In the hurried pace of modern life, you might take your immune system for granted. Working quietly in the background, your immune system protects you from bacteria, viruses and other microbes and, when treated right, wards off disease. It’s a complex network of organs and cells—one affected for better or worse by what you eat, drink, think and do.
Part of my job as a specialist in physical and rehabilitative medicine at the UC Irvine Health Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine is to help women improve their immune function, overcome chronic infections and treat autoimmune disorders.
How to strengthen your immune system
Here are seven great ways to super-charge your immunity:
Improve your gut health
Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract makes up a large part of your immune system — up to 70 percent of your immune cells live along its path. The lining of your intestines, for example, secretes antibodies and contains cells that recognize and destroy harmful bacteria.
Your gut also has both good and bad bacteria that can work for you — by synthesizing vitamins — or against you, by triggering an autoimmune response or even disease. Your guide to fighting heartburn ›
For optimal gut health:
- Take a daily probiotic
- Avoid processed foods.
- Talk with your doctor about potential food sensitivities, and consider removing things like gluten, dairy and soy from your diet if you have difficulty tolerating them
- Ask about stool tests that assess gut bacteria levels and discuss ways to treat imbalances
If you can't get enough time in the sun, consider a vitamin D supplement to ward off infections.
Check your vitamin levels
- Vitamin D is probably the most important vitamin related to your immune health. People who get chronic infections have low levels of this vitamin. I recommend supplementing with 2,000 IU to 5,000 IU daily. Ask your doctor to check your levels to determine the amount you need.
- Vitamin C has been shown to be useful in people under increased physical stress, to decrease the risk of developing the common cold by half. In the regular population, regular intake of vitamin C may help to decrease the duration of the common cold. Supplement with 1,000 mg to 5,000 mg daily, depending on your personal needs.
Nourish your immune system by eating leafy greens and whole foods rich in antioxidants.
Eat these power foods
- Aim for a balanced diet of whole, unprocessed foods that contain plenty of antioxidants.
- Be sure to include four to five servings of greens, such as lettuces, mustard and collard greens.
- Get plenty of mushrooms. Not only are mushrooms a great source of immune-boosting vitamin D (see above), but studies also show that varieties such as maitake and reishi can boost white blood cell activity.
- Add plenty of garlic. When crushed, garlic releases allicin, a compound that fights infection-causing microbes.
Check out our healthy recipes for more ideas ›
Balance your hormones
Too much estrogen can make you vulnerable to autoimmune problems.
Progesterone helps to balance estrogen and its effects throughout your body — especially on the breasts, uterus and brain.
Have your hormone levels checked and work with your doctor to achieve an optimal balance.
Regular cardio has benefits beyond giving you a stronger heart.
Do some type of cardio exercise five days a week, 30 to 40 minutes per day. This helps to circulate your blood and improve the flow of lymphatic fluid.
Lymphatic fluid travels through your cells and tissues and removes bacteria, toxins, waste products and even cancer cells. How to start an exercise routine ›
Reduce stress with mindfulness
Women tend to worry a lot more than men do. Plus, we usually end up taking care of other people more than we take care of ourselves.
This creates chronic stress levels, which decrease the supply of killer immune cells that help our bodies fight infection. Manage stress through mindfulness training, which can help you gain new perspective on the stressors in your life so they are not so debilitating. Understanding the stress connection ›
Get a good night's rest. Taking valerian root or melatonin before bed can improve your sleep quality.
Get adequate sleep
Try to sleep at least seven to eight hours each night. Insufficient sleep increases inflammation and lowers your ability to fight infection. If you’re having trouble falling — or staying — asleep, talk with your doctor about possible hormonal imbalances. You can also try taking melatonin or valerian root prior to bedtime to improve your sleep quality. How to get a better night's rest ›