Last updated: December 17, 2020
When your immune system is healthy and functioning optimally, you might not give it a second thought. However, if you’re suffering from an infection, an autoimmune condition, cancer, or allergies, supporting your immune system becomes a top priority. (27) Fortunately, there are many lifestyle interventions and dietary supplements you can consider to support immune system function and reduce your risk of disease. Continue reading to learn how to strengthen immune system health naturally.
What is the immune system?
The immune system is the body’s primary defense mechanism against potentially harmful invaders, such as pathogens, antigens, and immunogens. The immune system is made up of various cells, tissues, and substances, including the skin, red and white blood cells, microbiota, antibodies, and cytokines (cell signalling molecules). (27)
The innate immune response, your first line of defense, is classified as non-specific or generalized, as the defensive actions do not differ between offenders. The adaptive immune response is the body’s acquired or learned response to specific pathogens or other compounds that it has previously encountered. (27)
For example, the innate immune system consists of the skin and the body’s mucous membranes, which form physical or mechanical barrier preventing the entry of foreign pathogens. If a pathogen manages to pass the mechanical barriers, the body will trigger an inflammatory response and defense cells of the innate immune system, including macrophages and neutrophil granulocytes, surround and break down the pathogen. (13)
If the pathogen persists in the body for approximately four to seven days, the adaptive immune system will react. The adaptive immune system produces memory cells, which allows it to respond more quickly to a pathogen it has encountered before. The adaptive immune response includes T lymphocytes, which recognize an infection and eliminate it from the body, and B lymphocytes, which produce antibodies that are specialized for a single pathogen. (13)
Learn about the immune system, factors that may compromise it, and the dietary supplements that support its healthy function.
How does it get compromised?
Several lifestyle factors may be associated with a dysregulated immune system and an increased susceptibility to disease, including:
- Antibiotic intake
- Chronic stress
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Intense or excessive exercise
- Intestinal dysbiosis, an imbalance of gut microbiota (24)
- Lack of sleep
- Nutrient deficiencies (e.g., vitamins A, B, C, D, and E, copper, iron, selenium, zinc)
- Physical inactivity
- Smoking (2)(4)(7)(9)(18)(22)
Further, certain changes to immune function may be an inevitable part of aging. As individuals age, they are more likely to experience increased inflammation, a reduced ability to protect against viral and bacterial infections, a poor response to vaccinations, and an increased risk of autoimmunity. (10)
Certain health conditions are associated with dysregulation of the immune response, including:
- Allergic asthma
- Autoimmune conditions (e.g., type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease)
- Cardiovascular disease
- Certain cancers (e.g., lymphoid, pancreatic)
- Food allergy
- Immunodeficiency diseases (e.g., acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, severe combined immunodeficiency disease (SCID), common variable immunodeficiency)
- Transplantation rejection following tissue or organ transplant
- Type 2 diabetes (11)(15)(27)(29)
How to boost your immune system naturally
Just as certain lifestyle factors may negatively impact the immune system, lifestyle interventions may improve immune health and reduce your risk of disease.
While short-term stress may stimulate both innate and adaptive immune responses, chronic stress has been shown to suppress immune function. Long-term or chronic stress may decrease immune cell count and increase inflammatory responses. (9) While certain chronic stressors may be unavoidable with our modern lifestyles, you can incorporate ways to manage your stress, such as mindfulness or yoga.
The relationship between exercise and immune health appears to be dose-dependant. Research has shown that lifelong regular physical activity may have immunoprotective effects and may reduce the risk of certain cancers, such as breast cancer. (32) However, strenuous exercise, such as competitive athletic training, may result in an impaired immune system. (32) For example, athletes undergoing heavy training and competition may have an increased risk of upper respiratory infection symptoms. (28)
Sleep is essential to many important functions of the body, including healing and repair. Chronic sleep loss has been associated with immunodeficiency, increased inflammatory markers, an impaired response to influenza vaccination, and an increased risk of the common cold. (4) The following table summarizes the recommended hours of sleep per day by population.
Immune system supplements
Certain dietary supplements have been shown to support immune health. Outlined below are some of the herbs, mushrooms, minerals, and vitamins for immune system health.
Multivitamins and minerals
Micronutrients including vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and the minerals copper, iron, selenium, zinc are essential for immune function. Research has identified an inverse relationship between nutrition, infection, and immunity; a poor nutritional state impairs immune function and increases susceptibility to disease, while getting sick may also worsen nutritional status. (18)
Research also suggests that supplementation with a multivitamin and mineral (MVM) may reduce the risk of cancer and increase the probability of healthy aging. (6) Consider taking an MVM supplement for your gender and age group, as individual requirements for these nutrients vary over the lifespan. View the best health supplements by age group for women and men.
Botanical herbs are plants with therapeutic properties such as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Research has also demonstrated that a number of these herbs have beneficial effects on immune function. Several botanical herbs and their effects on immune function are summarized in the table below.
Medicinal mushrooms are fungi with various medicinal properties, including antimicrobial, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-hypertensive, and prebiotic effects. (14) The bioactive ingredients found in mushrooms may include terpenes, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), phenolic compounds, proteins, and polysaccharides. (17) β-glucan, a type of polysaccharide commonly occurring in mushrooms, has been shown to stimulate immune function. (14) Several of the immune-related conditions that mushrooms may benefit include:
- Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)
- Certain cancers (e.g., breast cancer, liver cancer, melanoma)
- Viral and bacterial infections (14)(17)
As much of the current research on mushrooms is limited to animal and in vitro trials, further controlled human studies are necessary to confirm the health benefits and potential clinical applications of these fungi.
Learn more about medicinal mushrooms on the Fullscript blog.
Colostrum supplements are produced from the first milk of a mammal after giving birth. Colostrum is high in immunomodulatory compounds and growth factors. (23) It contains compounds known as immunoglobulins which may prevent upper respiratory tract infections, gastrointestinal infections, and certain types of inflammation. (26) Research has shown that supplementation with bovine colostrum may help support immune and gastrointestinal health. (23)
Beneficial live microorganisms, otherwise known as probiotics, are another dietary supplement to consider for immune health. Probiotics may inhibit the growth of pathogens and modulate the innate and adaptive immune responses. Probiotics may also reduce the risk of respiratory infections, such as the flu and the common cold. (33) Research suggests that probiotics may be effective in certain immune conditions, including eczema, allergies, (31) human papillomavirus (HPV), and certain drug-resistant infections. (19)
The bottom line
Lifestyle modifications such as stress management, physical activity, sleep, and dietary supplements may be used to help support immune system function. Targeted dietary supplementation may be required for specific individuals, including athletes, aging individuals, and those with autoimmune disease or cancer. Consult with your integrative healthcare practitioner to determine which supplements are best for your wellness plan.
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- Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Born, J. (2012). Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archiv, 463(1), 121–137.
- Block, K. I., & Mead, M. N. (2003). Immune system effects of echinacea, ginseng, and astragalus: A review. Integrative Cancer Therapies, 2(3), 247–267.
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