Written by Dr. Olivia Rose, ND
Your immune system plays an important role in keeping you healthy throughout the year, even when you are not aware of it. However, for it to function optimally, a strong foundation needs to be established and maintained. The considerations for optimizing your immune system include a healthy and well-balanced diet, good quality and quantity of sleep, a regular exercise routine, stress management techniques and solid dietary supplement support.
Here's our foundational guide for optimal immune health.
Consume a whole foods diet
Providing the body with the appropriate antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals is essential for immune function. A diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables is full of these nutrients and is supportive of a healthy immune system.1 Aim for 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day to obtain adequate levels of these compounds.
Highly processed foods are higher in trans fats, inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and simple carbohydrates, all of which can hinder the immune response.2 Try to avoid processed foods such as pastries, white breads, fried foods, and sugary cereals when looking to optimize your immune health.
Without proper sleep, the body cannot regulate an effective immune response.3 Both the innate and adaptive arms of the immune system are impacted from a lack of sleep. During sleep, your body produces immune proteins called cytokines which are used to fight off infection. A lack of sleep is associated with an increased risk of infection and a diminished response to vaccination.3 Adults should aim for around 8 hours of sleep each night. If you are having trouble sleeping, seek assistance with this from a healthcare professional.
Exercise – but not too much and not too little
Exercise is important for a healthy immune response; however, it is equally important to not over-exercise. Studies that look at the impact of exercise on immune health find that there is an exercise ‘sweet-spot’. Prolonged periods of intense exercise training can depress immunity, while regular, moderate intensity exercise is favourable.4
Examples of moderate exercise vary depending on current activity levels. Moderate exercise includes taking a brisk walk, a yoga class, jogging, weightlifting, swimming, or hiking. Try to incorporate more movement in your everyday life rather than adding in more gym sessions when looking to support immunity.
Find ways to manage your stress
It can be difficult to reduce the amount of stress in your life, however, chronically elevated stress levels can dampen the immune response.5 Therefore, it can be helpful to implement strategies to help you cope with your stress. Add in activities such as meditation, deep breathing exercises and hobbies you enjoy for an outlet to deal with chronic stress.
Implement a daily supplement routine
Vitamin C is an important nutrient for immune function in all age groups.6 A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is needed to maintain proper vitamin C levels. Many populations in North America may need a vitamin C supplement if not eating these foods in their everyday diet. A high-quality multivitamin containing important vitamins and minerals can also be helpful for those who may not be getting adequate fruits and vegetables in their diet.
Zinc is an especially important mineral for proper immune function.7 It is crucial for the development and function of immune cells.7 Supplementing with zinc was found to reduce the duration of the common cold by 33% in a 2017 study. 7
Mushrooms such as Chaga, Reishi, Lion’s Mane, Cordyceps, Turkey Tail, and Maitake mushrooms are gaining popularity for their adaptogenic and immune-boosting properties. Mushrooms have adaptive qualities which can help the body manage stress.8 Therefore, mushrooms may be useful for adults who find themselves struggling to manage stress and would like to improve overall immune function and energy.9 Mushrooms are important for immune function in part, due to their beta-glucan content. Beta-glucans are special polysaccharides found in cell walls of mushrooms and yeasts such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Glucans are part of a group of biologically active natural molecules with immune-stimulating function.8 Taking a mushroom supplement, or an isolated compound of beta glucan can be beneficial for the immune system.
By following our above guide, you will have a solid foundation for a healthy immune system which can keep you healthy as you enter the fall and winter months.
- A Puertollano M, Puertollano E, Alvarez de Cienfuegos G, A de Pablo M. Dietary antioxidants: immunity and host defense. Current topics in medicinal chemistry. 2011 Jul 1;11(14):1752-66.
- Jafar N, Edriss H, Nugent K. The effect of short-term hyperglycemia on the innate immune system. The American journal of the medical sciences. 2016 Feb 1;351(2):201-11.
- Irwin MR. Sleep and inflammation: partners in sickness and in health. Nature Reviews Immunology. 2019 Nov;19(11):702-15.
- Simpson RJ, Kunz H, Agha N, Graff R. Exercise and the regulation of immune functions. Progress in molecular biology and translational science. 2015 Jan 1;135:355-80.
- Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Doyle WJ, Miller GE, Frank E, Rabin BS, Turner RB. Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2012 Apr 17;109(16):5995-9.
- Bucher A, White N. Vitamin C in the prevention and treatment of the common cold. American journal of lifestyle medicine. 2016 May;10(3):181-3.
- Hemilä H. Zinc lozenges and the common cold: a meta-analysis comparing zinc acetate and zinc gluconate, and the role of zinc dosage. JRSM open. 2017 Apr;8(5):2054270417694291.
- Akramienė D, Kondrotas A, Didžiapetrienė J, Kėvelaitis E. Effects of ß-glucans on the immune system. Medicina. 2007 Aug;43(8):597.
- Government of Canada, H. C. (2007, May 8). Ingredient search. Mushrooms. Retrieved September 21, 2022, from http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/atReq.do?atid=mushrooms.champignons&lang=eng