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10 strategies to strengthen your immune system

Did recurring colds or a tough bout with the flu knock you off your feet this past winter? If so, it may be time to give your immune system a much-needed boost. Although heredity and age play a role in how well your body guards itself against disease, you can enhance your self-healing mechanisms by making some diet and lifestyle changes.

Following are 10 ways to build your immune system. Read on, then remember to consult your healthcare provider for advice on your specific medical requirements.

  1. Be proactive. Get a jump on illness before it gets to you. One basic way is by checking your shot status: Make sure you get a tetanus booster every 10 years, get a flu shot each fall and ask your healthcare provider if you’re a candidate for the pneumonia vaccine. Minimize your exposure to germs by washing your hands often and avoiding contact with your eyes, nose and mouth.
  2. Get moving. Studies have shown that people who exercise at least once a week increase their immune system function, reporting fewer colds and respiratory infections. One reason why: Physical activity stimulates circulation of the immune cells that fight infections and tumors. For the best boost, aim for 30 minutes of aerobic activity three to five times a week.
  3. Learn to laugh. Research findings suggest that optimists tend to be healthier overall and live longer. What’s more, positive experiences have a longer-lasting effect on the immune system than negative ones. In a study of 100 men, a pleasant event, such as a fishing trip, boosted immune function for two days, while a stressful event weakened immune function only on the day it occurred. So enjoy life more by spending quality time with family and friends, caring for a pet or volunteering.
  4. Add antioxidants. Enhance your immune system by boosting your intake of vitamins A, C and E and beta carotene—also known as antioxidants. Vitamin C, in particular, has been shown to be effective in preventing or shortening the duration of common colds as well as other diseases. It’s also proven to speed healing after injuries or operations. To get most of your antioxidants through diet, choose colorful fruits and vegetables. And sharpen your cancer-fighting edge by eating plenty of cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage. They contain indoles and isothiocyanates, phytochemicals that appear to block cell damage.
  5. Watch your mouth. The mouth can harbor infections that take a toll on the immune system. Maintain good oral hygiene by brushing and flossing at least twice daily. Have a dental exam twice a year to detect any areas of hidden infection. If possible, avoid any major dental work while you’re ill to avoid putting more strain on your immune system.
  6. Think pungent. Although certainly no cure-all, garlic and its relatives—onions, scallions, shallots and chives—contain allyl sulfides, compounds that may help slow the spread of cancer and boost production of cancer-fighting enzymes. Garlic may also protect your heart health by making blood less sticky and helping to lower high cholesterol levels.
  7. Take teatime. Mounting evidence suggests teatime is more than an age-old soothing ritual; it may also help prolong life. Substances in green tea called polyphenols have been shown to prevent or slow the growth of cancerous tumors.
  8. Avoid antibiotic overload. Antibiotics should be used only when the immune system cannot stop a bacterial infection or when an infection invades a vital organ. Taking an antibiotic at the first sign of infection doesn’t give the immune system a chance to fight disease and become stronger as a result. Overuse of antibiotics also encourages bacteria to develop into drug-resistant strains.
  9. Stop smoking. Chemicals in tobacco may alter your immune system’s ability to recognize and eliminate foreign substances in the body. In addition, T-cells, white blood cells that coordinate immune-system attacks, may not function as well in people who smoke.
  10. Sleep soundly. It’s the best restorative around—and it doesn’t cost a dime. Among the important by-products of slumber are growth hormones, which help the body repair tissue and are produced mostly during slow-wave sleep. Sleep also can help speed recovery from illness, so the next time you feel like you’re getting sick, slow down to conserve your energy. Start drinking plenty of fluids. Rearrange your plans, then crawl into bed and rest.