There are numerous ways to improve your immune system’s efficiency over time, such as integrating more fruits and vegetables into your meals, setting a consistent sleep schedule and staying hydrated — and, of course, washing your hands, prioritizing sleep and promoting gut health. But what about a big immunity boost right now, as people are already sniffling, coughing and sneezing all around you?
Fortunately, there are a few quick-fix ways you can heighten your immunity right away:
There’s a new scientific field called ecotherapy that’s exactly what it sounds like: Researchers are discovering that being outside can be its own form of therapeutic relaxation, complete with benefits to common mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
People who walk outside in nature — as opposed to in an urban setting, for example — were found to have lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain where you focus on negative thoughts. With that burst of enthusiasm and optimism may come stronger immunity, according to research.
Plus, you’ll likely get some vitamin D from sun exposure, and that can confer immune system benefits, along with numerous other advantages.
“You’ll get stronger bones, lower blood pressure and even deeper sleep if you get some sun,” says Dr. Michael Holick, director of the Heliotherapy, Light and Skin Research Center at Boston University Medical Center. “There are advantageous biological processes that occur with sunshine that you won’t get by taking vitamin D supplements.”
He advises it’s best to get sun on shoulders, arms or legs instead of your back or face — the back increases cancer risk, and the face ups your wrinkle and blemish risk.
While exercise can be fantastic for your immune system overall, there is a point of diminishing returns, because all exercise provides short-term stress and inflammation to the body that is helpful — as long as it stays in the short term.
There’s a line between training hard and overtraining, says functional and integrative medicine practitioner Chris Kresser. The latter means your body doesn’t have enough time to replenish itself after exercise, which means you’re staying in a chronic stress mode. If there’s one thing that really sabotages your immune system, it’s stress.
Build active rest days into your schedule, which means downshifting to a gentle yoga class, a long walk or an easy bike ride. For an extra immunity boost, take your recovery outside.
Unless you have an allergy, taking time to pet an animal can have an immediate and positive effect on your immune system.
A study on college students found that those who petted dogs for just under 20 minutes — as opposed to control groups that petted either a stuffed animal or just sat comfortably on a couch — had a significant increase in their immunoglobulin A levels. This antibody plays a major role in your immune function, so the more you have, the better you’re protected.
Scrolling through social media or some political sites might increase blood pressure temporarily — not great for your immune system — but the good news is reading books can have the opposite effect.
“When you’re engaged in a book, you have more cognitive engagement, and that has a cascading health effect,” says Becca Levy, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology in the Yale School of Public Health. In addition to improved blood pressure, you may also be lowering stress, improving sleep and honing your thinking skills.
Tucking into a book — fiction or non-fiction, printed or on an e-reader — allows your brain and body to relax more effectively, Levy says.
Much like being outside decreases your negative thoughts, taking a break (which itself is good for your immunity) helps — and laughing amplifies that. Taking a moment to watch a funny video or read something amusing can increase your sense of optimism as well — especially at a time when the drumbeat of distressing news is hard to ignore.
One study found those who have a negative outlook on life tend to be at higher risk for illness because their immune systems may not operate as efficiently. This could be because feeling distressed, frustrated or overwhelmed keeps stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline elevated. That can burn out your immune system more quickly.
In general, you’re going to be exposed to viruses no matter what you do. But mixing in short-term tactics like the ones above with long-term strategies (i.e., hand washing, sleeping, promoting gut health, staying hydrated) can go a long way toward helping you stay healthy.