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The Best Ways to Improve Your Immunity Naturally, Says Science

Research proves you don't need supplements to give your immune system a boost. Try these natural steps.
FACT CHECKED BY Faye Brennan

You may not notice it most of the time, but your immune system always has your back. Over the course of a typical day, we all come into contact with countless germs, bacteria, and other pathogens. Thankfully, it's the human body's immune system that keeps us happy, healthy, and productive—at least most of the time.

We all know the occasional illness or infection will inevitably break through, and if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all anything, it's that a robust immune system is always a good idea. Hopefully, you were already taking care of your immune system long before COVID-19, but if the past two years have you thinking about your body's defenses more often, you're certainly not alone. One survey commissioned by the brand Emergen-C found that 69% of Americans "care more" about their immune health now than prior to COVID-19.

Interestingly, the same poll also found that over half of Americans (52%) wrongly believe that they can't change or improve their natural immunity levels. This, of course, couldn't be farther from the truth. There are a number of ways to naturally strengthen your immune system and put yourself in the best position possible to fight off disease or infection. Read on to learn more, and next, check out The #1 Diet for Your Immunity, Say Dietitians.

Sleep steadily

man sleeping soundly in bed
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A lot can go wrong when we're not sleeping, but did you know that inadequate sleep will inevitably lead to a weakened immune system? Staying up all night can be fun at times, but keep in mind that regular shuteye keeps your body's defenses as strong as possible. This is supported by plenty of research. Consider this study, published in the scientific journal Sleep: Researchers tracked a group of over 160 generally healthy adults and found that those who usually slept less than six hours per night were much more likely to develop a cold.

Similarly, research published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine reports that young adults dealing with insomnia were more likely to develop influenza than those with normal sleep patterns—even after getting the flu shot.

Why is sleep so important for robust immune functioning? When we sleep, the body has a chance to rest, recharge, and replenish—and that goes for the immune system as well. One study published in the European Journal of Physiology explains that various immune cells such as cytokines and T-cells are created and dispersed throughout the body while we venture through dreamland.

Moreover, a fascinating study published in Nature Neuroscience finds that one specific type of immune cell rewires and repairs the brain during sleep. So, getting at least seven hours of sleep per night won't just keep your body healthy, it will also provide immune cells with an opportunity to patrol the brain and spinal cord for any signs of infection, injury, or dead cell buildup.

Related: The #1 Worst Time to Exercise If You Love to Sleep, Science Says

De-stress

Nervous african woman breathing calming down relieving headache or managing stress, black girl feeling stressed self-soothing massaging temples exhaling
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A little bit of stress isn't necessarily a bad thing. At a manageable level, short-term stress can serve to motivate. At the same time, though, we can all relate to the occasional (or frequent) moment when stress is overwhelming and debilitating. Chronic stress can have a similar effect on the immune system.

As explained in this study published in Current Opinion in Psychology, long-term stress leads to a buildup of the stress hormone cortisol. When that happens, all that excess cortisol actually blocks the immune system from doing its job. Another study published in Immunologic Research concludes that "chronic stress can suppress protective immune responses and/or exacerbate pathological immune responses."

Now, de-stressing is often easier said than done. Stressful situations and developments have a knack for appearing at the worst of times. Still, there are plenty of strategies that show promise in the fight against chronic stress. Some methods will be better suited for certain people, but recent research suggests meditation, yoga, or even just petting a friendly pup for a few minutes can all go a long way toward lowering stress levels.

Related: The #1 Best Exercise to Fight Stress, Science Says

Exercise regularly

woman lacing her shoes before a workout

It's common knowledge that regular exercise will keep muscles, joints, and bones strong, but steady sweat sessions are also a great way to keep your immune system humming.

Research published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science states that exercise reduces bodily inflammation, boosts immune responses, and lowers the overall risk of illness.

Another study released in BMC Public Health tracked over 1,400 people and found that those working out at least three times per week were 26% less likely to develop a cold.

Similarly, a report published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine tracked participants over the course of three months. Those engaging in aerobics five times weekly experienced 43% fewer upper respiratory tract infections.

If you're looking to start exercising more for your immune system's sake, following the guidelines laid out by the CDC is a great starting point. Try to achieve at least 150 weekly minutes of moderate exercise, like walking or cycling, as well as two weight lifting sessions per week.

Related: Secret Effects of Lifting Weights Just Once Per Week, Science Says

Spend time in nature

Senior tourist couple travellers hiking in nature, walking and talking.
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One surprising way to boost immunity that's especially natural is getting out in nature. Modern living is super convenient, but so many of us barely ever find ourselves surrounded by a little bit of greenery and wildlife. Consequently, many are missing out on some major immunity benefits. One review published in Frontiers in Psychology concludes spending time around nature may boost natural protection against a litany of diseases including cancer, depression, obesity, diabetes, ADHD, and heart disease.

"I pulled every bit of the research in this area together that I could find, and was surprised to realize I could trace as many as 21 possible pathways between nature and good health—and even more surprised to realize that all but two of the pathways shared a single common denominator," study author Ming Kuo from the University of Illinois comments. "Finding that the immune system is a primary pathway provides an answer to the question of 'how' nature and the body work in concert to fight disease."

When we spend time in nature, our bodies naturally become at ease. This state of relaxation and looseness frees up the immune system to build up its disease-fighting defenses.

"When we feel completely safe, our body devotes resources to long-term investments that lead to good health outcomes—growing, reproducing, and building the immune system," Kuo adds. "When we are in nature in that relaxed state, and our body knows that it's safe, it invests resources toward the immune system."

Also, spending time in nature has been shown time and time again to help relieve stress and improve mental health. So, nature can also help with immunity via its stress-fighting benefits.

For more, check out the 3 Major Secrets to Living to 99, According to Betty White.

John Anderer
John Anderer is a writer who specializes in science, health, and lifestyle topics. Read more