12 Simple Habits to Naturally Boost Your Immune System

What you eat, your attitude, and the amount of exercise you get can all play a role in strengthening your immune system and preventing illness.

Have a giggle

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Laughter can boost your immune system along with your mood. It raises levels of antibodies in the blood and those of the white blood cells that attack and kill bacteria and viruses. It also increases the number of antibodies in the mucus made in the nose and respiratory passages, the entry points for many germs—here are some other weird facts about laughter you probably didn't know.

Sing your way healthy

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A study of a German choir revealed that singing activates the spleen, helping to increase the blood concentrations of antibodies and boost the immune system. If group singing isn’t for you, belt out your favorite tunes in the shower—even just listening to music has some great health benefits overall.

Choose friendly fats

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Some fats are essential for building cells and for the production of prostaglandins, hormone-like compounds that help to regulate the immune system’s response to infection, such as the way it reacts by making white blood cells that combat invaders. Italian athletes on very low-fat diets were found to be significantly short of these cells. The secret is to choose your fats with care. Opt for unsaturated vegetable fats rather than saturated ones from animal foods, which reduce the ability of white blood cells to zap bacteria. And avoid trans fats, manufactured fats labeled as “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated.” Often found in processed foods and baked goods, they can interfere with the immune system. Here are some signs you need more healthy fats in your diet.

Stay away from sugar

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Just 10 teaspoons of sugar—the amount in two 12-ounce cans of soda or carbonated lemonade—impairs the ability of white blood cells to deactivate or kill bacteria. Opt instead for a natural sweetener, such as one made from the stevia plant to boost the immune system. Try to limit calorie-free alternatives such as aspartame. Here's how you can work to limit the amount of sugar in your diet.

 

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Feast on fish

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Oily fish such as sardines, herring, and mackerel contain protein—essential for building the cells that boost your immune system—and the fatty acids called omega-3s, which regulate immune system function. When the body is attacked, acute inflammation is the body’s first response. But omega-3s lower the production of inflammatory compounds and increase the production of anti-inflammatory ones, thus aiding recovery and even suppressing the growth of cancer cells. In clinical trials, omega-3s have also been found to activate parts of the immune system that switch off the activities of attack cells once their job is done. Not a fish fan? Add these omega-3 foods to your diet instead.

Make room for mushrooms

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The rare reishi mushroom has been valued in the Far East for more than 2,000 years. Experts now know that this fungus stimulates the production of T-cells—white blood cells involved in protecting the body from infection. It increases levels of substances that strengthen the immune response. And it promotes sleep and reduces stress by suppressing the production of the stimulant hormone adrenaline.

Eat more citrus

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Vitamin C, found in high concentrations in oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit, boosts the activity of phagocytes (cells that engulf and digest bacteria) in the blood (and, vitamin C is found in these foods that aren't oranges, as well!). The body can’t store vitamin C, so you need to consume some every day to boost your immune system.

Get moving

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Your immune system responds to exercise by producing more of the blood cells that attack bacterial invaders. And the more regularly you exercise, the more long-lasting the changes become. U.S. research shows that people who exercise moderately on five or six days a week have half as many colds and sore throats as people who don’t. Check out these motivation tips if you need an extra push to get to the gym.

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But get rest too

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Moderation is key. If you work out intensively for 90 minutes, production of germ-fighting cells called macrophages dips temporarily, increasing the risk of infection. So always include plenty of recovery days in your training schedule to preserve immune system health.

Toughen up with almonds

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To help ward off viral infections, make 3 ounces of almonds part of your daily diet—but keep the skins on. Italian researchers studying the herpes viruses that cause cold sores have found that a chemical in almond skins improves the ability of white blood cells to detect viruses; they found that the chemical could also help prevent a virus from spreading throughout the body. Add a handful of almonds to your morning cereal or oatmeal to boost your immune system and keep viruses at bay.

Don’t let yourself freeze

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Mom was right: You’re more likely to catch an infection if you—especially your extremities—are cold. In one study, 90 people kept their feet in a bowl of cold water for 20 minutes and the same number put their feet in an empty container for a similar length of time. Five days later, 20 percent of people with chilled feet had developed colds compared with 9 percent of those whose feet stayed warm. Having cold extremities seems to reduce the supply of white blood cells, the immune system’s first line of defense against invaders. These are the clear signs a cold is coming on—and how to stop it.

Resist infection with veggies

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Garlic and onions in soup, stews, and other dishes are both sources of potent antiviral substances that can boost your resistance to infection. Plenty of other vegetables can add to your infection-fighting armory, including carrots and sweet potatoes. They are rich in beta carotene, which has an anti-inflammatory action and raises the rate at which white blood cells are produced. Other powerful allies include chile peppers, which thin nasal mucus; shiitake mushrooms, which aid white blood cell production; and ginger, which counteracts inflammation (ginger also has these other surprising health benefits as well).

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