Any path towards getting jacked or shredded is going to necessitate putting your body first—that much is obvious. Creating the perfect environment for your goals to flourish and your body to develop is one of the most intoxicating things about working out. However, sometimes this can cause us to lose sight of some of the basics.
The immune system is our primary defense against sickness, and it should be at the top of everyone’s list of priorities. If you’re too sick to work out, where are the gains going to come from?
Since there’s no magic pill you can take to boost your immune system, we’ve compiled a list of 7 ways that can help keep your immune system in tip-top shape—but first, let’s take a closer look at what exactly it is.
Every moment your immune system is working to keep out harmful bacteria and viruses, or working to combat the ones already in our bodies. But what exactly are we talking about when we say, “the immune system?”
Well for starters, the immune system is exactly what it sounds like—it’s a system, not a single “thing” that you can improve or switch on and off at a whim. That’s why it’s both such a powerful force for protecting us from illness, but also such a complex thing to “boost.” It requires a balance of several different aspects—most of which come with living a healthy life. There aren't necessarily any secrets or shortcuts, but there is a lot you can do to ensure that you’re keeping your body in illness-fighting shape.
In fact, there’s still a lot we don’t know when it comes down to all the connections between immune responses and the ways they’re triggered and improved. So, it’s difficult to say what works and what doesn’t, and what works for one person may not necessarily provide benefits for another.
The point is to approach “immune system boosting” in a holistic manner that takes into account a variety of lifestyle choices. And if you still get sick—you’ll at least be living your healthiest life when it comes to having a well-functioning body.
As we mentioned above, the immune system is just that—a system. So, it’s difficult to point to a single thing and claim that that is what we must target if we want to strengthen the whole shebang.
However, there are some places we can begin to look at in order to give us a better idea of what we should be doing.
For example, the lymphoid organs are what release white blood cells that help to regulate our immune systems. These types of white blood cells are what cause inflammation, which is normally a good thing when it comes to helping your body fight illness. However, prolonged inflammation isn’t very cash money.
This flows into the first topic of discussion—but anti-inflammatory agents (such as nutrients) are helpful when it comes to fighting these prolonged bouts of inflammation. This is why we’ll begin by talking about diet first.
And we won’t keep you on the edge of your seat—diet, along with sleep and exercise, are the most important components of a healthily functioning immune system. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, since these are the aspects that also ensure that our bodies function at their highest capacity. Whether that’s functioning in our day to day lives, or in getting a new PR in the iron temple.
You can’t out-train a bad diet, and you can’t keep your immune system in fighting shape either. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, but there are several ways that you can tweak a balanced diet to better reflect a healthy immune function.
The first is eating whole, plant foods—and a lot of them.
Many plant-based foods have antimicrobial and antiviral properties that help to fight off viral infections, along with having the aforementioned antioxidant properties. The fiber found in plants also helps our gut microbiome which helps to protect us from any pathogens entering our body via the digestive tract.
While we’ll talk more about certain nutrients in the supplements section, it is important to note that vegetables, fruits, and leafy greens often contain a lot of vitamin C and other important immune system-boosting nutrients. Vitamin C deficiency has been shown to increase the likelihood of infection, for example. Citrus fruits really take the cake in this regard, since they’re rich in vitamin C, which is often touted as a way to combat the common cold.
Vegetables such as bell peppers, broccoli, and spinach also contain a ton of both vitamin C and other important micronutrients and minerals that will help to keep your immune system chugging along.
Furthermore, spices such as:
All contain antimicrobial and antiviral properties that can ramp up your body’s defenses and offer other health benefits as well.
Fermented and Probiotic Foods
While getting enough fiber is one of the first steps in helping our digestive tract help us, there are a host of other foods that contain beneficial bacteria (probiotics).
These foods include things such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
Always make sure that you’re getting yogurts that have live and active cultures, however. And it’s always important to keep in mind to avoid the ones that are loaded up with flavorings and sugars. The plainest yogurt is often the best when it comes to giving your body the probiotics it needs.
Protein and Healthy Fats
In terms of healthy fats, evidence shows that they can help as anti-inflammatory agents.
These are the fats commonly found in foods such as fish (salmon) and olive oil. Especially the latter, olive oil, has been linked to decreased risks when it comes to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Furthermore, omega-3 fatty acids also help to combat inflammation. These fats are found in foods such as salmon and chia seeds.
Protein as a whole is also extremely important for the proper functioning of the immune system. Protein helps both build and maintain immune cells, and meats such as chicken are rich in vitamin B-6—an important nutrient for many of the chemical reactions that ensure that our bodies function properly.
This vitamin is also important to the formation of red blood cells—so don’t be skimping on the chicken soup.
Hey! Here’s your reminder to drink a glass of water. Don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere.
Staying hydrated is important to your overall health. While that doesn’t directly protect you from germs and viruses, your overall health is paramount when it comes to boosting your immune function.
Becoming dehydrated will get in the way of physical and mental performance, causing your mood to drop, digestion to become hindered, and get in the way of proper kidney function. All of these drawbacks can increase your chances of becoming sick, so it’s best to avoid them.
The best rule of thumb is to drink when you’re thirsty. If, however, you live in a hot and dry climate, lose a lot of water in the form of sweat, or are older, it’s best to stray on the side of caution and drink a bit more than you might want to.
The importance of sleep can’t be overstated.
It’s important for developing muscle and it’s just as important (if not more) when it comes to strengthening your immune response.
When you’re sleeping, your body produces and distributes various immune cells throughout your body. These include cytokines, T cells, and interleukin 12. The roles these cells play roles ranging from fighting inflammation, to regulating the immune response.
If you don’t get enough sleep (a minimum of 7 hours, but it depends on the individual), then your body is far more susceptible to becoming sick or not being able to properly recover from illness. Furthermore, depriving yourself of the necessary amount of sleep also elevates your cortisol levels—being particularly bad for immune function. It’s all about keeping energy in the reserves to fight off sickness.
Irregular sleeping patterns—even if they’re long enough rests—can also prove to hinder your immune system.
Adults should be getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night, with that number going up to 10 for children. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that this will vary with the individual. The quality of your sleep matters as well. Practice good “sleep hygiene” by spending some time winding down at the end of the day—away from bright screens, for one.
And of course, exercise.
Whether it’s lifting, endurance-based, or purely aesthetics, some form of exercise is necessary for the well-oiled machine that is your body.
And when it comes to the immune system, that’s no less true.
For starters, regularly exercising helps lower the risk of developing chronic health conditions, such as obesity and heart diseases. That’s already a big plus, but exercise is also helpful in releasing endorphins—hormones that increase feelings of pleasure. We’ll get into this down below, but managing your stress levels is also a key aspect for keeping your immune system strong.
There is some evidence that suggests that high-intensity exercise leaves your immune system susceptible for a few hours after the workout, but the evidence on this isn’t watertight. And even if it does prove to be true, there’s a ton of evidence that shows that active people have less of a risk of getting both acute illnesses and chronic illnesses.
The research, for now, seems to suggest that exercise helps our immune system become better at distributing immune cells throughout our bodies. And generally speaking, the more exercise you get the better.
While the CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week—those should be taken as generalizations. So, while resting is important and overtraining is a real issue, there isn’t so much of a problem when you’re looking to strengthen your immune functions.
Working out also has additional benefits when you do it outside.
Getting some fresh air, spending time in nature, and getting a dose of vitamin D from the C, all play a role in how well your body can combat illness—plus, you’ll get a sick tan and your mood will be improved. This brings us to the next point.
This is a big one, and it’s often ignored by a lot of people.
Medicine has begun to better appreciate the close link between the body and the mind, and we can point to a lot of illnesses that are somehow linked to mental health. Therefore, stress and immune function are closely interlinked—even though stress is a difficult thing to study.
People react to stressful situations differently, and a stressful situation for one person may not be stressful for another. There’s also the difference between short, one-off stressors and the feeling of constant and frequent stress. For example, chronic stress causes a rise in cortisol. This hormone is usually beneficial, since it’s part of our “fight or flight” response, and ensures that our immune system doesn’t respond before the stressful situation is over.
However, if the levels of cortisol in your body are high on a consistent basis, that means your immune system is also constantly suppressed to some level—obviously not a good thing. The good news is that there are several different options for destressing.
For a subjective aspect like this, different things are going to work for different people. We’ve already mentioned working out and spending time in nature, but other options include adding a meditation habit to your daily routine.
Leisure activities such as fishing, painting, or golfing, can also help in combating high-stress levels. Not to mention the mental benefits of making love to someone.
The point is to include some sort of fun or leisurely activity in your day to day—especially for those times you’re feeling particularly stressed. And while for you that might include partying hard on the weekends, make sure not to overdo it….
While certain alcohols have been linked to some positive health effects—moderation is absolutely key. Alcohol is more often linked to negative health effects, one of which is a compromised immune system function.
When you booze it up too hard, your body is focused on detoxifying your body instead of protecting it from illness. Those who drink too much alcohol have an increased chance of catching pneumonia, getting acute respiratory distress syndrome, and liver diseases.
And not to rain on your parade too hard, but cigarettes are also a big no-no.
The chemicals released by cigarettes have an effect on the proper functioning of immune cells, thereby hindering your system’s functioning. Furthermore, smoking can also make certain respiratory infections worse, and lead to chronic illnesses.
Lastly, we have sugar.
Sugars and refined carbs have a disproportionate contribution to causing obesity, which is a bad thing if you’re trying to stay healthy. So, while staying hydrated is important, make sure that most of that hydration is coming from water—not pop or sweetened teas.
Things like asthma, diabetes, or heart diseases can have significant effects on one’s immune system.
In order to prevent certain preventable illnesses, it’s important to keep these chronic conditions in check and make sure that they’re being managed well. If your body needs to recover or defend against an illness, it’s going to take more work due to the chronic condition.
We’ve already discussed some of the most important vitamins that you can include in a healthy diet to give your immune system an edge, but there’s plenty more that will help you out as well.
Outside of the daily multi-vitamin, things like vitamins A and vitamin E, selenium, zinc, elderberry, echinacea, and garlic have all been shown to strengthen immune system responses. While the jury is still out on some of these, there is increasing evidence that they do help. Furthermore, if you’re a tea drinker that’s also a good way to boost immune function. Especially teas that come from the camellia sinensis plant, and matcha.
And if you’re looking to kill two birds with one stone, take a look at our supplement immune stack that’s sure to boost your immune system.
As much as you prepare, chances are that you won’t be able to prepare for absolutely everything. Things will break down, and you will get sick.
However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to minimize the risks.
Taking into account the things we talked about above—living a healthy lifestyle that puts your body and mind first—will ensure that you’re as prepared as you can be when it comes to hitting those rough patches.