3 Tips to Help Strengthen The Immune System in 24 hours
By Ellen Albertson, PhD, RDN, NBC-HWC
In this article:
You’ve been stressed, overwhelmed by a demanding schedule, and skimping on sleep. Suddenly you feel sick. It starts with a sore throat, a runny nose, and a mild headache. A few hours later you experience chills, muscle aches, and fatigue that make working difficult. Clearly, your body is talking: Slow down and double down on the self-care, it begs, but who has the time?
While a magic solution to completely knock out an infection does not exist, there are numerous natural approaches you can take to boost your immune system. Doing so can support your body so it can fight a virus, like the common cold or the flu.
Like an army with many units, your immune system is a complicated defense complex made up of various cells, chemicals, tissues, and organs. It’s on 24/7, working constantly to protect your body from harmful substances (viruses, bacteria, and toxins) and defend it against disease and infection.
The first line of defense is the skin, stomach acid, friendly bacteria, and mucous membranes. Like the walls of a fortress, these physical and chemical barriers prevent pathogens from entering and spreading throughout your body.
If an invader gets past the first line of defense, your innate (natural) immune system is triggered. Cells called phagocytes identify and destroy foreign cells. If they can’t handle the infection they release messengers called cytokines that call backup cells (lymphocytes) to join the battle.
To run efficiently, function optimally, and fight off disease, your immune system needs training, balance, and support. Managing stress, eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, taking a good multivitamin (to ensure you get all the nutrients you need), exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep, and staying hydrated are important long-term strategies that help keep your immune system strong.
However, even if you do take good care of your body you still may be vulnerable to infection. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to boost your immune system fast. Here are some suggestions.
Sleep reboots the immune system and has a big impact on your body’s ability to fight infection. So as soon as you notice you’re feeling run down, unplug, take a nap, and go to bed early.
Your body makes several types of cells and antibodies that fight infections while you’re sleeping. Not only are you more likely to fall ill when exposed to viruses, if you get sick and aren’t sleeping well it can take longer to recover. A 2015 study found that individuals who slept less than six hours a night were more than four times more likely to catch a cold than people who slept more than seven hours.
Having trouble sleeping? Create a sleep routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Turn off electronics about an hour before retiring. Keep your room dark and cool. Avoid caffeine, large meals, and alcohol close to bedtime.
Taking melatonin, a hormone produced naturally by the body can help promote rest. Several herbs can also enhance sleep including valerian, chamomile, and passionflower. Soaking in a warm tub with soothing essential oils like lavender or sipping a cup of tea that contains calming herbs like hops and rooibos encourages relaxation so you can fall asleep faster.
Developed centuries ago in India, a neti pot is a container that you fill with saline solution and use to rinse your nasal passages. Doing so can help reduce cold and flu symptoms and relieve nasal dryness and sinus headaches. A systematic review found that using a nose and throat wash to prevent and treat upper respiratory tract infections worked for a multitude of common viruses.
While no supplement will prevent or cure a disease, a number of vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other products may improve how your immune system responds to an infection.
Vitamin C is typically the first supplement that people reach for when they start to feel sick and for good reason. A scientific panel concluded that there is a cause and effect relationship between dietary intake of vitamin C and the normal function of the immune system.
Also known as ascorbic acid, the essential vitamin is found in high concentrations in immune cells and plays many important roles in regulating the immune system. As an antioxidant, it helps decrease inflammation. It also increases the activity of phagocytes and promotes the proliferation of lymphocytes.
While research has not shown that vitamin C supplementation reduces the chances of catching a cold, a meta-analysis of 29 controlled trials looking at the benefits of taking at least 200mg of vitamin C daily found it appeared to reduce cold duration and severity. Another study found that among individuals who exercised in chilly climates, those who took vitamin C to prevent colds halved their chances of developing a cold.
Vitamin D, the “sunshine” vitamin, is an important, fat-soluble vitamin used by all the body’s cells. Present in only a few foods (fatty fish and Shiitake mushrooms) and commonly added to others (particularly dairy products), vitamin D is also produced when the skin is exposed to sunlight.
Along with promoting calcium absorption and facilitating bone growth, vitamin D is an important stimulant for innate immunity. It enhances the ability of germ-fighting white blood cells and decreases inflammation. An analysis of 24 randomized controlled trials involving 11,321 subjects concluded that “Vitamin D supplementation was safe and it protected against ARIs” (acute respiratory infections).
Almost half of the world’s population is deficient in vitamin D, and most people in the United States don’t get enough, consuming less than the 400-800 IU recommended dose. While there is currently no agreement on the optimal level for vitamin D supplementation as well the safe upper level, the Institute of Medicine considers up to 4000 IU/day (100mcg) to be safe for adults.
A powerful antioxidant found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens, vitamin E plays a major role in enhancing immunity. Research shows that supplementation with vitamin E increases cellular immunity, particularly in older adults.
While vitamin E deficiency is rare in healthy people, most Americans get less than the recommended amount for adults (15mg) from diet alone. Taking a good multivitamin-mineral supplement, which typically contains about 13mg, can ensure you consume enough.
Found in many foods including seafood, beans, nuts, red meat, and poultry, zinc is an essential mineral that your immune system requires to function properly. Zinc helps kill viruses and bacteria and is needed by cells involved in innate immunity. When cells and tissues experience inflammation, zinc also acts as an antioxidant, stabilizing membranes and preventing free radicals from damaging normal cells.
Zinc supplementation has been used therapeutically and as a preventive agent for many respiratory tract infections and the common cold. An analysis of studies using zinc to treat or prevent the common cold concluded that “Zinc administered within 24 hours of onset of symptoms reduces the duration and severity of the common cold in healthy people.”
More than 20 percent of the world’s population is deficient in zinc. Studies have found that even a slight zinc deficiency can adversely impact your immune system. In general, adults consuming up to the daily upper limit (40mg) is considered safe.
Olive Tree Leaf Extract
Olive leaves in the form of an extract, tea, or powder have been used medicinally in Europe and the Mediterranean as a traditional remedy for centuries. The leaf contains a natural plant chemical called oleuropein that appears to have immune-stimulating, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and antioxidant properties.
While more research is needed to determine the impact of olive tree leaf extract on the immune system, test tube research has shown that it has antiviral properties and the ability to kill harmful microorganisms including candida and e.coli.
Friendly bacteria called probiotics are known for their ability to enhance gut health, improve some mental health conditions, and soothe digestive disorders. What many people don’t realize is that since a large percentage of your immune system is housed in your GI tract, consuming probiotics can strengthen it.
Whether taken as a supplement or fermented (i.e. yogurt, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut, and kefir), probiotics have numerous positive effects on immunity. They stimulate the immune system and trigger the production of cytokines. Plus, these friendly bacteria strengthen the gut so it can stop potentially harmful bacteria from growing. Research has also shown that regular consumption of probiotics can reduce your chances of getting an upper respiratory tract infection.
Garlic has been used medicinally for centuries to prevent and treat illness. Not only will it improve the taste of your soup or stir-fry, but the vegetable also appears to enhance how the immune system works by stimulating certain cells. Research has shown that compared to controls, people who took an aged garlic extract supplement increased the proliferation of natural immune cells and appeared to have less severe colds and flu.
While more human clinical studies are needed to prove its benefits on the immune system, garlic has anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antifungal, antibiotic, and antioxidant properties and may be able to help the body kill viruses and other harmful microorganisms.
During cold and flu season and a pandemic, knowing how to care for and strengthen your immune system to fight viral infections is particularly important. There’s no need to implement all of the measures mentioned. Start by taking stellar care of your body all the time–not just when you get the sniffles. Make immune health a top priority, and you’ll maximize your overall health and wellbeing.
- Hemilä H. Vitamin C and Infections. Nutrients. 2017 Mar 29;9(4):339. doi: 10.3390/nu9040339. PMID: 28353648; PMCID: PMC5409678. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28353648/
- Hemilä H. Zinc lozenges and the common cold: a meta-analysis comparing zinc acetate and zinc gluconate, and the role of zinc dosage. JRSM Open. 2017 May 2;8(5):2054270417694291. doi: 10.1177/2054270417694291. PMID: 28515951; PMCID: PMC5418896. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28515951/
- Maldonado Galdeano C, Cazorla S, I, Lemme Dumit J, M, Vélez E, Perdigón G: Beneficial Effects of Probiotic Consumption on the Immune System. Ann Nutr Metab 2019;74:115-124. doi: 10.1159/000496426 https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/496426#
- Markin D, Duek L, Berdicevsky I. In vitro antimicrobial activity of olive leaves. Mycoses. 2003 Apr;46(3-4):132-6. doi: 10.1046/j.1439-0507.2003.00859.x. PMID: 12870202. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12870202/
- Martineau AR et al. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory infections: individual participant data meta-analysis. Health Technol Assess. 2019 Jan;23(2):1-44. doi: 10.3310/hta23020. PMID: 30675873; PMCID: PMC6369419. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30675873/
- Nair R, Maseeh A. Vitamin D: The "sunshine" vitamin. J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2012 Apr;3(2):118-26. doi: 10.4103/0976-500X.95506. PMID: 22629085; PMCID: PMC3356951.
- Nantz MP et al. Supplementation with aged garlic extract improves both NK and γδ-T cell function and reduces the severity of cold and flu symptoms: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled nutrition intervention. Clin Nutr. 2012 Jun;31(3):337-44. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2011.11.019. Epub 2012 Jan 24. PMID: 22280901. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22280901/
- Prasad AS, Beck FW, Bao B, Fitzgerald JT, Snell DC, Steinberg JD, Cardozo LJ. Zinc supplementation decreases incidence of infections in the elderly: effect of zinc on generation of cytokines and oxidative stress. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Mar;85(3):837-44. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/85.3.837. PMID: 17344507. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17344507/
- Prather AA, Janicki-Deverts D, Hall MH, Cohen S. Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Sleep. 2015 Sep 1;38(9):1353-9. doi: 10.5665/sleep.4968. PMID: 26118561; PMCID: PMC4531403.
- Prietl B, Treiber G, Pieber TR, Amrein K. Vitamin D and immune function. Nutrients. 2013;5(7):2502-2521. Published 2013 Jul 5. doi:10.3390/nu5072502 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3738984/
- Resta-Lenert S, Barrett KE. Live probiotics protect intestinal epithelial cells from the effects of infection with enteroinvasive Escherichia coli (EIEC). Gut. 2003 Jul;52(7):988-97. doi: 10.1136/gut.52.7.988. PMID: 12801956; PMCID: PMC1773702. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12801956/
- Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Feb 16;(2):CD001364. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001364.pub3. Update in: Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;6:CD001364. PMID: 21328251. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21328251/
- Singh S, Sharma N, Singh U, Singh T, Mangal DK, Singh V. Nasopharyngeal wash in preventing and treating upper respiratory tract infections: Could it prevent COVID-19?. Lung India. 2020;37(3):246-251. doi:10.4103/lungindia.lungindia_241_20
- Wessels I, Maywald M, Rink L. Zinc as a Gatekeeper of Immune Function. Nutrients. 2017;9(12):1286. Published 2017 Nov 25. doi:10.3390/nu9121286 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5748737/