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26th March, 20215 min read

Can you boost your immune system?

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Author:Caroline Bodian
Last reviewed: 24/03/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

If you’re looking for ways to stay healthy, you might be wondering how to boost your immune system.

Your immune system is a protective network of cells, tissues and organs. Its job is to defend your body from germs that can make you ill, such as bacteria and viruses, and fight and destroy any ‘invaders’ that do get in.

And yes, there are things you can do to help make sure your immune system is working as well as possible – so read on to learn more.

Can your diet boost your immune system?

When looking at how to improve your immune system, making sure you have a healthy diet is a good place to start.

A balanced diet will help your body get all the essential nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, many of which are involved in supporting your immune system. Eating a wide variety of foods, including at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables every day, will help you get as many different nutrients as possible.

In particular, you may want to increase your intake of substances called ‘antioxidants’, which can help protect your body’s cells from damage. These are found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, berries and citrus fruits.

You could also try adding a ‘probiotic’ or ‘live’ yoghurt to your regular diet. Probiotics are bacteria that can support your gut health, and much of your immune system is in your gut.

Are there immune system vitamins?

Despite what you might have heard, taking very large doses of vitamin C won’t automatically boost your immune system. However, vitamin C is important for keeping your immune system healthy, along with several other vitamins and minerals.

You should be able to get most of the vitamins and minerals your immune system needs from your diet, including:

  • vitamin C – from kiwis, oranges, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers and broccoli, among other fruits and vegetables
  • vitamin A – from orange-coloured fruit and vegetables and dark green leafy vegetables, milk, cheese and liver
  • zinc – from meat, shellfish, eggs, nuts, seeds and wholegrains
  • selenium – from nuts, seeds, fish, shellfish, chicken, eggs, grains and vegetables
  • vitamin D – mainly from sunshine on your skin, but also from oily fish, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals and dairy products

It’s thought that some people don’t get enough vitamin D from sunshine, particularly in winter, and it can be difficult to get enough from food. You may want to take a vitamin D supplement if you don’t get much sunshine or you’re at risk of a deficiency – you can learn more here.

Can reducing stress boost your immune system?

Stress activates your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, which causes changes such as a fast heartbeat, tense muscles and feelings of extreme alertness. And if stress lasts for a long time, it can affect your immune system and stop it from working as well as it should. So it's a good idea to try to lower your stress levels as much as possible.

Stress-reduction techniques to try include talking to people who you trust and make you feel good, getting plenty of exercise and sleep, and finding ways to relax, such as breathing exercises, mindfulness and meditation. It’s a good idea to avoid drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, too.

Is sleep an immune system booster?

A good night’s sleep gives your body time to rest and recover, which can mean it’s better prepared to fight off illness. How much sleep you need to stay healthy is different for everyone, but adults usually need somewhere between 7 and 9 hours a night.

Can exercise strengthen your immune system?

Regular exercise is good for both your general health and your immune system.

Exercise helps with your circulation by increasing blood flow. This can mean the substances of your immune system are able to move around and do their jobs more easily.

It's also thought that the switch between breathing through your nose and mouth that happens when you’re exercising can help remove harmful particles from your airways and lungs.

Some research has also linked regular, moderate exercise to:

  • improved defences and regulation of the immune system
  • reduced inflammation
  • a lower risk of illness

It’s recommended that we all try to do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week. But any amount of exercise can help. One study found that just 30 minutes of brisk walking may increase the circulation of immune system cells in your blood.

What else can help boost your immune system?

General hygiene measures are very important to support your immune system in keeping you healthy. Washing your hands regularly – particularly after using the toilet or before touching food – will help you avoid introducing germs into your body and stop the spread of illness.

It’s a good idea to carry an alcohol-based hand gel for those times when there’s no soap and water available.

Key points

  • your immune system is your body's defence system against germs that can make you ill
  • there are things you can do to help support your immune system, including:
  • eating a balanced, varied diet that includes lots of fruit and vegetables
  • getting enough sleep
  • exercising regularly
  • avoiding too much stress
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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.