We are all told that our immune system is our first line of defense against invaders that make us sick, but what can we do to strengthen our immunity? Luckily, there are plenty of natural and straightforward ways to boost your immune system right at home. It all comes down to eating the right foods and adopting certain lifestyle habits that give us the best fighting chance at having a fully functional immune system.
Boosting Your Immune System Through Diet
Eat Enough Protein
Getting enough protein in your diet is vital for boosting your immune system. A minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is ideal for preventing illness.1 If you don’t get enough protein in your diet, the antibodies that help fight viruses and bacteria may be compromised. Protein is necessary for your T-cells, which tells your antibodies to fight the good fight.2
A bonus to high-protein foods is that they often contain minerals important in fighting infection because they help produce white blood cells.3 Zinc is crucial for this; you can find it in poultry, eggs, and seafood.4 If you are a vegan, you may need to supplement with zinc.
Get A Variety of Nutrients
Vitamins are critical in helping our bodies function properly, and the immune system is no exception. Many vitamins are also antioxidants that work to buffer the effects of free radicals. Free radicals are chemicals that can damage your genetic material and healthy cells.
When this happens, things like viruses and bacteria that invade our bodies have a much higher chance of harming our immune system. To combat this, fuel your immune system with vitamins D, E, C, B6, and vitamin A. Minerals such as selenium, zinc, and iron will also help.5 Wondering where to find these vitamins and minerals? Try including the following foods in your diet:
- For vitamin A, try adding carrots and sweet potatoes6
- Bell peppers and strawberries contain a lot of vitamin C
- Almonds and avocados contain healthy amounts of vitamin E7
- Salmon, oysters, tuna, lean chicken breast, and lean cuts of red meat contain vitamin B6 as well as some vitamin D8
I spoke to Lisa Ballehr, an Osteopathic Physician and Functional Medicine Practitioner, about how to eat to boost your immune system. “I recommend eating more dark green leafy vegetables, red and yellow veggies, and more fruits to help build antioxidant phytochemicals to fight off the virus. Brightly colored vegetables and fruits boost immunity better than most supplements that we take. Eat 9 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily,” says Dr. Ballehr.
Starting a microgreen farm indoors is a fun project to do at home if you can order microgreen seeds. Growing your own mini-farm of potent antioxidant-containing greens is highly rewarding. Plus, kids are more likely to try eating foods they grew themselves!9
Feed Your Gut
“Fermented vegetables or other probiotic-containing foods provide a boost to your immune system as well,” says Dr. Ballehr. A lot of your immune system resides in your GI tract, where it goes to work making antibodies.10 Increasing your good bacteria to create a healthy and balanced home for your single-celled friends will go a long way toward helping you produce both antibodies and anti-inflammatory cytokines that work to keep your immune system functioning top-notch.11
The best way to feed your gut is to consume foods that are prebiotics and probiotics. Probiotic foods contain colonies of good bacteria and yeast that can reproduce in your gut once you consume them. Examples are yogurt, kefir, and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and others. Making probiotic foods at home can be a great way to spend time as a family. Many of these foods are very simple and easy to make.
Making sauerkraut is as simple as grating a head of cabbage and smashing it with some salt until a liquid comes out of it. Then you can bottle it up and leave it to ferment for a few days. Kids get a kick out of pounding on the cabbage, in my experience! If you can order kefir grains online where you live, making and taking care of kefir is also a fun project for kids. Bonus points if you can explain how the bacteria-filled grains turn the natural sugars into more healthy bacteria!
For prebiotics, choose foods that are high in insoluble fiber.12 This kind of fiber is not digestible but helps feed the bacteria in your gut, which causes them to reproduce in higher numbers —more friends! Foods like this are onions, garlic, asparagus, unripe or barely ripe bananas, green banana flour, and potato starch.
A fun project to do at home is to experiment with prebiotic flours like green banana flour by making more conventional recipes that kids are less likely to turn their noses up at. Try these Red Velvet Brownies for a healthy prebiotic treat.
Healthy Habits to Boost Your Immune System
Aside from adopting a more colorful diet, there are other healthy habits you can improve upon to give your immune system a boost. Practicing good sleep hygiene, being smoke-free, and getting active are all pieces of the puzzle.
Exercise helps protect us from many chronic illnesses and diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and more. But on top of this, exercise can boost your immune system by fighting inflammation and helping to regulate immune functioning. All of this can prevent your body from aging prematurely, which also assists in the fight against illnesses.13
The CDC recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise or the same amount combined each week.14 As well, try strength training at least two times per week, focusing on all of the major muscle groups.
Research has shown that strength training increases your body’s circulating immune cells.15 This boosts your immunological and inflammatory response systems. Try following an at-home workout plan that focuses on strength, cardio, and flexibility. Remember that stress can also damage your ability to fight off illness and disease, so building in restorative exercises like yoga, foam rolling, and stretching is a great idea.
Get a Solid 6-8 Hours of Sleep
Sleep is one of those things that seems so out of reach for many parents. But it’s one of the best ways to be a friend to your immune system. A lack of sleep leads to a higher chance of infection and inflammation. Most studies suggest that seven hours is the magic number of sleep you should get, but this will vary with every individual.16 Getting between six to eight hours of sleep is your best bet.
“The body is genetically designed to sleep at night when the sun goes down and rise with the sun . . . without sufficient restful sleep, it’s hard to feel refreshed and energized at the beginning of a new day,” says Dr. Ballehr. She stresses that during sleep, your body flushes out toxins and repairs damage. Those who do not get enough sleep may suffer from health problems due to chronic inflammation. Inflammation causes your immune system to become overtaxed and less able to defend you from viruses and bacteria.17
We all know that smoking is bad for us for many reasons. But it can also negatively impact our immune system’s ability to fight infections. Cigarettes damage our lungs and hamper our ability to resist infections. They also increase the chances that we get infections in the first place by destroying our supply of antibodies. For help to quit smoking, you can visit smokefree.gov. You can even join a text program at home that can provide you with encouraging text messages and assist you in keeping track of your journey to quit.
Facts Not Fear
It’s not surprising that the same advice you are used to hearing that keeps you fit and healthy, like getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating a nutrient-rich diet, are all the same actions you can take to boost your immune system. The thought of illness can be scary, but adopting a mindset of taking action in fun ways together as a family, even from home, can help you feel more in control and healthier.