Looking to stave off colds? This guide will show you how to strengthen your immune system without having to chug a glass of Emergen-C.

By Sara Angle and Mary Anderson
Updated February 12, 2021
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Are you one of those people that always gets sick? You may chalk it up to bad luck, but research from Stanford University found that environment, rather than genetics, plays a predominant role in determining how well your immune system functions. Researchers looked at blood samples of over 100 sets of identical and fraternal twins to track more than 200 immune system components and activities, and they discovered that three-quarters of the differences between pairs were due to non-inheritable traits. That means keeping your immune system in tip-top condition is almost entirely up to you.

But remember, "A bigger immune response isn’t always better," says Julienne Bower, Ph.D., a researcher at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA. For some of its processes, you want it to be low; for others, you want it to be robust, depending on what your body is dealing with at a particular time.” Here, experts show you how to strengthen your immune system and keep it perfectly balanced.

Turn Down the Stress Levels

Mental stress is associated with inflammation in the body, which is a helpful immune response to an actual wound but otherwise consumes resources and can ultimately have negative effects on your health. “You generally want low levels of inflammation and, when needed, a targeted, time-limited inflammatory response,” says Bower. In other words, without an infection, you don’t need your immune system to be cranking. Daily doses of mindfulness can help strengthen your immune system — try a meditation app like MyLife. Or work in extra de-stressing activities, like reading a book or spending time with friends, at times you feel under the gun. (PSA, happiness can be a major booster too.)

Laugh More

Those cat videos? Totally good for you and your immune system. People who laughed out loud at least once while watching a funny video saw a 50 to 100 percent increase in their baseline natural killer cell activity, the cells primed to kill viruses, one study found. Buy tickets to a local stand-up comedy show, check out the movie with the funniest reviews, or plan a coffee date with your goofball friend and your body will thank you.

Meditate

Mindful meditation can lead to greater activation in the left anterior side of the brain, a part associated with having a positive affect on the immune system, according to a study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. In the experiment, participants who meditated for eight weeks showed an increased immune response to the flu shot. Specifically, transcendental meditation – which uses repetition of mantras – can increase natural killer cells, a second study found.

Eat Micronutrient-Rich Foods

While there are no magic, cure-all foods to prevent getting sick, there is some evidence that micronutrient deficiencies can alter immune responses, notes a Harvard Health report. Deficiencies in zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E could all effect your immunity. Most of these can be found in the foods you eat, like veggies and whole grains, but if you're eating many processed foods and ordering take-out, you may not be getting all the micronutrients you need to strengthen your immune system. Don't overdo it on vitamins to make up for poor eating, but a daily multivitamin won't hurt. (Related: 15 Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods You Should Be Eating Regularly)

Breathe Better

One tool can help keep your airway defenses humming: a humidifier. “Our respiratory system requires a certain amount of moisture for removal of foreign substances that we inhale,” says Akiko Iwasaki, Ph.D., an immunobiology professor at Yale. Below 40 percent humidity (think: a heated room), airborne viruses or bacteria accumulate in the lungs.

Power Through a Tough Workout

Another magic feat of exercise: It helps increase the body’s cellular waste removal system. “That’s important because you don’t want all this waste to be accumulating in the cells,” says Iwasaki. “The immune response requires healthy cells to operate.” Try this functional strength workout to strengthen your immune system. (For more info, check out this deep-dive into exercise's relationship with your immune system.)

Get a Massage

As if you needed an excuse for a massage! A 45-minute rub down supports pathogen-fighting white blood cells and reduces inflammatory proteins, which have been connected to autoimmune diseases, showed one study. Further research found that the best time to get that immune-boosting massage is actually after a tough workout. A great combo, since you already know the staying powers exercise can have on strengthening your immune system. (With these tips, you can even give yourself a spa-like massage at home.)

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