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7 Secret Ways Doctors Boost Their Immune Systems

Doctors swear by these daily habits to give your immune system a boost and help prevent what can become serious conditions.

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Getting run down with a cold or flu is a drag—but catching a bad case of the latest bug going around can be more dangerous than you may think. The US is currently experiencing the greatest number of flu hospitalizations in a decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In part, this is because the body aches, fever, congestion, and fatigue common with colds and flus weaken your body and increase inflammation, which can make any pre-existing medical conditions worse. For instance, 2018 research in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine suggested that your risk of a heart attack is six times higher when you have the flu. Still, when the flu’s taxing your body, you can also develop complications that lead to illnesses like pneumonia.

Nothing can guarantee that you won’t get sick. But research shows that strengthening your immune system through lifestyle practices can considerably lower your chances of catching a bug—and reduce the severity and duration of symptoms if you do get sick. When it comes to avoiding infections, “it’s suspected that the terrain may be more important than the organism,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, a board-certified internist. This means that your body’s immune strength is likely more important than how strong a bug is, he explains.

So, how do we keep our immune system in full fighting form? Doctors share with The Healthy @Reader’s Digest their daily immune-boosting habits to keep their systems in shape all year long.

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Eat the rainbow

Fueling your body with a nutritious diet is incredibly important for immune function…but no matter how healthy your diet is, balance is key. Research shows that lack or deficiencies of minerals and vitamins negatively impacts immune response.

Fortunately, eating enough of everything you need doesn’t have to be difficult, according to Deepak Chopra, MD, author of the January 2023 book Living in the Light and co-founder of NeverAlone. He turns to a diet focused on plant-based eating featuring all seven colors of the rainbow and a split between various flavors like sweet, sour, salty, and bitter foods.

For when you need an extra boost, Dr. Teitelbaum says he optimizes with nutrients for the immune system. “Especially important would be getting at least 15 milligrams of zinc, 200 milligrams of vitamin C, 3000 units of vitamin D, and 150 µg of selenium daily,” he says. “Elderberry (300 milligrams) can also be very protective.”

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Stay hydrated all day

Every process in our body needs water to function well, including the immune system. When we’re exposed to a viral infection, our first line of defense is the immunoglobulin A (IgA) antibodies, says Dr. Teitelbaum. “[They’re] like our Navy,” he says, and they function best when we’re well-hydrated.

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Feed your gut

“I take a high-quality probiotic supplement daily, as well as incorporate prebiotic and probiotic foods to boost my gut microbiome,” says Kavita Desai, PharmD, a women’s health specialist and founder of Revivele. Research from 2021 in Nutrients said it’s estimated that our gut (also known as your intestinal tract or digestive system) contains 70% to 80% of the body’s immune cells.

For your gut to be healthy, it needs a diverse microbiome of good bacteria like prebiotics and probiotics. “Another great way to boost gut health is to eat a high-fiber diet,” she says. “For me, that means incorporating flaxseed into morning smoothies and making sure I eat a variety of vegetables with every meal.”

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Move whenever you can

Studies show that getting just 20 minutes of exercise has anti-inflammatory effects on our body, which pump up the immune system. “I like to start each day with a brisk walk,” Dr. Desai says. “Not only is this great exercise, but it’s an excellent way to boost mood and improve mental health,” each of which plays a role in high immune function. “Throughout the day, if I happen to be sitting a lot, I try to take a quick break every hour to move around or, oftentimes, I will stand while on a phone call or at my computer.”

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Maintain a sleep schedule

When we sleep, our body is able to repair damaged tissues and remove toxins that have accumulated throughout the day, says Katherine Hall, PhD, a sleep psychologist at Somnus Therapy. “Studies also show that sleep improves immune cells known as T-cells, which fight off cells infected by viruses and other pathogens and help keep us healthy.”

But the amount of sleep you get is just as important as its quality—and 2020 research showed that people who keep consistent sleep schedules (going to bed and waking up at the same time daily) have stronger immune systems.

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Manage stress

“Research has shown that short-term stress can activate our immune system—but long-term stress will contribute to suppressing it,” says Jeff Gladd, MD, an integrative medicine physician and chief medical officer at Fullscript. “It’s impossible to completely avoid or eliminate stress from our lives, but integrating exercise and daily mindfulness practices such as meditation and deep breathing can help us better cope with stress.”

Dr. Chopra recommends trying yoga and breathing techniques, as these “activate the vagal nerves, overriding the stress response.” In addition, he tries “not to take myself too seriously” by taking a beat when stress levels rise and watching something funny on Youtube.

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Prioritize social connection

Our relationships have a powerful impact in reducing stress levels, but isolating from others can also weaken your immune system, says Reuben K. Chen, MD, FAAPMR. “Frequent exposure to different pathogens from contact with people can actually strengthen your immune function. Research published in Frontiers in Psychology confirms that people who maintain healthy social connections actually produce more antibodies through their immune systems, helping to fight off disease and even live longer.

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Sources

SOURCES:

People:

Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, a board-certified internist

Deepak Chopra, MD, author of the upcoming book Living in the Light and co-founder of NeverAlone

Kavita Desai, PharmD., Women's Health Specialist and Founder of Revivele

Katherine Hall, PhD, a Sleep Psychologist at Somnus Therapy

Jeff Gladd, MD, an integrative medicine physician and chief medical officer at Fullscript

Reuben K. Chen, MD, FAAPMR

Websites:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report (FluView)"

Journals:

The New England Journal of Medicine: "Acute Myocardial Infarction after Laboratory-Confirmed Influenza Infection."

Lifestyle Medicine: "Strengthening immunity through healthy lifestyle practices: Recommendations for lifestyle interventions in the management of COVID‐19"

Frontiers in Physiology: "Physical Activity and Nutritional Influence on Immune Function: An Important Strategy to Improve Immunity and Health Status"

Nutrients: "The Interplay between the Gut Microbiome and the Immune System in the Context of Infectious Diseases throughout Life and the Role of Nutrition in Optimizing Treatment Strategies"

Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism: "Sleep timing, sleep consistency, and health in adults: a systematic review"

Frontiers in Psychology: "Do Social Connections and Digital Technologies Act as Social Cure During COVID-19?"

Leslie Finlay
In addition to The Healthy, Leslie has written for outlets such as WebMd.com, Fodors.com, LiveFit.com, and more, specializing in content related to healthcare, nutrition, mental health and wellness, and environmental conservation and sustainability. She holds a master's degree in Public Policy focused on the intersection between public health and environmental conservation, and an undergraduate degree in journalism. Leslie is based in Thailand, where she is a marine conservation and scuba diving instructor. In her spare time you'll find her up in the air on the flying trapeze or underwater, diving coral reefs.