Keep Your Immune System Strong, Naturally

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by Ross Bailey


Updated on: March 16, 2020

Every day, our health and wellbeing is threatened by the exposure to bacteria, germs, and other pathogens. Thankfully, our bodies’ immune systems protect us against the harmful effects of these various pathogens.

While modern science and technology have developed methods to reduce our exposure to pathogens and help us to recover from sickness, there are also a number of natural ways to keep your immune system strong, preventing sickness in the first place. Exercise, sleep, and diet can significantly impact the function of our immune system. If necessary, there are also immune system supplements that can be used when your body needs a little extra help.

How does the immune system function?

As a basic overview, our immune system operates by identifying pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria, that can cause sickness or disease (11) then launching an immune response to “kill” or “destroy” these threats. Sounds pretty aggressive, right? Think of the immune system as the “silent killer” of our bodies; if it is functioning properly, it will go completely unnoticed and you will feel completely normal. However, a weakened immune system reduces an individual’s ability to ward off infections and may increase susceptibility to disease.

The immune system functions by being able to recognize the difference between the body’s own cells and the cells of other organisms or substances. It can be divided into the innate immune system, which defends against generic or non-specific pathogens, and the adaptive immune system, that fights specific pathogens and learns from exposure to these infectious microbes in order to be able to continue to remove them in the future. (5)

Natural approaches to support immune system function

There are positive correlations between a healthy lifestyle, including exercise, sleep, proper diet, and a healthy immune system. Avoiding the use of tobacco and chronic consumption of alcohol is also a means of preventing the deteriorative effects of these substances on your immune system as well.

Exercise and the immune system

We know that exercise and physical activity are vastly important for both our body and our brain, but they also act to modulate our immune response through a variety of cellular and immunoregulatory pathways. (12)

an elderly man and woman doing push ups at the gym

Physical activity and exercise have been shown as great ways of decreasing risk for chronic inflammatory diseases.

Physical activity and exercise have been shown as great ways of decreasing risk for chronic inflammatory diseases. (4) It’s believed that the anti-inflammatory imparting effects of exercise may be what mediates this risk of chronic disease.

Exercise has also been shown to reduce immunosenescence, the age-related decline in our immune function. (1) It’s important to note that while both resistance and aerobic forms of exercise were shown to increase indicators of a strong immune system and decrease inflammatory indicators, aerobic exercise was most beneficial after a 6-month program. As such, long-term exercise regimens are certainly a beneficial way to reduce your immune system’s overall decline in functionality as you age.

Sleep and the immune system

Sleep is popularly known as the time in which our bodies have the chance to rest and recover – the time of healing! After a long day, climbing into bed and falling asleep is important to maintain health and a variety of bodily functions. During sleep, our immune and nervous systems communicate, whereby various immune cells in our body become highly active and can even be the basis for forming immunological memories that help to combat future infection.

Just as the act of sleeping is important to maintain immune health, it’s also crucial that chronic loss of sleep is avoided. It’s been shown that long-term sleep deprivation leads to both low level chronic systemic inflammation and immunodeficiencies (2) that can increase the likelihood of infections such as the common cold. (3) You need to make sure you carve out the necessary time each day to ensure you are getting enough sleep at night and over the long run!

man sleeping on his bed with glasses and an alarm clock on his bed side table

Just as the act of sleeping is important to maintain immune health, it is also crucial that chronic sleep reduction is avoided.

Diet and the immune system

Ensuring that you have a healthy and balanced diet is very important for maintaining a strong immune system. You can eat a variety of foods to boost immune system function, however, nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables are thought to be most important. Foods with adequate levels of a variety of vitamins and other trace minerals can play a role in boosting immunity. Some of the vitamins and trace minerals that have evidence for supporting healthy immune systems include:

Carrots, sweet potato, spinach, and beef liver are great examples of foods containing vitamin A, (8) while citrus fruits, bell peppers, and kiwi are a great source of vitamin C. (9) Vitamin D is made by the skin with sunlight exposure, and found in dietary sources such as dairy, salmon, tuna, and eggs. (7) Vitamin E is commonly found in sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, and peanuts. (10) Zinc, iron, and selenium are found in high concentrations in cereals, meat, and fish products. (13)

Studies also show that ingesting adequate calories, protein, complex carbohydrates (avoiding simple sugars), and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as limiting intake of sodium and saturated fats can help to naturally maintain a healthy immune system.

woman sitting on the floor on carpet eating a bowl of salad

Foods with adequate levels of a variety of vitamins and other trace minerals can play a role in boosting immunity.

Tobacco, alcohol, and the immune system

Along with knowing about the many natural ways to boost your immune system, it is also important to understand how you can avoid particular substances, such as tobacco and alcohol, that decrease your body’s immune response.

Smoking cigarettes and using products containing tobacco leads to a wide variety of diseases and sickness. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that, according to the most recent surveys, the prevalence of tobacco use in the United States was 19.9% and that 11.5% of the population smoked tobacco daily. (17) In Canada, the prevalence of tobacco use was 15.1% and 10.8% of people smoked tobacco daily. (16)

For both the innate and adaptive immune systems, smoking can reduce the normal immune response or even exacerbate the immune response in a self-degenerative manner—where the protective cells may attack the incorrect cells in the body! (14) Avoiding smoking has been identified as a means of improving many other aspects of your health and wellness, and it also clearly can be beneficial for combating a weak immune system.

While chronic alcohol consumption has been associated with a variety of health concerns and an increased mortality risk, research is also beginning to understand its relationship with the immune system. Chronic alcohol consumption can impede immune response pathways that defend against infection, aid in the healing of tissue injury, and further harm organs and tissues already damaged by alcohol. (15)

cut up raw ginger next to a cup of tea

Ginger is one of the top 10 supplement for immune system strength.

The bottom line

Since we have come to understand the absence of symptoms relating to sickness and infection as our benchmarks for a healthy body and mind, we now know that maintaining a healthy immune system is a crucial part of staying in a healthful condition.

Boosting your immune system is a preventative measure and can reduce the overall need to mend your health and wellness after the onset of sickness. Just as you can use a firewall to protect your computer from harmful viruses, you can support a natural and active lifestyle to protect yourself from the biological viruses and other pathogens that you are exposed to on a daily basis. An immune body is a happy body!

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  1. Abd El-Kader, S. M., & Al-Shreef, F. M. (2018). Inflammatory cytokines and immune system modulation by aerobic versus resisted exercise training for elderly. African Health Sciences, 18(1), 120–131.
  2. Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Born, J. (2012). Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archiv: European Journal of Physiology, 463(1), 121–137.
  3. Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Alper, C. M., Janicki-Deverts, D., & Turner, R. B. (2009). Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169(1), 62–67.
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  5. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). (2010). How does the immune system work? In InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279364/
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  7. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2019, August 7). Vitamin D. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
  8. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2020, February 14). Vitamin A. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/
  9. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2020, February 27). Vitamin C. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/
  10. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2020, February 28). Vitamin E. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/
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  13. Pennington, J. A. T., & Young, B. (1990). Iron, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, and iodine in foods from the United States total diet study. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, 3(2), 166–184.
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  15. Sarkar, D., Jung, M. K., & Wang, H. J. (2015). Alcohol and the immune system. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 37(2), 153–155.
  16. World Health Organization. (2019). WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic, 2019 – Country profile: Canada. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/tobacco/surveillance/policy/country_profile/can.pdf?ua=1
  17. World Health Organization. (2019). WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic, 2019 – Country profile: United States of America. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/tobacco/surveillance/policy/country_profile/usa.pdf?ua=1