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10 Ways to Strengthen Your Immune System

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Considering that communicable diseases like colds and flu are highly contagious and have no cure other than to run their course, your best bet is to prevent becoming ill in the first place.

But, even if you do get sick this season, the severity and longevity of illness is highly dependent on the strength of your immune system and your body’s ability to fight off the invading virus.

Low Immunity Sets the Stage for Sickness

Any illness, whether bacterial, fungal or viral, shows up in individuals who are “susceptible.” Making healthy lifestyle choices during cold and flu season (and all year round) will help build defenses in your body so you are not susceptible to illness.

Here are several very easy, all-natural steps you can take to strengthen your immune system and arm yourself against colds and flu today.

1. Eat Probiotic Foods

Did you know that 80% of your immune system is located in your gut? There are trillions of beneficial bacteria in your intestines that help you fight disease and absorb nutrients. Keeping this population healthy and strong is arguably your strongest defense against colds, flus and many other diseases.

Replenish your gut flora daily by incorporating wholesome fermented foods and drinks into your diet like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchee.

Fermenting your own vegetables is far more effective and affordable than buying probiotic supplements or other mass-marked products that only claim to boost your immunity. Not only will keeping your gut flora healthy help protect you from disease, but it can also give you better digestion.

And from real ginger beer to homemade pickles, there are so many delicious ways to enjoy probiotic foods at least once a day. (My favorite book about making probiotic foods here)

2. Eat Enough Good Food

Make sure the meals you eat every day include plenty of fresh vegetables and healthy fats, and enjoy healthy snacks if you need them, so your blood sugar stays relatively even throughout the day. It takes calories (energy) to form antibodies and dispatch them to the front lines when germs invade. When your calorie intake dwindles because you don’t eat enough or you skip meals, your body prioritizes other functions while your immune system is left to operate at a deficit.

But you don’t want to eat just anything! The nutrition that you get from whole fruits and vegetables is outstanding for preventing illness. Many vitamins, including vitamin C, are antioxidants that will protect cells—including those of your immune system—from damage by toxins in the environment.

Dark-colored produce (berries, kale, broccoli) tends to be higher in flavonoids, polyphenols and other antioxidants. Just make sure you eat a little saturated fat from butter or coconut oil with those veggies, so you can absorb all their nutrients.

3. Get Enough Sleep

Whatever amount of sleep you need to feel refreshed in the morning, whether that’s 6 hours or 10—make sure you get it! Insufficient sleep depresses the immune system, opening the door to colds, upper-respiratory infections, and other nagging ills. Also consider your caffeine intake, and don’t let it keep you from getting a good night’s sleep.

If you have a constricted airway that prevents you from sleeping deeply, Breathe-Right strips on your nose can be very helpful. If you have insomnia (which I often do), then a little warm cow’s milk (which provides tryptophan, a relaxing amino acid) or some magnesium drink can quickly and gently ensure you get a good night of rest. (My favorite book about curing insomnia here)

4. Eat More Soup

Your immune cells rely on an amino acid called glutamine to do their jobs. “Glutamine comes from protein foods, and if you’re not eating enough of those, your body will borrow from skeletal muscle, especially if you’re working out,” says Jose Antonio, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., CEO of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. In one study, marathon runners who took glutamine instead of a placebo had less chance of experiencing an upper-respiratory infection after racing.

Broths and stocks made from grassfed beef or pasture-raised chicken are outstanding sources of natural glutamine, and adding a cup a day to your diet can really boost your immune health—just like Grandma always said.

But if you are an athlete, you may need to supplement with more. After exercising, try taking either an extra cup or two of broth, or 5 to 15 grams of L-Glutamine in pill or powder form to help with recovery. Your white blood cells (and your muscles) will thank you.

5. Get Plenty of Sunshine

The majority of adults and children in the U.S. are deficient in the sunshine vitamin, putting them at greater risk for all infections. A number of recent medical trials have demonstrated that individuals with the lowest levels of vitamin D had the highest rates of serious illness and infections.

A light-skinned person can get all the Vitamin D they need by exposing the face, arms, and hands to five minutes of sun at noon two to three times a week at a latitude of Boston, Massachusetts during spring, summer, or fall. Darker-skinned people may require 3–10 times as much exposure under the same sunlight conditions.

During winter, Vitamin D is stored for months, mainly in the liver and the fatty tissues, but good dietary sources include good old fashioned cod liver oil (my favorite, least processed brand here), grassfed beef liver, egg yolks from pasture-raised chickens, and fatty fish like wild-caught salmon (not farmed).

You can also take Vitamin D supplements, but studies show that without sufficient Magnesium in the body, Vitamin D supplementation is totally ineffective, and taking high doses can actually be quite harmful.

Just get some sun; it’s free and it works perfectly.

6. Eat Mushrooms

You can try shitake, maitake or other Asian mushrooms, but even the inexpensive and humble button mushroom is loaded with polysaccharides called beta glucans. Numerous medical studies have shown that beta glucans can positively modulate and strengthen the immune system and prevent infections. You’ll want to eat those mushrooms raw and unwashed to get the most out of them.

In addition to finding it in all types of delicious, fresh mushrooms, you can also buy Beta Glucans as a supplement to take during cold and flu season.

7. Harness the Power of Plants

Thieves’ Oil

Thieves’ oil is a legendary and ancient blend of the essential oils of clove, cinnamon, lemon, rosemary and eucalyptus. Thieves’ blend has been clinically tested and proven to be more than 99% effective against airborne bacteria (study conducted at Weber State University, 1997). It has been used to treat everything from candida and bacterial infections to toxic mold to colds and flu.

It can be used as a spray on countertops to kill germs or diffused in an oil diffuser to kill airborne bacteria. Some people mix a few drops of Thieves with olive or coconut oil and rub it into their chest, throat and bottoms of feet to treat a cold or boost immunity all winter long. Here’s how to make it at home.

Fire Cider

Fire cider is a traditional folk remedy infused with powerful anti-microbial, decongestant, and circulatory herbs and spices.

The base ingredients are apple cider vinegar, garlic, onion, ginger, horseradish, and hot peppers, which are mighty by themselves, but there are plenty of other herbs that can be added for extra strength, depending on what’s available to you.

Fire cider needs to steep in a dark cupboard for a month to extract all the goodness from the ingredients. After it is done brewing, adding a tablespoon of this to your diet every day can help boost your immune system, stimulate digestion, and warm you up on cold days. Here’s the recipe to make it.

Hand Sanitizer

It goes without saying that you should wash your hands often during cold and flu season, especially if you are around anyone who is sick. But when you’re unable to wash your hands, a hand sanitizer is better than nothing at all.

Unfortunately, commercial hand sanitizers are filled with toxic chemicals like triclosan and phthalates that have been linked with cancer, neurotoxicity and endocrine disruption.

Instead, you can make your own natural version very easily, with a high-concentration of germ-killing tea tree oil and other antibacterial botanicals. Here is the recipe to make it.

8. Drink Plenty of Water

Even overnight, during what amounts to an 8-hour fast, your immune reserves are being drained. Hydration becomes even more important when you’re sick. Fluids not only transport nutrients to the illness site, but also take toxins away for disposal. Green, rooibos, or herbal tea is another immune-friendly vehicle for consuming water.

You don’t want to drink too much water though! There is too much of a good thing here. It’s important not to dilute and wash out the important minerals and electrolytes your body needs to remain healthy.

To gauge if you are getting the right amount of water, your urine should always be straw colored or darker. If it is clear, you are drinking too much water and slowing your metabolism down!

9. Steam Some Oysters

Oysters are the richest source of zinc, which is essential for immune cell function, and many studies have shown that even a mild deficiency depresses immunity. If you’re not a fan of bivalves, grab a grass-fed burger: Beef and buffalo are other good sources of zinc.

You can also get zinc from pumpkin seeds, which is the highest plant source of the mineral, but you’ll need to eat 3 whole cups of them to get the same amount of zinc that is in just 2 oysters!

Most people are low in zinc, so you might consider supplementing with zinc gluconate during cold and flu season. Just know that zinc is not very well absorbed in pill form, so it’s best to get it from food whenever possible.

10. Quit the Sugar

If you do only one thing when you feel like you’re coming down with something, eliminating sugar will do the most good. Refined sugar dramatically decreases immune function. Many scientists and nutritionists consider added sugar in any form to be a drug because of its negative impact on the human body. I have known health practitioners to prioritize eliminating refined sugar from the diet over recommending that people quitting smoking!

Healthier sweeteners such as honey or stevia can be used in moderation, but avoid artificial sweeteners like Splenda or Equal; they are even more toxic than cane sugar!

Most importantly, if you are feeling like you’re “fighting off a bug” or “coming down with something,” avoid sugar and sweet foods until you feel better. In my experience, sugar is enough of an immune depressant that eating sweets of any kind when you are a little under the weather will likely tip the scales against you, and bring on that cold or flu full strength.

About the author

Dawn Gifford

Dawn Gifford

Dawn is the creator of Small Footprint Family, and the author of the critically acclaimed Sustainability Starts at Home - How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. After a 20-year career in green building and environmental sustainability, chronic illness forced her to shift her expertise and passion from the public sphere to home and hearth. Get the whole story behind SFF here.


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  • Actually, raw cabbage is a good source of glutamine (raw parsley and spinach, not so much compared to animal foods). And if you are an athlete or are sick and need additional glutamine, you can get it in powder form, which is the easiest way to get it very quickly. However, many people have allergies, diseases and genetic problems that make it impossible to get proper nutrition only from plant sources. I learned it myself through the bad ones.

  • I am very fond of yogurt but don’t like mushrooms. Will use these tips for better immunity. Thanks!

  • Amazing, thank you. What about vitamin C thought? I was very surprised it hasn’t been mentioned at all for boosting imunity. xxx

    • The article is focused on efficient food and lifestyle tips for the immune system. Barring daily requirements for good health, it is almost impossible to get enough Vitamin C from food to be truly therapeutic during a cold or flu, and I would not be comfortable recommending high-dose Vitamin C supplements to anyone.

  • A healthy immune system is essential as it is our body’s defense against infection and illness. It recognizes the cells that make up your body and will try to get rid of anything unfamiliar. I was aware of some points mentioned in the article, however, I wasn’t aware that eating sugar can have a bad effect on your immune system. It looks like I have to take stop sugar consumption to boost my immune system. Thank you for sharing the tips.

  • I woke up yesterday morning and found a big red rash on my cheek, I have no idea what it is. Could these tips help me get rid of this rash and is there anything else I could do to speed up the process of it disappearing?

  • Very good advice , I was down with severe viral laryngitis and flu and most of the above advice I started following in piece meal and friends suggestion but I will now sincerely follow it , having bath with cold or below normal temperature also is very refreshing and immune booster along with some meditation and calm introspection

  • my daughter is allergic to eucalyptus. what can i use in place of that when making the thieves oil blend for immune booster?

  • My child has infected RSV a month ago and is now still coughing at night. What can I do to ease her cough and stregthen her body? Thanks!

  • I used to get sick every winter with a cold, aches, sniffles, etc. I have been eating a lot better this last year and getting more natural fats into my diet. I have cut out most of the processed foods and almost but not all of the sugar (I know, but it is HARD). I drink a lot of water. I have to say that I am healthy. I am also using the Thieves Oil in my diffuser daily. Perhaps a combination of all of these things have kept me healthier this winter. I don’t know but I am enjoying it.

  • Since i started to eat much more healthier and get more sleep, i experienced dramatically improvements of my immune system. I will definitely include more mushrooms in my daily meal plans and try out how they work. After all, i am about to gain muscles and vegetables do a really great job for my immune system too. I try to keep the pesticide as low as possible. Thanks for sharing this informativ post!

  • I can’t say how much grateful i am to have found this great Article! I am suffering from a “below the average” immune system for years and i always wanted to strenghten it. Not enough sleep is propaply one of the key factors i should become more aware of, and take the time to go earlier to bed. Also, i am going to eat more mushrooms since i really like them. Definitly, i am going to apply your tips into my daily life and, hopefully, strenghten my immune system successfully. Thanks for sharing, really valuable for me.

  • http://www.mykoweb.com/articles/EatingRawMushrooms.html

    Eating mushrooms raw is something that ought to be carefully considered before assuming it is wise or safe.

    Most health benefits are realized from cooking them, not from eating them raw. As this article points out there are various ways of ‘cooking’, chemically (salt, vinegar, etc), and drying them in sunshine sequesters vitamin D in their flesh as well!

    • Indeed, raw cabbage is a good source of glutamine (raw parsley and spinach, not so much compared to animal foods). And if you are an athlete or ill, and need extra glutamine, you can get it in powder form, which is the easiest way to get a lot quickly. However, many people have allergies, illnesses and genetic issues that make getting proper nutrition from plant sources alone impossible. I myself learned this the hard way.

  • I personally believe that adequate sleep and plenty of water are two most important things to strengthen your immune system. Just shared it with my friends. 🙂

  • Thanks for this post, very timely. I especially appreciate your suggestions 1 and 4; haven’t known that before. I taught it will just be sleep, rest, fluids and vitamins C. Now I understand why a hot chicken soup works. Is it advisable to take regularly glutamine pill even when not ill or with colds?

  • I hadn’t realised that the humble mushroom was such a good’un for the immune system. I take your point about the need for good sleep. Something I need to get more of! Rebecca x

  • 2 to 3 times a year, I purchase elderberry juice concentrate. It’s a pint bottle which makes a half gallon; over the course of a week, I drink it all to boost my immune system. It’s been a few days over 2 years since I’ve been sick.
    My memory, however, isn’t as good as my immune system…that pint could make a gallon…I just don’t remember.

  • One of my favorite subjects! My little girl is sick right now (which rarely happens, but when it does, it is heartbreaking) so I am particularly grateful for this post! I have never tried thieves oil but you have inspired me!

  • Dawn,
    sitting here, sniffling with a cold, I am thankful that I found you at Cornerstone Confessions. This is an interesting and useful article, including the information on Thieves oil, which I’m off to research.
    Thank you.
    Blessings of the season, peace, and good to you in Jesus’ name.

  • These are all great suggestions! Thieves oil was a new one for me – but I’m definitely going to look into – just the combination of aromas sounds heavenly!

  • Immune system is our first and the most important line of defense against pathogens lurking all around us. Without strong immune system we are susceptible to several health hazards. I must say the tips you mentioned are very helpful for increasing immune system naturally.

  • Thank you, this is a great post. We have all been sick for weeks around here and I am desperate to do something about it. We have been taking Vitamin D, but I wonder if we are getting enough. We are only doing double the recommended amount, but I’ve heard that even kids need 1,000 or more?

    • Hi Jamie, 🙂

      All vitamins work in tandem with other vitamins so taking a single supplement may cause more problems than it’s fixing. For a good basic vitamin routine, check out my website under Health & Wellness. Use that as a foundation and add to that when you’re trying to heal something. (Of course, the ideal solution would be to get all these wonderful vitamins from healthy food properly prepared.) 🙂

      That said, Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin which means you need sufficient “good” fat in your diet to absorb it.

      And, you also need sufficient vitamins A and K for the body to utilize it.

  • Great post! One thing to note, tuna is totally redlisted by Greenpeace, and the Monterrey Bay Aquarium basically says you have to catch it yourself for it to be ok, and another source says only albacore is ok (which is typically highest in mercury.) I just quit eating it altogether 🙁

  • I would add Elderberry syprup/extract/tea to the list for flu season. It has been proven very effective against swine flu prevention also. Not to mention that Elderberries grow easily anywhere and taste delicious.

  • I went to Whole Foods today to look for a supplement to take to boost my immune system when I get on an airplane. There were so many items that I felt overwhelmed and I didn’t buy anything. Now that I read your post, I have my answers. Thank you!

    • thanks so much for your information, it is good. please can help me cure my canker sore. i think i am allergy to some foods but i don’t know the kind of food. i also don’t know if my immune system is low as you stated . please help me. thanks