“You have a supercharged immune system…and that is why you’re so sick.”
I’ll never forget the words from my immunologist. It was the same speculation I heard a week earlier from my oncologist, right after a relieving conversation where she shared that I didn’t have cancer. If I’m being open, this was the third time I’d heard about my overachieving immune system, as the words echoed what my rheumatologist had suspected, as well.
Now, before you think this is about some rare disease or a catchy headline, I’m sharing my story because it’s an important lesson for you and how you can protect your health. In the face of coronavirus concerns and immune system hype, I’ve watched helplessly as supplement manufacturers have blatantly lied about the realities of “boosting” your immunity.
For more than 20 years, I’ve suffered from inexplicably high fevers without any answers. My fevers would last for more than 60 days and run upwards of 104 degrees, forcing me into delirium, causing me to lose upwards of 30 pounds, and leaving me a shell of a human.
Of all the things I expected to find out — cancer, infectious disease, the plague (that’s what I called my mysterious illness) — a “boosted immune system” was the last thing on my mind. But, this became my reality once I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder.
If you want to really understand what you can do to work with the natural functions of your body, it’s important to know that a “boosted” immune system is not what you think and not what you want. Instead, it’s time to rethink sickness and disease — and follow these science-backed recommendations to help you stay as healthy as possible.
How Your Immune System Really Works
It didn’t take the outbreak of coronavirus to make you worry about your immune system. The multivitamin industry is a multi-billion dollar business. From Vitamin C gummies to antioxidant drinks and zinc lozenges, there’s no shortage of options that promise to protect your immune response.
The only problem is, like most supplements, there’s a lot more smoke (read: marketing) than substance.
With a few exceptions, most vitamins and minerals won’t do anything for your immune system unless you are severely malnourished and deficient. And, we’re not talking about missing your daily fruits and vegetables. We’re talking about you living in a perpetual state of sickness.
The idea that you can pop a pill, drink a fizzy potion, chug kombucha, super-charge with billions and billions of probiotics, mainline IV cocktails, or do anything else to “boost” your immune system is…well…how can I put this clearly…
This is not doom and gloom or a haters anthem. Just the opposite. There are a few impactful things you can do (without spending money) to protect your immune system. But, there just happen to be many (many) more potentially useless options that don’t.
A quick disclaimer: if you take multivitamins, Greens drinks, or other supplements for a variety of other reasons — or just to fill the gaps in your diet — there’s no need to stop if it works for you. This is just about what you can really do to help support your immune system.
Here are 8 truths that will change the way you think of your body, save you money, and — most importantly — make it easier to course-correct and take care of yourself both before and after you get sick.
Immune System 101
Your immune system might be the most impressive design of the human body. You have two different components that protect you from disease — the innate and the adaptive.
Your body has a first line of defense, like your skin and mucous membranes. Once a disease passes through, that’s when your innate immune response kicks in. These the proteins and cells that fight against any disease or infection by increasing inflammation (yes, inflammation can be a good thing — more on this later) to create a protective barrier aimed at preventing the spread of any infection that has penetrated your body.
The easiest way to think about this is imagining the behind-the-scenes magic your body works after you get a cut anywhere on your body and you need to heal with simultaneously preventing the creation or spread infection.
On the other hand, the adaptive immune response is what you probably think about as your immune system. This how your body responds when you get sick and your body quickly works to recognize the disease, create antibodies or immune cells, and defeat the infection, bacteria, or virus.
This function (and limitations) of your adaptive immune system is both what makes coronavirus so dangerous — and what makes your immune system so fascinating.
If your body has no way of recognizing a disease (this is what makes a virus novel), then you’re going to get sick. But, assuming your body can overcome the disease and create immune cells to overcome the infection, your newfound immunity (the cells) stays in your body forever.
It’s why many doctors believe that it might be impossible for you to suffer from the exact infection twice. Once it’s learned, you’re protected. That’s also why you shouldn’t worry about being inside weakening your immunity. It’s not how your body works.
It’s the same mechanism that allows vaccines to be effective. The disabled version of the bug is introduced into your body, you “learn it” and creates the methods to defeat it, and then you can use this newfound defensive mechanism to keep you safe.
Therein lies the most important part of your adaptive immune system. You have to adapt to the disease, and to do so you must come in contact with it.
But, you can’t improve your immune system’s database without fighting infections first.
An Immune “Boost” Is Not Good For You
Your immune system can’t be easily manipulated. Anyone that tells you they can “boost” one part of your immune system is lying. Not to mention, doing so could be a massive mistake.
Think about the story of my autoimmune disease. As my doctor’s made painfully clear, I have a “boosted” immune system. When I get sick, my body responds by triggering high fevers. This is a natural reaction.
Despite what you might think, a fever is a good thing. It’s your body’s way of fighting disease by heating up your internal system, making the illness uncomfortable and vulnerable so you can kill it off.
But, my reaction is broken. It’s a supercharged response that means my body heats up even hotter — and there’s no off-switch. So, I stay hot — long after the original bug has been killed, and my entire body suffers as a result. This, in a nutshell, is what happens with all autoimmune conditions (but not all result in symptoms like fevers).
Now, apply that same concept to your own body. When you think about boosting your immune system, you probably imagine being healthier, feeling stronger, and recovering faster.
But, when your immune system is actually boosted and working — much like my fevers — the “effectiveness” would result in you being miserable.
Think about when you’re sick. The aches and fevers and even the snot (yeah, I just wrote snot) are not the symptoms of sickness; they are all a byproduct of your innate immune system at work.
The same goes for allergies. The itchy eyes and burning throat are your immune system reacting, learning, and fighting.
So, if you truly boost your immune system, you would intensify those uncomfortable symptoms.
Safe to say, unless your body is in fight-mode, you don’t want an overactive (AKA “boosted”) immune system because that’s what causes autoimmune disorders, a disease to which there is no cure.
Instead, you want a healthy, functioning immune system that knows when to fight infection when it’s needed, can relax when it’s not, and is able to maintain a strong barrier against disease. To make this your reality, stop looking for boosts and start focusing on the things take make it harder for your body to function normally.
Stress Is The Original Immune System Killer
If you really want to help your immune system, start by looking at your stress levels. Whether you feel it or not, stress disarms your immune system and prevents it from working at its normal levels.
As far back as the 1980s, breakthroughs in the stress-immune system relationship occurred in research that focused on students and how their immune systems were suppressed leading up to exams. The research found that your T-cells (the fighters that protect you against everything from viruses to life-threatening diseases like cancer) decrease in the face of stress.
There was also fascinating research at Carnegie Mellon, which found that people who had less stress in their lives were better able to fight off the common cold when exposed to the virus. Similar responses immunosuppression was mimicked in other stressful situations, including studies that show people in difficult relationships heal slower if they suffer cuts or other wounds.
So what’s happening? A great immune system is one that isn’t being dragged down by life (as opposed to “boosted” by pills). Better health starts with seeing big-picture immune sabotage, and (thankfully) they are all easy concepts to understand
Your immune system has an army of cells that keep you happy (T and B cells are your main immune fighting cells). And those cells produce an immune response that produces cytokines (friendly protein cells that help your body) and antibodies that destroy foreign pathogens.
Unfortunately, stressors shut down your natural immune response, which means your fighter cells can’t function as they normally do to keep you healthy.
If you need to destress, 10-15 minutes of meditation is a great place to start. If you’re new to it, try. an app like Stop, Breathe & Think, Calm, or Headspace.
Not feeling your inner zen? Here are two additional options with science on their side.
Stress-relief option 1: Take 2 deep breaths when you feel your heart racing, or before you answer a call or have a meeting. According to the Program on Integrative Medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, the deep breath will make you sound more confident and reset your heart rate to reduce stress.
Stress-relief option 2: Grab coffee with your friends. Researchers at the University of Bristol in England discovered that when stressed-out men consumed caffeine by themselves, they remained nervous and jittery. But, when they caffeine-loaded as part of a group, their feelings of stress subsided.
Count The Hours You Sleep — Or Else
Sleep deprivation is the other part of the 1-2 combo that can knock out your immune system. If stress stresses out your immune system, then sleep deprivation exhausts your body into making mistakes that leave you vulnerable.
A lack of sleep can prevent your immune cells from making their way to your lymph nodes (where they help you fight disease) or confuse your body and make it harder for them to create the right antibodies to fight back against infection.
How bad can it be? One study showed that regularly sleeping only 6 hours per night makes you four times more likely to catch a cold compared to sleeping 7 hours per night. And the risk gets even worse if you sleep fewer than 5 hours per night.
If you need help improving your sleep, here are a few simple guidelines that can make it easier to fall (and stay) asleep.
- Go to bed around the same time every night
- Time your sleep in 1.5-hour increments. This is a full cycle, so it will help ensure you don’t wake up in REM sleep, which could leave you groggy and tired.
- Sleep in a colder room than your preferred “room temperature.” Some research suggests between 60-70 degrees.
- If possible, exercise earlier in the day.
- Don’t consume alcohol before you sleep. (Yes, we realize this might be tough sometimes.)
- Limit screen time about 1-hour before you sleep.
- Clear your mind. Either watch a comedy, do a puzzle, or journal right before you sleep. This will trigger a part of your brain that will help “calm” your thoughts so it’s easier for you to fall asleep.
Movement Might Be The Best Medicine
If you go back in time just 10 years ago, many people believed that exercise actually weakens your immune system. Turns out, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Whether you lift weights, run, cycle, or walk — any type of exercise, especially when combined with more sleep and less stress — is a key part of keeping your immune system functioning well.
Exercise works in many ways to make sure your immune defensive systems can act quickly and effectively, and it can even help offset stress or sleep difficulties. (This all assumes that you’re allowing for proper recovery.)
Recent research found that regular exercise:
- Helps the overall health of your immune system
- Decreases your risk of illness
- Helps mediate the correct inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses
- Delays the onset of age-related immune decline
Even better, a review of studies found that movement truly is medicine. From the study conclusion:
Contemporary evidence from epidemiological studies shows that leading a physically active lifestyle reduces the incidence of communicable (e.g., bacterial and viral infections) and non-communicable diseases (e.g., cancer), implying that immune competency is enhanced by regular exercise bouts.
When you exercise, your body recognizes stress. Even though it’s good stress, it’s still a strain on your body, so you produce neutrophils and lymphocytes (the T-cell and natural killer cells we mentioned earlier), which flow throughout your body to keep you strong, fight off invaders, and help create antibodies when necessary.
In other words, exercise helps spark more activity in these cells for about 3-4 hours, which means your body is both more likely to find and disable potentially harmful germs and diseases.
As an added bonus, the cells perform “immune surveillance” and patrol your body searching for infection.
It’s likely the reason why people who exercise regularly (at least 5 times per week) miss nearly 50% fewer days from sickness than those who don’t.
What’s more, exercise has been shown to help decrease stress and improve sleep. In other words, exercise might be the first domino to keeping you healthy because it’s insurance for the other two vulnerabilities (stress and sleep) that weaken your normal immune system function.
Here are bodyweight workouts that can help you get in your movement in any situation or location.
Protein Protects (Much More Than Muscle)
We’ve mentioned how protein plays a role to help keep your body safe. You might think of protein as the key ingredient in muscle building (it is), but — when you look at the bigger picture — protein plays a vital role in every cell in your body. This includes your immune system and helping create the cells that help fight disease.
Proteins are a key component of the very antibodies developed by your immune systems designed to keep you safe. Eating protein ensures that your body has enough of the raw materials needed to allow your immune system to respond to bacteria and viruses in your body.
Proteins (cytokines, in particular) also help ensure that your immune system doesn’t go overboard and start working too hard. It’s all part of a system designed to give your body what it needs and prevent it from targeting your healthy cells.
High-quality complete protein options include:
- Dairy products, such as milk, cheese/cottage cheese, and yogurt
- Whey protein
- Seafood and fish
- Pea Protein
- Blended meals (beans and rice)
- Vegan protein powders with multiple protein sources
If You Supplement, Focus on Vitamin D
While no one supplement can even come close to providing the benefits of good sleep, less stress, and consistent exercise, there is one vitamin that appears to be more important than others.
More research is still needed, but a lot of emerging data — especially since the COVID-19 pandemic — has suggested that Vitamin D deficiency is closely linked to immune system vulnerabilities.
One study found that taking higher levels of vitamin D (in older individuals) led to a 40 percent decrease in respiratory infections over the course of a year.
This makes sense because Vitamin D is thought to play a vital role in both your innate and adaptive immune response (although scientists are still studying to learn how it all works). And Vitamin D plays an essential part in producing antimicrobial proteins that fight back against sickness, especially in the respiratory tract.
Plus, unlike many vitamins and minerals which can be produced by your body naturally or are rarely deficient, Vitamin D deficiency might impact more than 1 billion people worldwide.
To support your body naturally, try to get about 15-20 minutes of sun per day. If that’s not happening, look towards natural food sources such as:
- Fatty fish rich in Omega-3’s, such as salmon or mackerel (or you can use cod liver oil)
- Whole eggs
- Milk fortified with Vitamin D
Otherwise, you can use supplements that offer at least 2000-3000 IU of Vitamin D3. (Just be sure to ideally look for products or brands that are NSF Certified for Sport.)
You Booze, You Lose (That’s Your Immune System Speaking)
You won’t hear us telling you to completely avoid alcohol (life happens, and that includes rough days and celebrations). But, if you’re consistently drinking in essence, then your immune system is the one that’s suffering.
If you look at the research (there’s a lot of it), too much alcohol — and binge drinking moments — prevent the normal functioning of your immune system, and it leaves you more susceptible to everything from upper respiratory infections to slower recovery from cuts and muscle injuries.
And, to add insult to injury, it might also alter your gut microbiome in a way that weakens your immune system.
If you find yourself drinking every day — or drinking too much when you go out, take the old 1-2-3 method to establish more control.
- Step 1: Carve out non-drinking days. This is a commitment and a way to create guardrails and build habits. (If you know you drink every Friday night, don’t start by removing that day. Make it easy to succeed and build from there.)
- Step 2: Remove alcohol from your home. Just like a dieter who struggles with dessert, increasing the difficulty of accessibility makes it easier to drink less.
- Step 3: Track your drinks, so you can hold yourself accountable and be honest about how much you’re drinking and how much you need to cut back.
If you love technology, you can try out the Less Drinks app and see if that helps.
The Bottom Line: How to Protect Your Immune System
Remember, no matter how well your immune system functions, if you come in contact with a novel pathogen or virus, you still might get sick. In situations like battling COVID-19, your best line of defense is being smart about your social contact, avoiding touching your face, and washing your hands frequently.
And, while you can’t prevent yourself from getting sick or boost certain aspects of your immune system, you can be sure to do the little things that won’t weaken your immune system or leave you unnecessarily vulnerable.
If you need help creating a plan designed for your lifestyle, check out our online coaching program. Simply fill out an application, and you’ll be assigned 2 coaches who will assess your exact needs, create habits that are easy to master, and build a customized plan that will upgrade your fitness and nutrition.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.