7 Science-Backed Ways to Boost Your Immune System

There are times when shoring up a strong immune defense becomes a top priority. We've rounded up 7 science-backed ways to best support your immune system.
woman on couch sick sneezing

Looking to shore up your immune defenses?

There are times when building a strong immune defense becomes a top priority. Like the start of cold and flu season each winter, before traveling on your summer vacation, or back-to-school time each fall.

We’ve rounded up some of the best, scientifically-backed ways you can boost your immune system so you can stay healthy and well, no matter the season.

Get More Sleep

Have you ever felt like you’re more likely to get sick after a bad night’s sleep?

You’re not imagining it.

It turns out, sleep plays an important role in the immune response. Evidence indicates that lack of sleep impairs the adaptive immune system, the specialized system of cells and processes that seeks out and eliminates pathogens.

Researchers have found correlations between reductions in sleep with an increased risk of pneumonia and susceptibility to the common cold.

In one study, researchers examined the sleep habits of pairs of identical twins and discovered that the twin with shorter sleep durations resulted in depressed immune function compared to their sibling who got more sleep.

“What we show is that the immune system functions best when it gets enough sleep. Seven or more hours of sleep is recommended for optimal health,” said lead study author Dr. Nathaniel Watson, co-director of the UW Medicine Sleep Center at Harborview Medical Center.

Exercise Consistently

Exercises not only can build strong bones and muscles, but it also helps strengthen your immune system, too.

A 2019 meta-review revealed that exercise brings a multitude of immune-boosting benefits, including improving your immune function.

Regularly exercising not only strengthens your immune system now, but its immuno-protective benefits can also help you stay healthy as you age.

Researchers have found regular exercise appears to stave off immunosenescence, which is immune dysregulation associated with aging.

Immunosenescence is related to an increased susceptibility to infections, autoimmune diseases, and neurological disorders. Studies have found that highly conditioned elderly women who regularly exercised had higher immune function and reduced illness rates compared to sedentary older women.

So keep on moving, because it can help keep you healthy today and tomorrow.

Reduce Your Stress

Stress is an immune system destroyer.

A large meta-analysis of studies tracked 68,000 people over 8 years and found that moderate stress increases the risk of death by 40% and high levels of stress increase the risk of death by 90%.

Researchers have found that psychological stress disrupts the functional interaction between your nervous and immune systems, resulting in reduced immune response, slow wound healing, reactivating latent viruses, and enhancing the risk for more severe infectious diseases.

If you feel your stress levels begin to rise, find a practical way to destress quickly. One of the easiest ways is to take a moment to breathe slowly and deeply. When you breathe deeply, you send a message to your brain to calm down and relax.

Your brain, in turn, passes the message on to your body.

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

When you’re trying to shore up your immune defenses, fill a plate of immune-boosting foods, like a colorful array of fruits and vegetables.

Plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables contain nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can boost immune function.

Dr. Mark Hyman, functional medicine practitioner and founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, recommends eating plenty of foods that contain flavonoids with anti-viral properties to protect yourself from viral infections, including:

  • Spinach
  • Cabbage
  • Dill
  • Onion
  • Apples
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Broccoli
  • Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, lemon, tangerines)
  • Olives and olive oil
  • Green tea
  • Unrefined virgin coconut oil

Get More Vitamin D

Vitamin D plays an important role in both innate and adaptive immune responses, and deficiency in Vitamin D has been linked to increased susceptibility to infection.

Your body naturally produces its own Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight.

If you’re stuck inside the house or office all day and you’re not getting some sunshine, your body may not be getting the Vitamin D it needs for a strong immune defense.

In that case, you can also find Vitamin D from a high-quality supplement or from foods such as:

  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Herring
  • Cod liver oil
  • Canned tuna
  • Egg yolks
  • Mushrooms

Drink Less Alcohol

If you’re worried about staying healthy, taking a break from alcohol consumption could help your immune system.

Researchers have found that alcohol disrupts immune function, impairing the body’s ability to defend against infection and impeding recovery from tissue injuries.

Alcohol consumption does not have to be chronic to have negative health consequences; research shows that acute binge drinking also negatively affects the immune system.

For years, we’ve been told that a glass of wine or small amounts of alcohol consumption per day are fine. We’ve even been told that a glass of wine per day could have health benefits from antioxidants. Unfortunately, more and more studies are coming out to disprove the idea that minimum consumption of alcohol is beneficial or even not harmful.

A 2023 meta-analysis looked at over 100 studies featuring 4.8 million participants and found no protective benefits from low-volume alcohol consumption. There was a significantly increased risk of all-cause mortality (death from all causes) among female drinkers who drank 25 or more grams per day and among male drinkers who drank 45 or more grams per day.

For those of use used to American metrics, 25 grams of alcohol is the equivalent to 1/10 of a cup or less than 2 tablespoons of liquid.

The research is in and there is no evidence that alcohol supports a healthy lifestyle or healthy immune system.


Stay Optimistic

How’s this for some happy news? Researchers have found that optimism is associated with a strong immune response.

A 2010 study that tracked changes in optimism and immune response among law students found a direct correlation between optimism and cell-mediated immunity, the flood of immune cells that respond to an invasion by foreign viruses or bacteria.

As students became more optimistic, they showed stronger cell-mediated immunity. When optimism dropped, cell-mediated immunity did so in turn.

Researchers concluded that positive thoughts can affect immune systems, even in healthy people.

So, look on the bright side!

A positive attitude can physically help your body stay healthy and well.

The next time you’re worried about a virus, bacteria, or other threat to your immune system, protect your body with plenty of sleep, exercise, healthy foods, vitamin D, and a good dose of optimism. Your immune system will thank you for it.

Melissa Zimmerman
Melissa Zimmerman is a founding editor at GloWell, a content marketing strategist and wellness writer, and a natural-momma obsessed with nontoxic and natural alternatives to conventional products. When she's not researching, writing, and editing wellness content, she can be found in Northern CA reading a book on the sidelines of her son's soccer games. If you need wellness writing services for your brand, connect with Melissa at www.proseandpurpose.com