black tea undergoes a process of fermentation that removes most of its nutrients. Green tea, however, maintains the integrity of the majority of its beneficial chemicals, as it is not so rigorously subject to this process.

As such, green tea contains an agent known as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which is lacking in black tea. This plays an important antiviral function by helping your body to recognise viruses when they appear.

A Balanced Diet

Whilst there are many specific foods that prove hugely beneficial in boosting your immune system, there is not enough space here to mention them all individually. Instead, what is important is that you ensure to maintain a balanced diet that includes a range of different foodstuffs, vitamins, and minerals.

Eating from a range of food groups is essential. But pay particular attention to the fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts that you eat too.

Lifestyle Changes to Strengthen Your Immune System

Finally, then, let’s consider some of the behaviours and habits that reduce the efficacy and strength of your immune system.

These are not things that we may necessarily believe to harm our ability to fight disease. However, alongside those foods to boost your immune system, these lifestyle changes are just as necessary.

Sleep Well

A lack of sleep hampers your ability to fight infection. This is because, during sleep, your immune system releases proteins known as cytokines, which target hostile germs and microbes. Simply enough, then, if you don’t get enough sleep, you don’t produce enough of these vital infection-fighting chemicals.

Generally, seven to nine hours of sleep a night is recommended.

Manage Stress

When we’re stressed, our bodies produce chemicals – such as corticosteroids, a type of stress hormone – that suppress the functioning of our immune systems. Whilst these chemicals are used for the treatment of conditions such as asthma and arthritis, they reduce the ability of the immune system to do its job.

Keeping a lid on stress – through meditation, mindfulness, or exercise – is an important way to get your immune system working as it should again.

Cut Down on Smoking and Alcohol

Both cigarettes and alcohol reduce your body’s inflammatory response to infection, according to studies.

Smoking and the stress response to nicotine addiction both increase cortisol levels. This is a type of corticosteroid which, as we saw above, adversely affects your immune system. Similarly, research has suggested that excessive alcohol consumption reduces your body’s ability to fight infection and to heal wounds.

In this way, quitting smoking and cutting down on alcohol consumption are both imperative for a healthy immune system.

Key Takeaways

How to boost your immune system? There are many ways. However, from increasing your consumption of vitamins – including A, B6, C, and E – to eating a wide range of fruit, vegetables, and fish, maximising the breadth of your diet is one of the best ways to strengthen your immune system’s health.

Simple changes to your lifestyle can help as well. Quitting smoking can be a gamechanger, whilst finding ways to keep on top of stress is crucial too.

References

  1. NHS – Vitamin E: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-e/

  2. C-H Cheng, S-J Chang, B-J Lee, K-L Lin & Y-C Huang (2006). Vitamin B6 supplementation increases immune responses in critically ill patients: https://www.nature.com/articles/1602439

  3. Zhiyi Huang, Yu Liu, Guangying Qi, David Brand and Song Guo Zheng (2018). Role of Vitamin A in the Immune System: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6162863/

  4. GOV.UK – SACN Review of Dietary Advice on Vitamin A: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sacn-review-of-dietary-advice-on-vitamin-a

  5. Rodrigo Arreola, Saray Quintero-Fabián, Rocío Ivette López-Roa, Enrique Octavio Flores-Gutiérrez, Juan Pablo Reyes-Grajeda, Lucrecia Carrera-Quintanar, Daniel Ortuño-Sahagún (2015). Immunomodulation and anti-inflammatory effects of garlic compounds: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25961060/

  6. P Josling (2001). Preventing the common cold with a garlic supplement: a double-blind, placebo-controlled survey: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11697022/

  7. Herbal Medicine – The Amazing and Mighty Ginger: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92775/

  8. Nafiseh Shokri Mashhadi, Reza Ghiasvand, Gholamreza Askari, Mitra Hariri, Leila Darvishi and Mohammad Reza Mofid (2013). Anti-Oxidative and Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Ginger in Health and Physical Activity: Review of Current Evidence: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3665023/

  9. Dr. Christina L. Nance, PhD Melinda Mata, BS Ashley McMullen, BS Sean McMaster, BS Dr. William T. Shearer, MD, PhD (2014). Regulation Of Innate Immune Recognition Of Viral Infection By Epigallocatechin Gallate: https://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(13)02780-2/fulltext

  10. NHS Inorm – Corticosteroids: https://www.nhsinform.scot/tests-and-treatments/medicines-and-medical-aids/types-of-medicine/corticosteroids

  11. Carmen Roseman, Lennart Truedsson and Meliha Crnkic Kapetanovic (2012). The effect of smoking and alcohol consumption on markers of systemic inflammation, immunoglobulin levels and immune response following pneumococcal vaccination in patients with arthritis: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3580564/

  12. Dipak Sarkar, Ph.D., D.Phil., M. Katherine Jung, Ph.D., and H. Joe Wang, Ph.D. (2015). Alcohol and the Immune System: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4590612/

While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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