6 Ways to Boost Your Immune System — Besides Washing Your Hands

Coronavirus is at the forefront of everyone's minds right now — and for good reason. The World Health Organization (WHO) called the COVID-19 viral disease a global pandemic and the White House declared a national emergency, adding to growing concern worldwide over how to stay healthy in the midst of an outbreak. 

On the heels of President Trump's and WHO's announcements came an onslaught of closings announced by schools and universities across the nation, as well as many areas urging "non-essential businesses," such as restaurants, bars, and fitness studios to close their doors.

With news of more confirmed cases being announced daily, as well as cold and flu season still hard at work, it might have you wondering how to strengthen your immune system. FYI, that's your body's natural defense system to protect against disease and illness, which is why, in addition to the elderly, those who are immunocompromised are especially at risk for coronavirus. 

And unfortunately, the behaviors many of us are engaging in right now — drinking alcohol, not sleeping enough, and stressing out too much — all actively work against our immune systems.

The good news: There are plenty of ways to build a robust immune system. Ahead, you'll find top tips from health professionals to do just that. (And, yes, washing your hands is involved.)

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Get your flu shot.

While the flu vaccine does not prevent coronavirus, it will help decrease cases of the flu, which should also be top of mind right now. The flu has already caused approximately 20,000 deaths this season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The flu vaccine is created with different strains every year, based on what the CDC believes will be the most common influenza strain. (So yes, that means you need to get a new flu shot every year.) It works by introducing your body to a tiny bit of the influenza virus so that you build up antibodies that are ready to fight the full-fledged flu in case you’re exposed to it. That certainly takes a load off your immune system, especially because a coronavirus vaccine will take at least a year to develop, according to experts.

Eat your vitamins and minerals when you can.

Given the popularity of “immune-boosting” supplements, you might think that all it takes is a healthy dose of vitamin C to avoid the sniffles and give your white blood cells the strength they need to fight off viruses — but this can often backfire. “Really high doses of vitamin C gives you diarrhea,” says Abinash Virk, M.D., from the division of infectious diseases at Mayo Clinic Health System. “Besides, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, meaning that the body will only absorb what you need and then pee out the rest.”

Keith Roach, M.D., an internist at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, agrees that you're better off skipping the supplements and opting for a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Since eating well can be harder in the wintertime, especially because fresh fruits and veggies may be more expensive or less readily available, Dr. Roach suggests opting for frozen.

“Frozen is next best to fresh,” he says. “You don’t want canned because canned fruits and vegetables often have too much sugar or salt and have lost a lot of their nutrients.” But mixing in frozen veggies into soups and stews, or using frozen vitamin-packed berries for smoothies are all easy and helpful ways to boost your immune system.

The same goes for probiotics, which have been shown to have moderate effects when trying to prevent the common cold. 

“There’s some data that probiotics can improve general immune health, and that may help decrease the likelihood of getting a cold or influenza,” Dr. Virk says. But again, she’d much rather you get your probiotics from healthy food sources, like yogurt or kefir, than from supplements.

Consider a vitamin D supplement.

"Vitamin D is a key nutrient our bodies use to maintain a healthy immune system and reduce susceptibility to infections," says Maggie Luther, N.D., medical director and formulator at Care/of. Sure, you can get vitamin D from the sun, but in an effort to prevent skin cancer, experts caution against it being used as a main source.

That leaves food sources of vitamin D including fatty fish, like salmon, egg yolks, and fortified foods (e.g. orange juice and dry cereals). The problem? "An estimated three-quarters of the U.S. population is vitamin D deficient, and most people don't get enough through diet alone," Luther says, which is why she recommends adding a vitamin D supplement to your routine.

Exercise regularly.

With many gyms and workout studios closing, you may feel like the only option is to throw in the towel on your workout routine. But right now is arguably the best time to get in a sweat session: Not only does exercise help keep your stress levels in check, but it's also important for your immune system, Dr. Levine says, because it acts as a natural anti-inflammatory. Getting regular exercise — she suggests 30 minutes of actual sweating, five times a week — will do wonders for your immune system.

Try taking your walk or run outside if you can do so safely, or even trying an at-home workout app, like Asana Rebel or Peloton Digital.

Drink more water. 

Most Americans are constantly dehydrated, Dr. Levine says, and that directly harms our immune response. In fact, she believes that dehydration is why so-called immune-boosting supplements, like Emergen-C and Airborne, seem to work. At most, those kinds of vitamin packets act as a placebo, she says, but they can be helpful because they force people to drink an extra eight to 12 ounces of water. Ideally, people should drink about eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day, and even more if they’ve been sweating.

And while drinking enough water is not directly linked to thwarting coronavirus, the CDC notes that proper hydration helps regulate body temperature and helps flush waste through perspiration, urination, and bowel movements — all necessary functions when you're trying to stay healthy.

Get enough sleep.

Sleep is your body’s time to rest and rebuild, Dr. Levine says. So if you’re not getting enough, or your sleep isn’t restful, then you’re not giving your body the chance to take care of itself.

But keep in mind that oversleeping can also be detrimental to your immune system, so you need to find a sweet spot and keep a good schedule (in other words, there is no such thing as “catching up” on sleep). “There’s no magic number, but for most people, eight hours feels good. I don’t recommend getting any less than seven hours,” Dr. Levine says.

“We see worse health outcomes in people who work overnight,” Dr. Levine says. “So it’s important that you’re keeping your circadian rhythm in check.” Ask yourself: Do you feel refreshed when you get up? If not, consider implementing a sleep schedule that allows your body to better recognize when it's time to wake up and hit the hay.

…And keep washing your hands.

It's not necessarily going to boost your immune system, but making sure your hands are clean will definitely help you avoid the cold or flu, and therefore make sure your immunity isn’t compromised.

“There’s no magic pill that will keep people away from cold and flu,” Dr. Virk says. “But I think the closest to magic is hand-hygiene.” The most common way to get the flu or a cold is from touching the virus and then touching your mouth or nose. So if you focus on hand hygiene, especially when you’re outside of the house like at shopping malls, airports, or grocery stores, you’d be much less likely to get it.”

The same goes for steering clear of coronavirus, according to the CDC. While the agency maintains that COVID-19 is mainly spread person-to-person by standing in close contact with one another, coughing, and sneezing, it may be possible to contract the virus from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.

"It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads," the CDC writes. 

That's all the more reason to wash your hands whenever you can, and try to keep your hands away from your face.

Bottom line: You shouldn't just focus on boosting your immune system during cold and flu season, says Shanna Levine, M.D., a clinical instructor of internal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. Instead, Dr. Levine says, taking care of your immune system should be a year-round commitment in order to be fully prepared to fend off disease.

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