The immune system is your body’s first line of defense against infection and disease. When it’s working well, you don’t even notice it as you go about your daily life. However, when weakened, it can’t effectively protect your body. This makes you more susceptible to catching colds, the flu, and other illnesses.
But sickness isn’t the only sign of lowered immunity. It can also cause:
- High stress levels
- Ongoing tiredness and fatigue
- Stomach and digestive problems
- Longer recovery times from illnesses and wounds
Thankfully, it’s easy to boost your immune system naturally with a little self-care. These five lifestyle changes can strengthen your immunity over time, reducing your risk of getting sick and offering benefits to both your physical and mental health.
1. Eat Fruits and Vegetables
Plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants, nutrients that prevent cell damage shown to weaken our immunity.
To give your immune system the best support, you’ll need:
- Vitamin B6 from foods like sweet potatoes and bananas
- Vitamin E from foods like almonds, avocados, and sunflower seeds
- Zinc from foods like legumes, and oatmeal
- Iron from foods like beans, lentils, and leafy greens
- Selenium from foods like nuts
Vitamin C is a particularly potent immune booster as well. It’s thought to increase the production and efficiency of white blood cells, the key to our body’s ability to fight off disease.
The fiber we get from fruits and vegetables also supports a healthy balance of bacteria in our gut. This effect not only improves digestion—reducing uncomfortable issues like constipation, bloating, and gas—but it is also crucial for healthy immune function.
2. Exercise Regularly
From improving your mood to managing your weight, exercise comes with a host of health benefits. It also stimulates the immune system naturally while protecting it from age-related decline.
Physical activity enhances immunity by:
- Flushing bacteria from your lungs and airway
- Enhancing white blood cell activity
- Lowering inflammation linked to reduced immune system function
- Building muscle mass, which is associated with strengthened immunity
These benefits depend on consistency, however. For adults, the immunity “sweet spot” is about 60 minutes of daily physical activity—but those new to exercise should start with 10-20 minutes and build from there.
3. Get Enough Sleep
Boosting your immune system can be as simple as letting your body strengthen while you sleep. Long-term lack of sleep is linked with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity — and it also affects your day-to-day immune function.
As you sleep, your body releases cytokines, proteins that fight infection and inflammation. Sleep also enhances the activity of T cells. These cells are immune system defenders that circulate through our bodies, targeting antigens like bacteria and viruses.
For this immune activity to happen, adults need at least seven hours of sleep a night — but at least one-third of us aren’t getting enough.
4. Go Outside
When our skin is exposed to sunlight, it creates vitamin D, a nutrient that helps build bones, reduce inflammation, and improve immune system function. Deficiencies lead to a weakened ability to fight off infection and disease—but more than half of Americans don’t get enough.
Like a good night’s sleep, sunlight also stimulates T cell activity. But research shows that T cells only function properly if there’s enough vitamin D in the body, making sunshine a two-for-one source of immune system strength.
5. Manage Your Stress
A good diet, exercise, sleep, and sunlight are all associated with lower stress levels. But other stress sources are often out of our control, like looming deadlines at work or conflicts among family and friends.
Long-term stress weakens your immune system response. This is because stress releases cortisol, a hormone that alters our body to prepare for a fight-or-flight situation. One of these effects is to temporarily lower our bodies’ number of lymphocytes, white blood cells that fight infection.
Cortisol’s impact was crucial for our ancestors facing threats like predators, but today’s demands trigger the same response. Unlike the passing mountain lion, however, many stressors we encounter day-to-day don’t go away—meaning the hormone’s effects linger. You’re unlikely to avoid stress altogether, but you can boost your immunity by learning to manage it.
Research shows we can reduce the cortisol in our bodies with:
- High-quality sleep, supplementing with naps as needed
- Mild exercise like walking and hiking
- Mindfulness activities like meditation and yoga
- Listening to music
- Reducing your sugar intake
- Drinking enough water
Simply having fun can lower cortisol as well, whether that means enjoying a hobby, spending time with friends and family, or traveling—even planning a trip can have a big effect.
Check out some of the stress-busting retreats we recommend at MyLifeWell. These getaways are a great way to reset your diet and sleep patterns, get into an exercise routine, and catch some sun all in one go, sending you back to your daily life with a stronger immune system.