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30 Ways to Strengthen Your Immune System

Get-Fit Guy has 30 tips to boost your immune system to avoid cold and flu viruses this season. Learn how to make your immune system stronger using stress, exercise, sleep, supplements, and even dirt!

By
Ben Greenfield
7-minute read
Episode #211

Sniffle. Snot. Cough, hack, cough.

You’re no doubt all-too-familiar with the scary holiday sounds of colds and flus. But just like you can make your muscles stronger, your lungs more fit, and your bones more dense, you can strengthen your immune system to fight off these phlegmy intruders and maintain your health year-round.

In this episode, you’re going to get 5 quick and dirty tips to do just that!

What Is The Immune System?

Before we delve into the steps you can take to improve your immune system, let’s review what exactly the immune system is.

At its most basic, your immune system is a system of biological structures and processes that protects you against disease..

More specifically, your immune system is comprised of 6 different components that serve to protect you from the environment, shuttle immune system cells around your body, and fight off foreign invaders. These components are:

  1. Your lymph nodes and lymph system, which recognize and fight invading pathogens.

  2. Your respiratory system, which moves mucus and contaminants upwards and outwards from your digestive tract.

  3. Your skin, a relatively thin but effective barrier against invading pathogens.

  4. Your white blood cells, which attack pathogens in your blood and other tissues of your body.

  5. Your spleen, a major organ that helps protect you from bacterial infections.

  6. Your stomach and intestines. Your stomach acid kills harmful bacteria and inside your gut reside good bacteria that help to fight pathogens and absorb nutrients. Antibodies secreted by your intestinal cells also help to fight off foreign invaders.

So a good strategy for getting a strong immune system will move lymph fluid through your body, keep your respiratory system prepared to fight foreign invaders, limit pathogens passing through the skin, keep white blood cells elevated, strengthen the spleen, and keep your gut in good shape,

Tip #1: Increase Stress (the Good Kind)

You may have heard that stress is bad. But in reality, not all stress is actually bad for you. Mild amounts of stress, also known as hormesis, actually help your body and immune system to bounce back stronger. So what are some ways that you can stress your body throughout the day? Here are a few ideas:

  • Exercise: As long as you don’t overdo it, lifting heavy stuff, moving, and sprinting are all great hormetic stressors.

  • Cold: You learned all about how to use cold throughout the day to burn fat in my episode How to Use Cold Weather to Lose Weight. Turns out, cold is a hormetic stressoer too!

  • Heat: I personally sit in the sauna one to two times per week for 20-40 minutes to stress my body and produce what are called “heat shock proteins.” You can learn more about that here.

  • Calorie restriction and fasting: Both moderate calorie restriction as well as fasting can give you good, mild stress, which is probably why these methods are also associated with anti-aging. (By the way, fasting doesn't mean going on a hunger strike for days. It simply means not eating for a 24-hour period once a month, or avoiding eating between 8pm and 9am).

  • Sunlight: While a nuclear disaster probably wouldn’t do your immune system any favors, mild radiation from the sun can. The sun produces healthy and balanced doses of UVA and UVB radiation, which in moderate amounts (30-60 minutes of sun exposure per day) can be great for your immune system. 

Tip #2: Get More Sleep

Sleep is when your cells, nervous system, and immune system repair and recover – so if you short yourself on deep, quality sleep, then you may find yourself not only tired and cranky, but also coming down with the sniffles. Here are your sleep hygiene best practices:

  • Darkness: Keep your room completely dark and avoid glaring screens such as phones, ereaders, televisions, and computers. I personally use a sleep mask and keep the lights in my room very dim prior to bed.

  • Silence: If you live in a loud area, then earplugs are a must. A white noise sound machine or app on your phone can also cover up disturbing noise.

  • Cold: Most people sleep best at about 65-700, so make sure your room isn’t too warm.

  • Activity: Don’t perform intense exercise too close to bedtime, but do go out of your way to stay active throughout the day so you’re more tired when you finally hit the pillow.

  • Food: Huge doses of carbohydrates in the evening can spike blood sugar and insulin and lower your levels of nighttime leptin, which is a hormone crucial to melatonin release. So go easy on the chocolate in the pm and consider lower sugar snacks instead, like an avocado with olive oil and sea salt, or some raw nut butter mixed with coconut oil.

  • Destress: At least an hour before bed, try to stop any work-related activity such as emails, phone calls or stressful tasks, and instead read a relaxing book or listen to some soothing music.

  • Nutrients: If you have difficulty sleeping, consider natural relaxants such as melatonin, magnesium, or passionflower extract.

  • Morning light: A good dose of morning sunlight exposure can help to jumpstart a healthy circadian rhythm and actually help you sleep better when night arrives.

Tip #3: Move it!

You already know that your lymph system is a component of your immune system and one of your immune strengthening strategies should be to keep lymph flow circulating through your body. Here are some ways you can do it without necessarily hitting the gym every time you need to move:

  • Vibration: I’ve written about vibration’s effect on strength in a previous Get-Fit Guy article. But standing on a vibration platform for 5-15 minutes a day will also get your lymph fluid circulating (there are small models you can use in your own home).

  • Trampolining: Just like vibration, jumping up and down on a trampoline or mini-trampoline can be a fantastic lymph fluid circulating activity and more fun than simply cranking out jumping jacks.

  • Yoga: Yoga is not only fantastic for de-stressing and lowering blood pressure, it can also keep lymph fluid circulating. I personally start off each day with 10-15 minutes of yoga and light stretching

  • Inversion: Yoga inversion poses, or hanging upside down on an inversion table, can drain your legs and get both blood and lymph fluid circulating.

  • Tai Chi: Like yoga, Tai Chi is a series of slow moves that can boost your immune system strength.

  • Nature walks: The Japanese actually have a name for nature walks – they call it “Shin-Yen” or “forest bathing.” Getting out in the fresh air while seeing green plants and trees is a fantastic immune system boost that also strengthens the lymph system.

  • Swimming: As long as the water isn’t too cold and overly stressful (yes, you can have too much stress!), swimming is a fantastic lymph circulating activity.

  • Hot-cold contrast: Here’s one creative way to get lymph fluid moving: simply use the cold and hot setting on your shower to alternate between cool water and hot water. This will cause your lymph vessels and blood vessels to slowly dilate and constrict, which circulates fluid.

Tip #4: Boost Your Nutrients

If you’re doing lots of travel, are exposed to lots of people (especially sneezing kids), or are under a load of stress, you may need nutrient support that goes above and beyond chicken soup and fresh fruits and vegetables. While nothing should replace real, nutritious food and avoidance of junk, here are a few nutrients you can throw in for added immune system support:

  • Adaptogens: Adaptogenic herbs such as ashwaganda and ginseng, and nutrient-rich mushrooms such as shitake and portabello are fantastic for your immune system and for managing stress.

  • Essential oils: Essential oils, whether taken orally or diffused into the air, have powerful antiviral and antibacterial properties. Some of my favorites are oil of oregano and a traditional blend called “Thieves,” which is a mix of clove, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus, and rosemary. Here’s a podcast interview I recently did with an essential oils expert

  • Herbs and plants: Two items from the produce aisle that I always have around during cold and flu season are garlic, which has great antiviral properties, and also red onions, which are packed with immune-boosting quercetin and sulfur-based antioxidants.

  • Fish oil and cod liver oil: Fish oil or cod liver oil are chock full of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, which are wonderful for your immune system.

  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C may help to reduce the duration of a cold or flu. While research isn’t conclusive, I personally take about 2 grams of Vitamin C 3 times a day if I start to come down with anything.

Finally, when it comes to nutrients, be careful with foods that can spike your blood sugar such as sweet, processed starches, which can weaken your immune system by creating a net acidic and inflammatory state in your body. Stick to moderate amounts of healthy proteins, good amounts of healthy fats, and limited doses of carbohydrates.

For even more tips, here’s one of my favorite articles on nutrients that can help to make your immune system stronger.

Tip #5: Get Dirty

Finally, as ironic as it may seem, exposure to dirt, germs, parasites, bacteria, and viruses can actually strengthen your immune system. I’m not proposing you rush out to find a sick person and ask them to sneeze on you, but you also shouldn’t shy away from getting dirty every once in a while either. Since they don't make sandboxes for adults, here are 5 ways to get dirty:

  • Probiotics and fermented foods: Eat plenty of fermented foods that are rich in gut-nourishing bacteria, including kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt, kefir, miso, and natto. If you find it hard to locate or consume these foods, at least use a good probiotic supplement.

  • Prebiotics: Prebiotics are fibers that serve as food for probiotics. A diet rich in vegetables is going to provide you with plenty of prebiotics. I recommend you start with dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, fresh carrots, parsnips and beets, and even plant-based algae like spirulina and chlorella.

  • Nature: Get out into nature for some of your workouts. Get your hands dirty. Don't be afraid to go for a run in the rain or do push-ups in the park every once in a while. Dirt is full of soil-based organisms that help to strengthen your immune system and skin.

  • Animals: Research has shown that kids who grow up in large families and have pets tend to have stronger immune systems (incidentally, so do kids who take fewer antibiotics!). Hanging out with dogs, cats, or other pets exposes you to dirt, germs, and bacteria your immune system might otherwise never learn to deal with until it’s too late.

  • Soap and antibacterials: Both soap and the slightly more deleterious antibacterial sprays, lotions, and handwipes that have become so prevalent in the U.S. can wipe beneficial bacteria off your skin, or worse, create the potential for medicine-resistant super-bugs. So don’t be afraid to simply take a shower with water only every now and again. And if you have a choice between regular soap and antibacterial soap, choose the plain soap.

I plan on using as many of these natural immune-boosting technique as possible this holiday season to stay cold and flue free.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.

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