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25 natural ways to boost your immune system

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25 natural ways to boost your immune system

Most Americans understand the importance of maintaining a healthy regimen that includes a nutrient-dense diet, exercise at least several times a week, and self-care activities to de-stress. But in addition to that being good for a healthy weight and clear skin, and preventative for long-term health issues from cancer to diabetes, taking care of ourselves has the added benefit of boosting our immune systems to ward off everything from the common cold to the flu—or at least help our bodies to fight illness when we get sick.

Our immune systems help to keep bacteria, toxins, and viruses at bay, and prevent us from getting sick from the diseases they cause. Immune systems further help remove unhealthy or infectious cells from our bodies and regulate the body's responses to otherwise harmless activity (whether food or our own bodies).

With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the world and numbers continuing to climb in the U.S.—the country outpaced China on March 25 to become the country with the most cases in the world—many doctors and scientists have been weighing in to separate fact from fiction when it comes to natural ways to fight coronavirus. There’s no silver bullet for preventing or fighting COVID-19; but it’s as good a time as any to discuss natural ways to keep our immune systems high-functioning—especially while so many people are stuck inside, unable to visit a gym, and prone to adopting some unhealthy habits.

To that end, Stacker scoured health studies, expert medical advice, nutrition facts, and recent headlines to deliver 25 natural ways to boost your immune system. The gallery includes interesting facts—did you know your body can’t produce vitamin C on its own?—and guidelines for optimizing your water intake and figuring out which foods function as the strongest antioxidants. Keep reading to learn more about 25 ways to naturally boost your immune system.

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Drink more water

The most well-known, surefire way to boost your immune system and overall health is drinking plenty of water. Sufficient hydration (best indicated by, at minimum, light yellow urine) means blood is oxygenated, toxins will be flushed, and vital organs and muscles will function their best.

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Supplement with vitamin C

It’s essential to supplement a diet with vitamin C since the body cannot make it. Vital to tissue growth and repair, heart health, bones, teeth, and cartilage, vitamin C can be found in fruits and vegetables (oranges, broccoli, strawberries) or supplement form.

While no science suggests vitamin C helps in the treatment of COVID-19, and there is nothing to show taking vitamin C will increase immunity to the coronavirus, taking vitamin C supplements are still considered a good way to boost overall immunity and health.

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Incorporate zinc

This mineral plays a very similar role to vitamin C in cellular repair and growth, as well as immune strength. Getting zinc into your diet—whether from meat, seeds, nuts, or whole grains—means boosting your body’s ability to fight infection.

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Eat plenty of garlic

WebMD calls the bad-breath herb a “low-cal immunity-boosting superstar” and “elixir.” In addition to being delicious, garlic helps battle colds and toxins and is potent enough to counter bacteria and infection. It is most beneficial in its raw form.

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Get plenty of exercise

In addition to improving mood and reducing stress, regular exercise is key in maintaining immune health. The CDC highlights its ability to lower the risk of chronic disease and recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise and two days of strength training.

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Enjoy the sauna

Exposing yourself to extremely hot, dry temperatures for short periods is a natural immune-boosting method. The sauna is your friend when considering the benefits of “environmental conditioning”—that is, forcing your body to adjust to extreme heat or cold.

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Get enough sleep

Failure to get sufficient sleep increases the likelihood of illness and weakens the body’s ability to recover (deprivation can reduce the circulation of white blood cells), according to the Mayo Clinic. Get the recommended amount (seven to 10 hours) to keep your immune system in top shape to fight infection.

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Don’t ignore stress

Chronic stress produces a similar detrimental effect as sleep deprivation. While reducing and managing it may be particularly difficult right now, focusing on its reduction with the same emphasis as diet and sleep is important to avoid suppressing your immune response. Utilize key tools like exercise and deep-breathing.

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Have sex

This natural immune-boosting method is only for those self-quarantining with romantic partners (not a recommendation to find new partners). By having sex, you can both improve your enjoyment of each other’s company (i.e. have fun, exercise, reduce stress) and support your overall health. WebMD mentions its effects on producing an antibody and lowering blood pressure and heart attack risk.

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Take probiotics

Probiotics play an important role in balancing the gut biome and bacteria. Among their several health benefits (digestion, allergy reduction, heart health), these bacteria can support immune health. They appear naturally in sources like fermented dairy (yogurt) and food (kimchi, sourdough bread).

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Antioxidant-rich foods

Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants—nutrients with numerous health benefits. WebMD says to favor colors like yellow, orange, red, blue, and purple when incorporating the three notable antioxidants: beta-carotene (in carrots, apricots, asparagus), vitamin C, and vitamin E (avocado, mangoes, spinach).

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Avoid nicotine and smoking

Nicotine is an immunosuppressive in cigarette smoke and e-cigarettes. Negative effects of smoking include inflammation, increased cortisol levels, decreased T cells’ response, and impaired immune response, making it more difficult to fight infection.

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Drink alcohol in moderation

Alcohol disrupts the microbiome (previously mentioned regarding probiotics), thus throwing off the balance of bacteria and leading to inflammation that could ultimately damage the liver. You actually give your body more work to do when you drink excessively, forcing it to focus its response on detoxification—to the detriment of immune system function. Your best bet is to practice moderation.

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Wash your hands frequently (and thoroughly!)

Thorough handwashing with soap and water is an immediate preventative measure for the spread of bacteria and viruses. Influenza and gastrointestinal infections are just two communicable examples from contaminated hands. 

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Boost vitamin D in the body

The body can produce vitamin D (unlike C), though you can maximize intake through supplements, food sources like mushrooms, eggs, and cheese, and of course natural sunlight. Vitamin D helps to reduce virus and bacteria spread.

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Maintain high levels of B12

B12 is essential to a healthy immune system, as well as a healthy brain, robust red blood cell count, and DNA maintenance. Decreased levels of B12 in the body can severely limit immune responses. Foods naturally high in B12 include meat, milk products, poultry, and fish, as well as nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, nori seaweed, and tempeh.

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Eat more plants

Whether it's carrots for beta carotene or broccoli for vitamin C, plants are filled with nutrition that helps to support a healthy immune system. To maximize the nutritional value of the plants you cook, try to avoid boiling the foods. Best bets are steaming, grilling, or roasting.

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Limit your sugar intake

We all know sugar isn’t good for us, but sugar also inhibits our immune-system response to bacteria for several hours following excessive consumption. To prevent an overload of sugar, stay away from syrupy sodas and processed foods in general. Quick tip: If you see a food item marked as fat-free or low-fat, there’s a high probability it’s loaded with sugar to make up for the lack in flavor.

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Stay connected

Social interactions—even virtual—provide much-needed boosts to our immune systems. A 2016 study from researchers at the University of Virginia found socializing can actually activate the immune system—and that conversely, a desire to socialize decreases when the immune system is compromised.

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Avoid processed foods

Processed foods are loaded with calories, which in turn can increase inflammation in the body, making it more difficult to fight off threats. These types of foods also lack nutritional value; in other words, if you fill up on processed foods you may not be consuming the foods that can help boost your immune system, like fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean forms of protein.

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Maintain a healthy weight

Excess body fat, which increases inflammation in the body, negatively affects the immune system. A 2010 study by Australian researchers published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology Metabolism discovered that losing even 10 pounds could help people struggling with obesity balance their immune system.

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Get fresh air

Indoor air, germs included, gets cycled through air vents, making outdoor air cleaner. If you live in a home without a yard, it may be harder than usual to get that breath of fresh air with much of the country quarantined or on lockdown right now. Even cracking a window when you’re stuck inside can help circulate fresh air within your environment and give your immune system a slight rest.

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Replenish electrolytes

Electrolytes is a buzzword frequently used in marketing sport and wellness drinks, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t beneficial. Calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium are all common electrolytes, which are minerals responsible for regulating the balance of fluids in the human body. Magnesium in particular can boost the immune system. When people sweat or become otherwise dehydrated, they lose electrolytes vital to a high-functioning body. Make sure to pay attention to the nutritional labels of electrolyte drinks, as these products can sometimes have a great deal of added sugar.

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Eat more mushrooms

Various types of mushrooms have been touted for their medicinal properties for centuries—and it’s more than an old wives’ tale. Edible mushrooms are full of protein, antioxidants, and vitamins and minerals, and there is evidence that certain types of mushrooms, such as turkey tail and shiitake (among others), can support and strengthen the immune system. Beware of products that market magical cures from mushrooms: They are likely too good to be true.

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Increase protein intake

A diet without enough protein could lead to a weaker immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off both bacterial and viral infections. The amino acids—aka the building blocks of life—that make up proteins stick around after digestion and help repair body tissue among carrying out countless other bodily functions.

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