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15 Ways to Boost Your Immune System During COVID-19

Give your body's natural defenses some serious support against coronavirus.
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Life goes on—lockdown or no lockdown. We're all scared of becoming infected with coronavirus and wonder what will happen if we do. To fight off COVID-19, we all need the same thing: A strong immune system, functioning on all cylinders.

As human beings, we only exist by virtue of our immune systems. Every day, our bodies are invaded by foreign organisms. Cell division goes wrong, and we produce early cancer cells. If our immune system didn't spring into action, we wouldn't be here to tell the tale. So how can you support your immune system, today and every day? Read on and find out.

1

Get Plenty Of Sleep

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Did you know your immune system is extra-busy while you're asleep? Your natural body clock—the circadian rhythm—is set up this way, presumably so that while you sleep, your resting body can use its energy for immune clearance.

While you're asleep, your body is also dealing with oxidative stress and neutralizing free radicals that can damage cells. Experts say adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Make sure you adopt a good sleep pattern and get your recommended quota!

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2

Get More Physical Exercise

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Exercise can really boost your immune system. During short bouts of moderate-intensity exercise, the body releases immune cells such as monocytes, neutrophils and natural killer cells. Exercise also counteracts chronic inflammation. In one 2012 study, a group of exercisers was found to have a greater antibody response to a pneumococcal vaccine than a control group. 

3

Go Cold-Water Swimming

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Did you know immersing yourself regularly in cold water boosts your immune system? The cold stress results in a notable increase in T-lymphocytes and natural killer cells in the blood. In one study, regular cold swimming over five weeks led to increased levels of molecules that fight inflammation. It has also been proposed that regular cold-water swimming might have an anti-tumor effect.

4

Drink Red Wine Responsibly

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Resveratrol is a polyphenol found in grapes, rhubarb, blueberries, and peanuts. It is known to have a variety of positive effects as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anti-cancer agent. More recent research has shown red wine can boost your gut microbiome too!

Before you get too excited, please drink only in moderation. You only need to have one glass of red wine per week to see a benefit. At maximum, the American Heart Association recommends one to two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women. That's defined as one 12-ounce beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits.

5

Eat Some Chocolate

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Cocoa also contains a large number of those potent antioxidant polyphenols. In animal studies, cocoa has been shown to have an effect on the immune system's cell-mediated and antibody responses. 

And there is evidence dark chocolate may have benefits for many other aspects of health. In a 2018 randomized controlled study of patients with type 2 diabetes, those who ate 30 grams of 84% cocoa solids chocolate for eight weeks while following lifestyle guidelines showed improvements in inflammatory markers, compared to the control group who received lifestyle guidelines only.

Experts recommend eating dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids. But do so in moderation: Chocolate also contains large amounts of saturated fat and sugar. Any benefit from the cocoa will be quickly negated as weight increases!

6

Be Kind

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Empathy and psychosocial well-being are associated with lower levels of inflammatory markers. In one study of people living with HIV, religious and social support resulted in an improved CD4 count (an immune system marker), less psychological distress and better quality of life. From the opposite perspective, psychological ill-being switches on oxidative stress. What can you do during the COVID-19 pandemic to be kind—however small?

7

De-Stress

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Any acute stress results in an immediate outpouring of inflammatory mediators in the body. Chronic stress means these mediators cause inflammation when they should be switched off. This has serious implications for your long-term health, because that process underlies atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer. Dealing with stress becomes even more important as we age, because our immune response naturally gets weaker. 

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So, de-stress! Turn off your mobile phone! Learn to breathe! Relaxation is so important. There are many ways to do this at home: Hot baths, scented candles, listening to music, immersing yourself in new hobbies and interests. 

If you're suffering from anxiety, consider cognitive behavioral therapy. You can purchase a self-help book quite cheaply online.

8

Improve Your Microbiome

  
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Your gastrointestinal tract contains 10 to 100 trillion organisms known as the microbiome. These are bacteria, fungi, and protozoans which exist happily within the gut walls. Much research has examined the integral relationship of the gut microbiome with health. Basically, as long as your gut microbiome is complete and diverse, your immune system will work optimally. But if the gut microbiome is lacking in diversity, you're at increased risk of infectious diseases. 

How can you improve your gut microbiome? Eat a healthy diet (such as the Mediterranean Diet, fill yourself with superfoods, and take probiotics. If you feel the need, you can have your gut microbiome tested, using a variety of testing kits available online.

9

Cut Down On Alcohol

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Without a doubt, excessive alcohol consumption has a negative effect on your immune system. Alcohol damages the gut microbiome by altering the gut flora. It also makes the gut 'leaky,' allowing pathogens to cross into the bloodstream; causes chronic liver inflammation; and damages cilia in the airways, making the lungs more susceptible to infection. 

Know your safe limits. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommend that alcohol should be consumed in moderation—up to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.

10

Go Hug Some Trees

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The International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology reported an interesting study in 2008. The authors concluded that "visiting a forest, not a city, increased the number of natural killer cells and the expression of anti-cancer proteins." The authors suggested that phytoncides, which are naturally released from trees, along with decreased stress from the trip, might explain the finding.

11

Fast

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Did you know that restricting your food consumption to an eight-hour window not only results in weight loss but has benefits for your immune system too? 

Much interest has developed about the benefits of intermittent fasting for health and weight loss. It takes a minimum of 12 hours for your body to start breaking down fat as the liver's store of glycogen is depleted. The 5:2 and 16:8 diets have much to recommend them.

Research (although largely in animal studies) has found that intermittent fasting is beneficial for health, improving glucose metabolism, reducing blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health, increasing resistance of cells to stress and disease and reducing inflammation.

RELATED: Registered dietician Ilana Muhlstein lost 100 pounds and shows you how in her new Amazon bestseller, You Can Drop It!—pre-order yours today!

12

Get A Pet

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Researchers believe that pets reduce stress and that this has a positive effect on immune function. Petting a dog has been shown associated with the release of oxytocin, an effect that's more pronounced with a familiar dog than a strange one. Having a dog also lowers levels of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. Lowering of these hormones has an anti-inflammatory effect (although more research in humans is needed).

13

Garden

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Researchers recently published a study on the physiological effects of gardening on human health. From a microbiological perspective, gardening involves regular interaction with a wide variety of microbial and other foreign antigens, and this may have a positive effect on the immune system over a lifetime. Gardening may have a positive effect on the microbiome, which is closely integrated with the function of the immune system. And stress and anxiety are often be reduced by gardening. 

14

Clean Your Teeth

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Did you know poor oral hygiene is linked to cardiovascular disease, and this is due to the effect of periodontal disease on the immune system?

Regular brushing with fluoride toothpaste, plus flossing and visiting the dentist, are crucial to staying well. The reason is that if you don't look after your teeth and gums, chronic low-grade infection sets in (a.k.a. periodontal disease), and this causes chronic inflammation in your body. That can lead to the development of atherosclerosis, the main cause of cardiovascular disease, including angina, heart attack and stroke.

You can help support your immune system by cleaning your teeth with care as part of your daily routine.

15

Stop Smoking

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Whether it's first- or second-hand, tobacco smoke takes a big hit on your immunity. Smoking has an aging effect on the immune system, increases the body's number of pro-inflammatory cells, and raises your risk of developing allergies or asthma. Smokers also have lower levels of regulatory B lymphocytes (Bregs), which are hugely important in immune response. Do yourself a favor during the lockdown and take advice on how you can stop smoking.

And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 50 Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

She Lost 100 Pounds—And Shows You How!

Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist Ilana Muhlstein lost her weight and kept it off—and in You Can Drop It!, she'll show you how to lose it, too. More than 240,000 clients have chosen her program—and now it’s yours to keep.

Deborah Lee, MD
Dr. Deborah Lee is a health and medical writer with an emphasis on women's health. Read more