There are plenty of supplements and products claiming to help boost immunity. But supporting a healthy immune system is more complicated than taking a mix of vitamins and minerals packaged into a pill or powder.
Your immune system operates in a very delicate balance. It must be strong and sophisticated enough to fight off a variety of illnesses and infections, but not so strong that it overreacts unnecessarily.
To achieve this, it's very tightly controlled by many inputs and in response to what's happening inside of your body.
Like we said, complex.
From fighting off a cold to the flu to COVID-19, there are things you can do to help give your immune system what it needs to function optimally, though. None of which involve taking a supplement.
Here are six science-backed ways to build and maintain a strong, healthy immune system:
1. Stay up-to-date on recommended vaccines
A strong immune system means taking advantage of the best leg up we have to protect ourselves from harmful illnesses: vaccines.
Your immune system is smart, but vaccines train it to be even smarter — helping it learn how to recognize and fight off certain disease-causing illnesses. It's much safer for your immune system to learn via vaccination than through infection with these harmful germs.
“It's always important to be up-to-date on recommended vaccinations, especially your COVID-19 vaccine or booster as well as your annual flu shot,” says Dr. Chen Lin, an Allergy & Immunology doctor at Houston Methodist.
2. Maintain a healthy diet
As with most things in your body, a healthy diet is key to a strong immune system. This means making sure you eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats.
“When your body has sufficient amounts of the micronutrients found in these foods, it helps to maintain your immune system homeostasis,” adds Dr. Lin.
These micronutrients include:
- Vitamin B6, found in chicken, salmon, tuna, bananas, green vegetables and potatoes (with the skin)
- Vitamin C, found in citrus fruit, including oranges and strawberries, as well as tomatoes, broccoli and spinach
- Vitamin E, found in almonds, sunflower and safflower oil, sunflower seeds, peanut butter and spinach
- Zinc, found in oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, dairy products
- Magnesium, found in whole wheat products, nuts, seeds
Since experts believe that your body absorbs vitamins more efficiently from dietary sources, rather than supplements, the best way to support your immune system is to eat a well-balanced diet. (Related: Are You Getting Enough Vitamins in Your Diet?)
3. Exercise regularly
Physical activity isn't just for building muscles and helping yourself de-stress — it's also an important part of being healthy and supporting a healthy immune system.
“Moderate-intensity exercise mobilizes immune cells outside of the bone into the bloodstream. It also helps moves immune cells already in the bloodstream into tissues,” explains Dr. Lin. “In this way, it enhances immune surveillance.”
You can think of immune surveillance as a monitoring process of your immune system, with exercise helping immune cells be more efficient at detecting and reacting to infection.
This means it's important to focus on staying active and getting regular exercise. (Related: Am I Exercising Enough?)
4. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Water plays many important roles in your body, including supporting your immune system.
“Water is important because our blood and lymph, which have immune cells in them, need water in order to flow to circulate throughout our bodies,” says Dr. Lin.
Even if you're not exercising or sweating, you're constantly losing water through your breath, as well as through your urine and bowel movements. To help support your immune system, be sure you're replacing the water you lose with water you can use — which starts with knowing what your daily water intake should be.
5. Get plenty of sleep
Sleep certainly doesn't feel like an active process, but there are plenty of important things happening in your body when you're not awake.
“Sleep is important for immune function and the immune system’s homeostasis,” says Dr. Lin.
To give your immune system the best chance to fight off infection and illness, it's important to know how much sleep you should be getting every night, as well as the steps to take if your sleep is suffering.
(Related: QUIZ: Does Your Sleep Schedule Need Work?)
6. Minimize stress
Whether it comes on quick or builds over time, it's important to understand how chronic stress affects your health.
Stress can potentially have a secondary impact on how well your immune system functions if it leads to sleep disturbances, a tendency to eat less healthy food, reduced water intake, less frequent exercise and more.
Stress is different for everyone, and how we relieve it is, too. Given the effect it can have on your health, it's important to know how to identify stress. And, whether it's deep breathing, mediation, prayer or exercise, you should also get familiar with the activities that help you reduce stress.
One last word on supplements
If you're otherwise healthy and taking the steps above, be wary of supplements claiming to boost your immune system even more. (Related: Does Getting More Vitamin C Really Keep You From Getting Sick?)
“Eating healthy foods that contain micronutrients is always better than taking a supplement,” says Dr. Lin.
He adds, though, that supplements are better than nothing for a person with a known nutrient deficiency, when natural food is not enough.
If you’re worried you may have a nutrient deficiency, it’s best to consult with your doctor before taking a supplement. Unlike medications, supplements aren't regulated or approved by the FDA.