Four Ways to Build Your Immune System into a Pathogen-Fighting Powerhouse

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If you get sick this cold & flu season, it’s definitely not because you didn’t wince through dozens of $3 ginger turmeric lemon shots or chew enough raw garlic to scare away the vampires. While some people swear by these supposed immune boosters and there’s definitely some scientific evidence that they can stave off sickness consuming mass quantities of bitter and spicy herbs is better left as a kitchen pantry remedy for the common cold or flu rather than as a reliable, preventative, immune-supporting measure. 

To really cultivate an invincible immune system, what you really ought to focus on are long-term practices, not miracle cures. Building up a solid immune system is boringly straightforward: Sleep right, move right, and eat right (and don’t skip your flu shot). What’s interesting is that all of these proven immune-boosting approaches are tied to deficiencies that are built into the average person’s lifestyle, so it’s perhaps not surprising they are naturally the most holistic, essential, and effective ways for you to stay healthy through the holiday season and throughout the year. 

Here are four ways for you to fashion yourself into the healthiest you:

Get at Least Seven Hours of Sleep

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Getting enough sleep is critical for your immune health. While researchers haven’t figured out exactly why adequate sleep staves off sickness, they have been able to draw connections that confirm the importance of sleep in recent years. A small study published in 2017 compared the immune systems of pairs of twins who had different sleep profiles — one chronically deprived of sleep, the other adequately rested. The study was able to conclude that the twin who wasn’t getting enough sleep had a depressed immune system, making that twin more susceptible to catching a cold and less able to benefit from vaccines.

“This study provides further evidence of sleep to overall health and well-being particularly to immune health,” said lead researcher Dr. Nathaniel Watson in a statement. Watson suggested getting at least seven hours of sleep every night if you want your immune system to be adaptable and running in tip-top shape. Many of us stand to benefit from this advice: The latest figures from the CDC indicated that a third of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived, getting less than the recommended seven hours on a regular basis, setting up a large proportion of the country to be both sick and tired during cold & flu season.

Get Active, and Maybe Get Mindful While You’re At It

Speaking of excess weight, recent research suggests that getting enough physical exercise helps your immune system function properly. Make sure you are living an active lifestyle, accumulating at the very least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week; going on a brisk 20-30 minute walk each day, for example, should be a baseline goal if you want to boost your immune system, though you’ll want to work your way up to more than that for best results — just don’t push yourself if you feel symptoms of a cold or flu coming on, as it’s more important for you to get enough sleep at that point.

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While there isn’t enough research to declare mindfulness a proven immune system hack, a recent study found that mindfulness meditation helps to support immunity in your body by reducing the toll that stress takes on your physical systems. If further research confirms mindfulness meditation’s efficacy in honing your immune system, it will by far be the most accessible way for anyone of any age and ability to stay healthy during cold & flu season.

Get More Fiber in Your Diet

Consuming enough fiber is critical if you want your immune system to live its best life fending off pathogens of all kinds. As a nutrient, fiber feeds the bacteria in your gut, supporting a vibrant and balanced microbiome; without healthy gut flora, your immune system is practically defenseless against cold and flu viruses. 

Fiber Wellness

But getting enough fiber in your diet each day isn’t easy when you don’t have access to high-quality whole grains, fruits, and vegetables or you simply aren’t accustomed to eating the amount that our bodies require. The typical western diet, unfortunately, is poor in fiber, plants, and unrefined grains. Most of us will experience a serious boost in our immune system by upping our fiber intake since a vast majority of us are deficient in this nutrient (although, to be clear, “fiber deficiency” isn’t a medically defined condition). One report described Americans’ fiber consumption as “alarmingly low,” with less than 10 percent of the public meeting the nutritional recommendation of getting about 25 to 30 grams per day from dietary sources. 

If you’re committed to getting more fiber into your diet, you’ll be best served by increasing your consumption of fiber gradually, building up to optimal levels over the course of several weeks. When you’re weaning yourself off a low-fiber diet, your gut flora may not be ready to handle the load, and this can cause gastrointestinal discomfort that, while not harmful, is completely avoidable if you take things slowly. 

Get Your Flu Shot

While not technically a long-term, holistic practice per se, getting your flu shot each and every year can save your life, as well as the lives of high-risk persons who might come into contact with you. 

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The optimal time to have gotten your flu shot was in October at the beginning of flu season, but the worst of the virus lasts from now through February so it’s definitely not too late for you to get vaccinated. Keep in mind that your body needs about two weeks to develop enough antibodies for you to be considered immune to the flu virus, so don’t wait until a family member, friend, or coworker gets sick before you finally make your way to a clinic or drugstore for your shot. Everyone 6 months of age or older should get a flu shot.

That being said, the flu shot is not 100 percent effective in preventing you from catching the virus, working only about half the time within the general population. However, even when the vaccination isn’t completely successful at immunizing you from this year’s virus, in most of those cases it reduces the severity of the illness. Generally speaking, the flu vaccine tends to be less effective in older adults, and a new study determined that the vaccine also does not work as well in people who are overweight or obese — a troubling finding, considering two-thirds of U.S. adults are carrying excess weight. “[A] 30-year-old obese person has the immune cells that look a lot like what you might expect in an 80-year-old individual,” explained one of the researchers. 

An important distinction and reminder: The flu shot does not give you the flu. The conventional flu shot does not contain an active virus, so it’s literally impossible for you to catch an infection from the vaccine; recombinant flu vaccines only contain one active component of the virus, which also makes it impossible for you to get sick. If you catch the flu shortly after receiving the shot, it’s because you were exposed to the virus before getting vaccinated or while you still hadn’t developed enough antibodies. 

Visit the CDC’s Flu Vaccine Finder to locate the nearest location near you to get your flu shot while the supply of the vaccine lasts.