5 Important Ways to Build Immunity
The right vaccines and lifestyle steps can help you fend off illness
Your immune system is a complex network of cells, organs, and tissues that help your body fight against infection, protect against serious diseases, and help you heal faster from injury. But this key defender of your health may need some extra support over the years.
“As we get older, our physical self is not as strong and robust as we were when we were 22, and the same holds true for our immune system,” says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
Your body is likely to produce fewer infection-fighting T-cells than it once did, and you may also have higher levels of chronic inflammation. Both factors can make you more vulnerable to illness. But you can take several steps to help bolster your immunity. Experts recommend these five.
1. Get Needed Vaccines
If you’ve had—or been vaccinated against—diseases such as measles or mumps, that protection remains throughout adulthood, Schaffner says.
But some illnesses are trickier. After you’ve had chickenpox, for example, the virus lies inactive near your brain and spinal cord. It can reactivate years later to cause shingles, a painful blistering body rash. Other diseases, like influenza, require annual shots each year.
2. Eat for Immunity
An eating style that includes a wide range of nutrients, such as the Mediterranean diet, may help make a difference in your immune system’s response. A study published this past March in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition found that regions where people were more likely to follow this dietary pattern had fewer infections and deaths from COVID-19. “It may also help ramp down chronic inflammation, which can contribute to worse outcomes from the disease,” says Katherine L. Tucker, PhD, director of the Center for Population Health at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. To eat for immunity, choose a largely plant-based diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, along with small amounts of healthy fats like olive oil, she says.
Consider putting the following on your plate regularly:
- Fatty fish. It’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which research shows improve the functioning of immune system cells. Tucker recommends two servings per week of fish like salmon or sardines.
- Sunflower seeds and almonds. Nuts and seeds are generally healthy. But sunflower seeds and almonds have particular immunity benefits, Tucker says.
- Low-fat yogurt. Yogurt contains probiotics, “good” bacteria that help build your gut microbiome. And a healthy microbiome is key for immunity, says Lauri Wright, PhD, chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
3. Move More
A brisk daily 30- to 45-minute walk may go a long way in boosting immunity. “Exercise improves the function of T-cells and natural killer cells, the immune cells that are on your body’s front line when it comes to fighting viruses,” says David Nieman, DrPH, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. Research done by Nieman found that the more fit women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are, the less likely they are to develop upper respiratory infections. “We found their T-cells were operating at level similar to a 40- or a 50-year-old woman,” he says. Consider adding tai chi: A 2020 study published in the journal Medicines found that this gentle mind-body exercise had a small but significant effect on immune function.
4. Get Your ZZZ's
Even one night of lousy sleep has been shown to destroy some natural killer cells, which you need for good immunity. One 2021 study published in the journal Sleep Health found that people who got less than 5 hours of sleep a night were 44 percent more likely to report a head or chest cold than those who slept for 7 to 8 hours. For better sleep, try to maintain the same sleep schedule every day so that you wake up and go to bed at the same time, says Guibin Li, MD, PhD, a geriatrician at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. This keeps your circadian rhythms running smoothly, which may improve immunity, she says. Most older adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night.
5. Avoid Germs
Though mask-wearing and other precautions we’ve been taking throughout the COVID-19 pandemic don’t actually improve immunity, they can help protect you from exposure to viruses. “The flu essentially disappeared last year, which shows how effective these types of interventions are,” says Fred Ko, MD, a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
And together, they can make a real difference. “While the flu vaccines are great, they still have some holes,” says John Swartzberg, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. “If you add masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowds, it really helps fill in those holes.” Aside from needed vaccines, wearing masks in crowded indoor areas may be the most important step in preventing COVID-19 and flu, Swartzberg says. For example, older research found that wearing surgical masks led to roughly three times less aerosol shedding of the flu virus. In addition, avoid obviously sick people and wash your hands well and often.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the January 2022 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.