How to boost your immune system naturally this winter

A triple-header infection season may be heading our way this winter, bringing flu, Covid and RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus). Even if you're vaccinated against flu and Covid, there are additional steps you can take to boost your immune system and lower your risk of getting sick. As a clinical dietitian at Stamford Health's Nutrition Counseling Center, here are some tips that everybody should try in order to boost their immune system naturally with immune-boosting foods and lifestyle changes.

Boosting your immune system with foods

Whether you're looking for foods to eat to prevent illness or foods to eat when you're sick, try these tips to perk up your immune system.

1. Eat well. Good nutrition is one of our best preventive medicines. The healthiest diet is the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, and has minimal sugar.

2. Choose citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits, tomatoes) as a great source of Vitamin C, but also consider red peppers, which have three times as much vitamin C as green peppers. Ideally, you should get your vitamins through healthy foods rather than supplements. Mega-dosing on Vitamin C won't ward off illness because it's water soluble and your body will excrete what it doesn't absorb.

3. Avoid inflammatory foods. All illnesses stem from some degree of inflammation. Inflammation is the body's first line of defense against various assaults, including tissue damage, viruses, and bacteria. Redness, swelling, and fever are signs that your body isn't healthy, and your immune system is sending healing white blood cells to affected sites. Sometimes, however, your body sends out inflammatory cells even if you're not sick or injured. This can cause chronic inflammation and lead to painful conditions like arthritis. Sugar can trigger inflammation, so make sure only 10% of your daily calories come from added sugar. (One can of Coke contains 78% of your recommended sugar intake!)

4. Keep your gut healthy. Like the rest of your body, your gut contains good and bad bacteria. Infection indicates that you have more bad bacteria than good. Probiotics, a good source of good bacteria, can help restore the balance of bacteria in your body, support healthy immune function, and control inflammation. Probiotics typically contain a variety of microorganisms, most commonly bacteria that belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. They may also contain organisms that occur in yeasts, like Saccharomyces boulardii. You can take over-the-counter probiotic-supplements, or consume them naturally in foods, such as:

  • Yogurt

  • Buttermilk

  • Sourdough bread

  • Cottage cheese

  • Kombucha

  • Tempeh

  • Fermented pickles

  • Fermented sauer

  • krautKimch

  • Miso soup

Boosting your immunity with lifestyle changes

What you eat is only half the battle when it comes to boosting your immune system naturally. The following lifestyle changes can boost your overall health and help your immune system tackle germs that come your way.

1. Reduce stress. Stress, whether psychological or physiological, compromises the immune system. Too much stress can make you susceptible to physical and mental illness, including depression. It actually may shave years off your life. There are many ways to reduce stress throughout the day, including exercise, meditation, drinking herbal tea instead of coffee or other caffeinated beverages, walking, massage, and warm baths.

2. Exercise. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, to maintain good health.

3. Drink moderately. Women should limit their alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day, and men should have no more than two drinks per day.

4. Nourish meaningful social connections. Good relationships feed emotional health, and good emotional health protects the immune system. Reduce holiday stress by spending time with people in your life who bring you comfort and joy, and make you laugh.