Sniffles be gone: 4 tips for boosting your immune system

It's not as simple as more vitamin C

Collage of runny nose with tissue
Keeping sickness at bay should be a top priority in the winter
(Image credit: We Are / Getty Images)

Winter typically brings colder temperatures and a season of surges in respiratory viruses. Having a well-tuned immune system is your first line of defense, besides preventative measures like keeping up with vaccines and being as hygienic as possible. Here are tips for boosting your immune system this season. 

Learn how your immune system works

Understanding how your immune system works to defend your body is invaluable in learning how to support that same system. Its purpose is to recognize and fight harmful pathogens from the outside, including "disease-causing changes in the body, such as cancer cells," per the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Two "closely linked" subsystems, the innate and adaptive immune systems, work together to protect the body. The former, also called the nonspecific immune system, defends against harmful pathogens by using immune cells. The adaptive or specific immune system creates antibodies to fight germs your body has previously come in contact with. 

While boosting the immune system may be "enticing," Harvard Medical School's Harvard Health Publishing noted that figuring out how to do so has "proved elusive for several reasons." At the root of that is that the immune system "is precisely that — a system, not a single entity." To function correctly, "it requires balance and harmony." 

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Strive to live a healthy lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle is the best defense against illness and the best way to maintain a healthy immune system. "Taking care of yourself will help your immune system take care of you," per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity suggests building healthy habits like eating well and exercising regularly to maintain a healthy weight, getting the recommended amount of sleep, not smoking and not excessively drinking alcohol. 

Regarding your diet, it's best to incorporate various nutrient-rich foods. Whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes are rich in nutrients and antioxidants that could "give you an upper edge against harmful pathogens," Nicole Roberts wrote for Forbes. Antioxidants can help naturally lower inflammation "by combating unstable compounds known as free radicals, which can cause inflammation when they build up in your body at high levels," Roberts explained. Foods high in antioxidants such as vitamins C, D and E and minerals like zinc and selenium can benefit your immune system and overall health. 

Try to manage your stress levels

Managing your stress is no small task, but doing so can make a big difference in your health, John Sellick, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo SUNY, told Self. If you're overworking, undersleeping and constantly stressed, "you're not looking at the things that you need to do to maintain your health," Sellick said. 

In the short term, stress can be helpful, as it "produces an inflammatory response" in the body that activates increased levels of cytokines, proteins that help fight infection, Dr. Aima Ahonkhai, assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious disease at the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health, told Self. But when it is chronic, all that stress can weaken your immune system from being constantly activated.

Be wary of products that claim to boost immunity

There are plenty of treatments, supplements and other products that claim to be immune boosters, even though they aren't FDA-approved, Robert Shmerling, senior faculty editor of Harvard Health Publishing, wrote. They usually come with a disclaimer: "This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease." 

Even with that disclaimer, sellers are still "allowed to use phrases like 'boosts immune function' and 'supports immune health,'" Shmerling pointed out. He added that the terms seemed "always seemed vague" to him. "More importantly, they're confusing." The first describes what vaccines do by helping your body prepare to fight "a specific infectious organism (like the flu shot before each flu season)," he explained. Immune support is typically used to label vitamins known to help maintain a healthy immune system like vitamin C. While it is "true that a deficiency of vital nutrients can cause poor immune function," it doesn't mean "a person with normal levels of nutrients can expect supplements to improve their immune system." 

It's important to know that products and activities that make these claims "have not been shown to enhance immunity or increase your protection against infection," said pediatric immunologist Joshua Milner, professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.  

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