Stroll through any pharmacy during cold and flu season and you’ll be inundated by products claiming to boost your immune system.
Your immune system protects your body from infection.
It’s split into two parts: the innate immune system we are born with that’s our first line of defense, and the adaptive or acquired immune system, which can target certain viruses and bacteria.
The immune system maintains a careful balance: It must remain strong enough to fight off germs, but too much power could cause it to overreact and attack healthy cells.
“The immune system is so complicated. It’s so perfectly calibrated that you want to just let it do its thing,” says Saeed Afaneh, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center San Marcos.
However, there are healthy ways to support the immune system and remove barriers that keep it from running at its optimum level. This becomes especially important as we get older, as immune function declines with age.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 3 adults don’t get the recommended seven hours of sleep a night. Even one night of poor sleep can reduce immune function, says Dr. Afaneh.
“Getting poor sleep over and over again for several nights in a row or several years in a row could really suppress the immune system,” he says.
Often, simply making lifestyle adjustments, such as not drinking alcohol or caffeine too close to bedtime, can help you sleep better. There are also treatments for sleep disorders.
A diet lacking protein or micronutrients, such as vitamin C and D, zinc, selenium and iron, can also suppress your immune system. Simply adding an immunity supplement or superfood won’t remedy the problem.
Avoid processed foods that have been stripped of nutrients and instead focus on diversifying your diet with lean proteins, whole grains, legumes and fruits and vegetables.
Stress inhibits the immune system’s ability to effectively do its job. Keep your stress in check by practicing mindfulness and breathwork techniques, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep.
“Low-level chronic stress has been shown to suppress your immune system — and that’s a hard thing to fix,” says Dr. Afaneh.
Aim for two-and-a-half to three hours of exercise a week in spurts of at least 10 minutes for immune system support.
“Cardiovascular exercise and strength training can be very helpful,” says Dr. Afaneh. “If people are looking for a magic pill, it’s exercise. It supports your immune system, and you don’t need that much.”
If you need motivation to start moving, find ways to make exercising more fun and consistent, such as by varying your exercise routine or recruiting a partner to make your sessions more enjoyable.
Nicotine has been shown to be immunosuppressive and can increase the risk for autoimmune conditions.
Conditions like diabetes and heart disease and their comorbidities can wreak havoc on your immune system when uncontrolled or poorly controlled.
Supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and sometimes use misleading language to imply effectiveness, though some supplements can be beneficial and medically necessary in cases of a nutrient deficiency (iron and vitamin D deficiencies are common). Your doctor can screen for deficiencies and recommend supplements if needed, based on the findings.
This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.