The immune system is a network of cells, tissues, and organs that help your body fight infections, illnesses, and diseases. It works to recognize and protect against these foreign invaders that can make you sick.
When your immune system is functioning properly, it’s able to stop or fight off germs or foreign cells that can cause you harm, according to the Cleveland Clinic. So, it makes sense to want to know how to keep your immune system at peak function.
But is there anything you can do to boost your immune system, or is boosting the immune system just a concept created to market wellness products such as packaged foods, drinks, and supplements?
The Claim About Boosting Your Immune System
You’ve probably seen ads for things like supplements that claim the ingredients will boost your immune system. And in an atmosphere where we’ve seen multiple respiratory viruses (think COVID-19, RSV, and the flu) spreading at once, it can be tempting to buy into those types of claims — especially if the promise is you won’t get sick or you’ll recover from illness faster.
“The concept of boosting or strengthening the immune system is problematic because it highlights the idea that immunity is like a muscle we can strengthen and train with supplements,” says Christine Kingsley, advanced practice registered nurse and health and wellness director at the Lung Institute in Manchester, Connecticut.
The Scientific Research on Healthy Immune Systems
This belief that you can strengthen the immune system is a key reason people use nutritional supplements, according to research, but some marketing claims can be misleading.
“The immune system is a highly complex, tightly regulated system, so it’s challenging for a particular supplement or food to have a significant effect in ‘boosting’ the immune system,” says Megan Meyer, PhD, a science communications consultant based in Durham, North Carolina. She also explains that an overactive immune system shouldn’t be a goal.
Your immune system is made up of several different elements, and each plays a role in defending the body against harmful invaders that can make you ill or cause damage. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the main parts of the immune system include:
- White blood cells
- Lymph nodes
- Tonsils and adenoids
- Bone marrow
- Skin and mucus membranes
- Stomach and bowels
While you want this system to function well, you don’t necessarily need to “boost” it. And there isn’t really evidence to prove that certain actions or nutrients can boost the immune system. Kingsley says she prefers to use the term nurture the immune system, which is more in line with what we currently know about how nutrition and healthy habits impact the body’s various systems, including immunity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Cleveland Clinic recommend these tips to help immune system function:
The Top Nutrients for Immunity
“There are a few micro and macronutrients that can support immune health,” says Meyer.
Zinc is a nutrient found in the body that helps the immune system and metabolism function, according to Mayo Clinic. If you get enough zinc through your diet, you usually don’t need a supplement. But there is some research to suggest zinc supplements can be used to potentially prevent or decrease symptoms in a variety of health issues, including the common cold and pneumonia. Meyer recommends taking zinc supplements or using zinc lozenges at the first sign of a cold. As the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health notes, avoid intranasal zinc, which is associated with loss of smell.
Vitamin D, which the body gets from food and direct sun exposure, also plays a role in immune system function. One study examined the potential benefits of vitamin D supplementation in U.S. veterans in reducing infection and mortality rates from COVID-19. Researchers found an association between vitamin D and reduced severity of infection and the spread of COVID-19. Study participants with low vitamin D levels had received a higher benefit from supplementation than those who had higher vitamin D levels before getting the supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acids, also known as healthy fats, are found in certain plants and fatty fish and are essential in helping the body’s cells function properly, according to Cleveland Clinic. Meyer says omega-3s may also be helpful for supporting immune health, and one review suggests omega-3 supplementation may reduce the risk COVID-19 infection and decrease the duration of symptoms.
Sleep, or lack of sleep, can also have an impact on immune function. Meyer says lack of sleep has been shown to decrease key immune cells and increase inflammation, leading to a higher risk for infection. Research supports this notion. So, if you’re not getting enough consistent quality sleep, aiming to improve sleep habits can help your body’s immune system function better.
The Final Word on Whether You Can Boost Your Immune System
Healthy habits for your body and mind, as well as certain nutrients, help your immune system do its work, but they don’t necessarily boost it — and that’s not a bad thing.
Giving your body the fuel it needs to maintain immune system function by meeting nutritional requirements should be the goal, says Kingsley. She notes that supplements are most helpful when there’s a vitamin deficiency because the body will discard excess vitamins and minerals as waste.
“The tried-and-true foods — think a variety of fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean protein, and unsaturated fats [and] oils — are going to be your best bet for keeping your immune system healthy,” says Meyer.