How to boost your immune system through diet and lifestyle changes

Lisa Ballehr advises people to "eat the rainbow" in order to boost the immune system.
Lisa Ballehr advises people to “eat the rainbow” in order to boost the immune system.

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  • You can boost your immune system by making sure to get enough of vitamins like A, C, E, B6, D, and minerals like zinc, iron, and selenium.

  • It is also helpful to eat enough protein, consume prebiotic foods, and eat brightly colored fruits and vegetables which contain immune-boosting antioxidants.

  • You should also get sufficient sleep, quit smoking, and get regular moderate exercise. 

  • This article was medically reviewed by Tania Elliott, MD, who specializes in infectious diseases related to allergies and immunology for internal medicine at NYU Langone Health. 

  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The immune system plays an essential role in helping us fend off attacks from viruses and bacteria. Here’s how diet and lifestyle can maximize your immune system’s ability to protect you from foreign invaders.

How diet can boost the immune system

Get enough vitamins: Nutrition is our primary protection in the battle against infection. Key soldiers in the fight include vitamins like A, C, E, B6, D, and minerals like zinc, iron, and selenium. Some foods that are rich in these vitamins include carrots, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, strawberries, almonds, avocados, salmon, oysters, tuna, lean chicken breast, and beef.

The reason many of these vitamins help maintain a strong immune system is that they are also antioxidants. Antioxidants help buffer the effects of free radicals, which are harmful chemicals that damage healthy cells and genetic material, giving viruses a better shot at invading, reproducing, and compromising our immune system farther. Antioxidants work to buffer this effect by counteracting the damage caused by free radicals and help our immune system prevent, treat, and suppress viral activity. 

Eat protein: According to Harvard Health Publishing, you should be getting a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight in order to avoid getting sick. Not enough can have detrimental effects on your T-cells., which dispatch disease-fighting antibodies to viruses and bacteria and is an essential part of the immune system. 

Protein also contains high amounts of zinc, which is a mineral that aids in theprouduction of  white blood cells, which fight infection. Good places to find lean protein include seafood, chicken, turkey, eggs, and beans. 

Consume prebiotic foods: Prebiotics are found in foods such as onion, garlic, banana, and asparagus. They assist in maintaining a balanced gut microbiome, which is a vital player in how your immune system functions. Prebiotics work by increasing the population of “good bacteria” in the gut which in turn sparks the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines, which are tiny proteins that help the immune system function. 

Eat the rainbow: An easy way — though not essential — to make sure you’re getting enough immune-boosting antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals is to “eat the rainbow,” says Arizona based Osteopathic Physician and Functional Medicine Practitioner, Lisa Ballehr. 

This includes a rainbow of fruits and vegetables like, “red apples, potatoes, cherries or grapes; orange sweet potatoes, pumpkin, mango, yams or tangerines; green kiwi, broccoli, olives, limes or grapes; yellow apples, pears, bananas, or pineapple; blueberries, cabbage, kale, grapes or raisins; and tan cauliflower, dates, coconut, nuts or sauerkraut.” 

“The more variety of fruits and vegetables you consume daily builds a broader spectrum of nutrients the body uses to boost its immune system,” she says.

How lifestyle changes can boost the immune system

Exercise, sleep, and keeping smoke-free are also ways you can give your immune system a better fighting chance at fending off invaders. 

Get sufficient sleep: If you lack restful sleep, you will be more susceptible to infections since sleep is when your body works its hardest to combat inflammation and infection. “While at rest, the body is quite busy. During this time, it repairs itself and releases toxins so one can arise feeling renewed. Those that practice irregular sleep patterns may struggle with their health simply due to lack of sleep, which can result in chronic inflammation,” says Ballehr. 

This inflammation can overstress the immune system making it less effective at fighting viral or bacterial infections. Although the amount of sleep you will need is highly individual, it’s recommended that most adults get between seven to eight hours each night.

Quit smoking: “Smoking increases the risk of developing infections by destroying antibodies from our bloodstream” says Ballehr. Antibodies are the proteins produced by the immune system to fight foreign infections. “Smoking cigarettes  also damages our lung’s ability to clear infection as well as destroying lung tissue.”

Exercise: Starting and staying active has been shown to help immune health. According to a 2019 study, exercise has a multitude of benefits including decreasing inflammation and improving immune regulation, which can delay the negative effects of aging. The study also found that moderate exercise can reduce the risk of illness. 

With all this in mind, it is also important to remember that handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent infections from viruses or bacteria. It won’t boost your immune system, but it can help keep you protected, nonetheless. “You should wash your hands for a 20-second duration before and after any risky exposure such as preparing food, caring for a sick loved one, treating a wound, or when you have an active cold, sneezing, coughing, or runny nose,” says Ballehr. 

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