My fire cider and elderberry tea recipes have been very popular this week, and I’m guessing it’s because we’re all looking for ways to support a strong immune system.
While I’m definitely paying more attention to immune supporting supplements (and may write more on that later), research shows that our diet, lifestyle and stress levels all play a primary role in immune function.
With that in mind, here are some practical tips for supporting a healthy immune system. My hope is that as you read them you’ll be encouraged by how many of them you’re already doing, and of course there might be some ideas you can add in if you’d like.
As always, I want to mention that none of these statements have been evaluated by the FDA, this article is not medical advice, and it is not meant to diagnose or treat any condition. As always, please talk with your healthcare provider about any supplements or big lifestyle changes you are considering. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dive in.
1. Get Deep, Restorative Sleep
According to the Mayo Clinic:
Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as a common cold virus. Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.
During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, some of which help promote sleep. Certain cytokines need to increase when you have an infection or inflammation, or when you’re under stress. Sleep deprivation may decrease production of these protective cytokines. In addition, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during periods when you don’t get enough sleep.”
Of course, waking up rested is sometimes easier said than done. Here are 22 science-backed sleep tips for deeper, more restful sleep.
2. Optimize Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a hormone that acts as an immune system modulator – in other words, it helps our bodies balance between an underactive immune system (increased susceptibility to infection) and an overactive one (autoimmunity). (1)
It’s no surprise, then, that low vitamin D levels are associated with more frequent infections (especially cold/flu infections) and autoimmunity. (2)
According to Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a Senior Research Scientist at MIT, vitamin D supplements may not fully replace the benefits of sunshine. It’s best to get outside if possible, but for people living above 42 degrees latitude (Boston) it’s not possible to get vitamin D via sunlight from November to February. (3)
Since I live further south I’m making a point to get outside for at least 10-15 minutes a day, but I’m also supplementing my family with cod liver oil. In addition to vitamin D it also contains essential fatty acids that fuel the 100 billion neurons that make up our brains.
More is not necessarily better, though. Here’s an overview of the benefits and potential downsides of cod liver oil, plus how to choose the best one.
3. Eat Probiotic Rich Foods (Or Consider Supplements)
When someone says “immune system,” it’s easy to picture little white blood cells traveling throughout the body doing their thing. Really, though, percentage-wise about 70% of the cells that make up our immune systems live in one spot – our gut (4)
“The human gut plays a huge role in immune function,” Dr. Natalia Shulzhenko explains via Science Daily. “This is little appreciated by people who think its only role is digestion. The combined number of genes in the microbiota genome is 150 times larger than the person in which they reside. They do help us digest food, but they do a lot more than that.” (5)
Researchers believe that the bacteria that live in the gut talk to the immune cells and vice versa, and that this “crosstalk” shapes immune and metabolic function. That’s probably why in this study done with rugby players, researchers found that probiotic supplementation reduced both the number and duration of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections.
In another study, researchers found that a particular strain of oral bacteria has a positive impact on ear, nose, throat and respiratory health. Only a few of us have it naturally, but it is available in lozenge supplement form.
Foods and supplements rich in probiotics: Sauerkraut, kimchi, beet kvass, water kefir and yogurt. I also use a few different probiotics as needed – this is the one we’re using right now.
4. Stay Hydrated
According to the Cleveland Clinic:
Staying hydrated can boost your immune health too . .. Water helps your body produce lymph, which carries white blood cells and other immune system cells. Try to avoid overdoing beverages that can made you dehydrated, like coffee. Or try eating more hydrating foods, such as cucumbers, celery or watermelon.” (6)
I often make a big batch of tea with elderberry, peppermint, nettle or another herb while cooking breakfast and then pour it into a pitcher that sits on our kitchen table. When my kids walk by they usually grab a glass because they like the flavor.
5. Focus On Nourishing Foods
I’m truly grateful for medicines – both natural and otherwise – that help restore us in times of illness. However, as Karen Pendergrass put it:
“Medicine is not healthcare, food is healthcare. Medicine is sick care. Let’s all get that straight for a change.”
In other words, food is one of the most powerful ways to support immune resilience and overall health. That’s why I’m making sure we get all our A, B, C’s and other nutrients, too. Here’s an overview of what I’m focusing on.
Sufficient vitamin A levels are associated with improved outcomes following infection. (7) However, the “vitamin A” found in sweet potato, carrots and other fruits and veggies is actually beta-carotene. As I wrote about in this article, beta-carotene needs to be converted into the bioavailable form of Vitamin A (retinol) that is found in animal products.
Most of us do not possess enough of the enzyme needed to efficiently make this conversion – in fact, this study found that only about 3% is converted, and about 45% of adults can’t make the conversion at all. (8) (9)
Of course, dark leafy greens, orange and yellow vegetables (sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, and peppers), cantaloupe, apricots, mangoes contain a lot of beneficial micronutrients in addition to beta-carotene. I personally just don’t rely on them alone to optimize vitamin A levels.
Important note: You will find many warnings associated with vitamin A consumption, citing its toxicity. According to Chris Kresser, LAc this warning is legitimate if you are taking Vitamin A supplements and getting it through fortified foods like cereal – yet another reason to avoid the middle aisles in the grocery store! Consuming real foods where it’s naturally occurring is not a problem as long as you’re also optimizing your Vitamin D intake. He explains why here.
Foods rich in vitamin A: Liver (or liver capsules if you can’t stomach liver), pastured butter, milk, animal fats such as lard and tallow, and cod liver oil.
The Cleveland Clinic lists vitamin B6 as one of the top three vitamins for supporting immunity. (6) Since I prefer to give vitamins in whole-food form with possible, I take bee pollen daily which is rich in B6 as well as B1, B2, and co-factors that help with absorption. (10)
Foods rich in vitamin B6: Milk, ricotta cheese, salmon, eggs, liver, banana, avocado, and bee pollen.
Vitamin C orchestrates the function of the human immune system by supporting various aspects of both the innate and adaptive immune system including epithelial barrier function, chemotaxis and antimicrobial activities of phagocyte cells, natural killer (NK) cell functions, and lymphocyte proliferation and differentiation.
In humans, severe vitamin C deficiency has been associated with impairments in immunity and increased susceptibility to more infections, while vitamin C supplementation seems helpful to prevent and treat infections. Vitamin C can also shorten the duration of common cold symptoms. However, episodes of acute infection may deplete body stores of vitamin C, possibly by enhanced metabolic requirements.” (Nutrition And Immunity)
Our bodies can’t make vitamin C, so the only way to optimize levels is through dietary intake. In addition to consuming vitamin C rich foods, I’m using this whole food-based powdered vitamin C stirred into water, smoothies, or homemade gummies.
Foods rich in vitamin C: Citrus fruits, red and yellow bell peppers (and to a lesser extent green bell peppers), and whole food-based powdered blend of camu camu, acerola, and amla berries which contains naturally-occurring flavonoids that help the body absorb vitamin C. (11)
We’ve already covered how vitamin D strengthens the immune system above, so I’ll just mention some good sources here:
Foods rich in vitamin D: Salmon, cod liver oil, egg yolks, and pastured lard.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps the body fight off infection. Foods rich in vitamin E include nuts, seeds and spinach.”
However, they caution that vitamin E supplementation may do more harm than good and recommend focusing on food sources instead. I recently published an article about the potential problems with common vitamin E supplements and what I take instead if you want to learn more.
Foods rich in vitamin E: Nuts, seeds, avocado, and dark leafy greens.
Vitamins D and K work synergistically together, so in order to get all the benefits you need both.
Foods rich in vitamin K: The two main forms are K1 and K2. Vitamin K1 is obtained through green leafy vegetables. Vitamin K2 is obtained through fermented foods and animal fats (cheese, butter and eggs) and is also synthesized by bacteria in your gut.
Other Nourishing Foods & Herbs
Bone broth – Chicken soup has long been revered for its immune supporting properties during a cold or flu, and at least one study has concluded that it “may contain a number of substances with beneficial medicinal activity” that help to reduce symptoms. Here’s how to make homemade bone broth in an Instant Pot, and here’s how to make it in a slow cooker.
Garlic – According to WebMD, “For thousands of years, people all over the world have hailed garlic as an elixir of health. Its cloves are said to help treat the common cold, keep the plague at bay, and even ward off vampires. Despite its notorious odor, this veggie is the bulb of a plant in the sweet-smelling lily family. Ancient writings show that garlic was used as an aphrodisiac in India and as currency in Egypt.
Today . . . it’s a low-cal immunity-boosting superstar. One clove contains 5 mg of calcium, 12 mg of potassium, and more than 100 sulfuric compounds — powerful enough to wipe out bacteria and infection (it was used to prevent gangrene in both world wars). Raw garlic, not cooked or dried, is most beneficial for health, since heat and water inactivate sulfur enzymes, which can diminish garlic’s antibiotic effects.”
6. Include Immune Supportive Herbs & Mushrooms
As I mention in this article, it’s easy to forget that many common medicines are derived from plants and fungi. For example, did you know that more than 40% of pharmaceuticals that are on the market today – including penicillin – are derived from fungi? (12)
That’s not to say that the two are the same – they’re not – but herbs and mushrooms clearly have profound benefits. I may write a more detailed article on this soon, but in the meantime here are some worth considering:
- Black elderberry
- Panax ginseng
7. Reduce Stress Levels
Easier said than done, right? We all know that chronic stress impairs immune function, but for many stress is a daily reality. Here are some easy ways to reduce stress levels naturally.
8. Exercise (But Don’t Overdo It)
“Exercise causes change in antibodies and white blood cells (WBC). WBCs are the body’s immune system cells that fight disease. These antibodies or WBCs circulate more rapidly, so they could detect illnesses earlier than they might have before.” (13)
It also triggers the release of feel good hormones and slows down the production of stress hormones. Of course, exercise that is too intense can have the opposite effect and actually stress the body, so make sure not to overdo it.
9. Try Dry Brushing
Although it’s often recommended for improving skin softness and overall texture, the benefits of dry brushing are more than skin deep.
I mentioned earlier that our bodies need to be well-hydrated to produce lymph, which carries white blood cells to where they’re needed. Dry brushing is thought to help support immune function by improving lymph flow (exercise helps, too). Click here to read more about the benefits of dry brushing and how to do it.
10. Moderate Alcohol
Excessive alcohol consumption weakens the immune system, while the occasional polyphenol-rich glass of wine or beer may have a positive impact. (14)
There are lots of sources of polyphenols so if you don’t drink there’s no need to start. If you do enjoy the occasional glass that’s okay too.
Seriously. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Natural killer cells that destroy viruses and tumors increase during a state of mirth. Gamma-interferon, a disease-fighting protein, rises with laughter as do B-cells, which produce disease-destroying antibodies and T-cells, which orchestrate the immune response.” (15)
- Catch some rays
- Prioritize sleep
- Drink water
- Nourish yourself well
- Use de-stressing techniques
- Exercise, but don’t overdo it
- Consider dry brushing
- Limit alcohol
- Watch a funny movie
And as the city of Round Rock, Texas put it:
Wash your hands like you just got done slicing jalapeños for a batch of nachos and you need to take your contacts out.”
What are your tried-and-true methods for supporting immune function naturally?
Please tell me in the comments below!
1. Aranow, Cynthia (2011) Vitamin D and the Immune System
2. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) The Flu Season
3. Webb, AR et. al. (1988) Influence of season and latitude on the cutaneous synthesis of vitamin D3: exposure to winter sunlight in Boston and Edmonton will not promote vitamin D3 synthesis in human skin
4. Vighi, G et. al. (2008) Allergy and the gastrointestinal system
5. Science Daily (2013) Gut microbes closely linked to proper immune function, other health issues
6. Cleveland Clinic (2020) 3 Vitamins That Are Best for Boosting Your Immunity
7. World Health Organization (WHO) Micronutrient Deficiencies
8. Kresser, Chris. Why you can’t get vitamin A from eating vegetables
9. Hickenbottom, Sabrina et. al. (2002) Variability in conversion of β-carotene to vitamin A in men as measured by using a double-tracer study design
10. Komosinska-Vassev, Katarzyna et. al. (2015) Bee Pollen: Chemical Composition and Therapeutic Application
11. Jones, E and Hughes, R.E. (1984) The influence of bioflavonoids on the absorption of vitamin C
12. Healing Mushrooms by Tero Isokauppila
13. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Exercise and immunity
14. Romeo, J et. al. (2007) Moderate alcohol consumption and the immune system: a review
15. Ricks, Delthea (1996) Doctors: Laughing Is Nothing To Joke About