Top Ways to Support Your Immune System Naturally

suki hon naturopath toronto edit

No one likes being sick. Even the healthiest person will catch a cold now and then. Our immune system works hard to keep infections at bay every single day, so why not support it?

Here, we will learn how to do this naturally. By using food as medicine and incorporating lifestyle recommendations, we can enhance our bodies’ natural defences so we can live healthily!

What are you waiting for? Let’s get started!

CONTENTS

IMMUNOLOGY CLIFFNOTES

OUR LINES OF DEFENCES
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Our immune system is quite complex. Before we move onto how we can support our body’s natural defences, let’s take a look at how it works in its simplest terms. In essence, we have 3 different lines of defences to help fend off pathogens (invaders) to keep us healthy:

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The physical barrier

Our skin, mucous membranes, tears, saliva, stomach lining, intestinal tract, etc. all act as a wall to keep invaders out of our system. If our physical barrier is healthy and strong, invaders are less likely to get through!

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The innate immune system (non-specific)

When our first line is breached, cells and proteins in the body get activated against these invaders. This involves:

  • Macrophages bind and “eat” the invader. They also call for help by producing cytokines to recruit other white blood cells needed to fight the infection
  • Neutrophils “eat up” bacteria and fungi
  • Eosinophils contain toxins to kill invaders that are too large to be “eaten” such as parasites
  • Basophils which are involved with inflammatory reactions and allergic responses

Oftentimes, our 2nd line of defence is enough to fend off the invaders!

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The adaptive immune system (specific)

When the macrophages called for help during the non-specific phase of our immune response, it also sent a signal to the liaison (called dendritic cells) between the innate and adaptive responses. These cells take a sample of the pathogen and carry it to our lymph nodes where they search for the right lymphocyte (B cells and T cells) that can help fight off that specific invader.

THE APPROACH

SUPPORTING OUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
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Now that we understand a bit more about how our immune system functions, let’s see how we can support our bodies’ to optimize our immune response! Our goal is to:

  • Optimize nutrition to support our immune cells and gut health
  • Encourage white blood cell activity for defence
  • Maintain immune balance
  • Promote restorative support to regulate and enhance our immune system

LIFESTYLE TIPS

DAILY HABITS FOR YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
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Every system in our body is interconnected. Each system has its role but they all come together to function as a whole. This is why one aspect of our life can influence another even if it doesn’t seem too obvious. For this reason, it is important to consider everything in our lives when looking at our health – whether this is psychological, economical, social, physical, or spiritual. I mean, this is what naturopathic medicine does! So here, we will consider our lifestyle habits and how we can use it to enhance and support our immune system.

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Moderate exercise

Regular moderate exercise can enhance our immune responses. It can reduce inflammation, enhance immune surveillance, and maintain our thymus health (our immune system organ). We want to avoid prolonged intensive exercises as this can actually depress our immunity!

Moderate = at an intensity where you are still able to have a conversation comfortably.

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Stress management

Long term stress can suppress and dysregulate our immune responses by affecting our cytokine balance and the functions of our immunoprotective cells.

Consider deep breathing, exercise, self-care, emotional freedom technique (EFT) etc. for managing your stress! Check out our EFT handout by clicking here.

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Gut support

The gut serves as a protective barrier for our first line of defence. There is also a strong relationship between our gut ecosystem (microbiome) and our immune responses. The good bacteria regulates our mucosal immune system whereas the bad causes immune dysfunction and disease. Inflammation in the gut can also lead to an imbalance between the two.

3R’s to gut healing:

  • Remove offending items
  • Repair the gut
  • Replace with good bacteria

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Sleep support

Sleep is a period of recovery for our bodies. It can help promote our defences by regulating our inflammatory responses, enhance interactions between our immune cells and the invaders for healing, and form immunological memory so our bodies can be more effective in fighting things off in the future.

Consider practicing sleep hygiene for deeper and better sleep. Check out our sleep hygiene handout by clicking here.

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Need more guidance or support for your health goals? See how naturopathic medicine can help! Book an appointment today to get started.

EATING FOR YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM

FUEL FOR YOUR BODY'S DEFENCES
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We have all heard the saying “food as medicine”. This is true for many things – our bodies rely heavily on the nutrients we get from our foods for proper functioning. Of course, not all foods are made equally. For this reason, we will touch on what we do want to incorporate into our diets versus what we want to avoid to help maintain a healthy immune system.

If you are curious to learn more about how you can make better and more informed choices when grocery shopping, check out our blog on How to Read Food Labels 101: The Definitive Guide. Here, you will find the health effects of additives, hidden ingredients you may want to avoid, and much more!

THE GOOD

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Fresh fruits & vegetables

These are good sources of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to fuel our body. Choose organic if possible.

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High quality protein

Protein provides us with amino acids for the building blocks of our immune cells. Examples include fish, meat, eggs, quinoa, and soy.

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Sources of omega-3

This polyunsaturated fatty acid helps with inflammation and can benefit our gut microbiome. These include fatty fishes, kelp, seaweed, walnuts, flax, chia, and hemp.

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Mushrooms

These fungi regulate and increases our immune defences. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Examples include turkey tail, lion’s mane, maitake, reishi, shiitake, chaga, and brazil/sun.

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Herbs & spices

Common herbs and spices have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and/or antioxidant properties that can help with fending off pathogens. This includes sage, thyme, lavender, rosemary, oregano, clove, cayenne, ginger, onion, garlic, turmeric

In addition to these general foods that can help support your immune system, certain vitamins and minerals should be mentioned as these are crucial for maintaining our defences.

What

What it does

Sources

Vitamin A

  • Involved with the healthy functioning of vision, growth, reproductive function, immune system
  • Maintenance of mucous membranes.

  • Anything with an orange hue: sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash
  • Tuna
  • Spinach

Vitamin B

  • Necessary for DNA synthesis, methylation, repair, and maintenance.
  • B6 is required for several enzymes, antibody production and white blood cell maturation.
  • Folate & B12 are involved with producing the proper proteins, T cells, and building blocks of DNA.

  • Meats (salmon, shellfish, poultry, beef)
  • Dark leafy greens (spinach)
  • Eggs
  • Legumes (lentils, edamame, chickpeas, beans)
  • Whole grains (brown rice, millet)

Vitamin C

  • Potent antioxidant
  • Involved with collagen production, cholesterol metabolism, neurotransmitter production, and vascular integrity
  • Enhances white blood cell activity and antibody responses for our immune system

  • Kiwi, oranges, strawberries, cantaloup
  • Bell peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, tomatoes, kale

Vitamin D

  • Crucial for calcium and phosphorus metabolism, cardiovascular function, insulin secretion, blood pressure regulation
  • Supports immune cell activation.

  • Sunlight
  • Salmon, sardines
  • Fortified milk / substitutes

Vitamin E

  • Mainly acts as an antioxidant
  • Plays a role in our defence mechanism and inflammatory response

  • Nuts (almonds, peanuts, hazelnut, sunflower seeds)
  • Vegetable oils

Iron

  • Necessary for immune cells to multiply and mature.
  • Required to make antibacterial compounds.
  • Helps transport oxygen.
  • However, excess levels can increase the risk of infection and help feed the pathogens – so a healthy balance is required!

  • Meats (red meat, fish, poultry)
  • Dark chocolate
  • Spinach, potatoes
  • Tofu, chickpeas
  • Spelt, quinoa

Selenium

  • Involved in processes that regulate the reproductive, endocrine, muscular, and immune systems
  • Acts as an antioxidant and helps maintain cellular health

  • Brazil nuts
  • Tuna, halibut, sardines, shrimp
  • Turkey

Zinc

  • Key roles for catalytic, structural, and regulatory roles in growth, development, nervous system, reproduction, and immunity
  • Involved in many systems as it is involved in many metabolic processes.

  • Oysters
  • Pork, poultry
  • Baked beans, chickpeas
  • Nuts (almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds)

Note: Example sources are not exhaustive. Always avoid food intolerances and allergies.
Don’t forget to checkout The Healthy Herbivore for more plant based nutritional information!

THE BAD

As mentioned above, there is a strong relationship between our gut and immune health. In order to support our immune system, we want to avoid foods that are inflammatory and things that promote bad bacteria in our gut. These include:

  • Unhealthy fats (trans-fats, hydrogenated oils, fried foods)
  • Processed foods
  • Artificial additives, sweeteners
  • Sugar
  • Refined carbohydates
  • Limit alcohol
  • Common allergens (wheat, dairy, eggs) if applicable

OTHER USEFUL TIPS

BONUSES
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On top of the nutritional and lifestyle recommendations, there are other useful tips that are quite beneficial in supporting our immune system. The great thing is that these tips won’t cost you anything extra!

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Practice Good Hygiene

A great way to prevent spreading or getting an infection is to prevent transmission and avoid exposure. Some general tips include:

  • Washing your hands with soap and water for 20s
  • Practice cough/sneeze hygiene by covering your mouth/nose with a tissue or sleeve
  • Avoid close contact with those who are sick and stay indoors if you are ill

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Stay hydrated

During an infection, especially if fever, diarrhea, and/or vomiting are present, there is a risk of dehydration. This can be prevented by staying hydrated.

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Check your pantry

We often have common teas, spices, and herbs in our pantry that can help fend off foreign invaders. Things like sage, thyme, rosemary, clove, oregano, cayenne, ginger, onion, garlic, turmeric, and honey all have beneficial properties.

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Drink soups & broths

Homemade soups and broths (with lots of vegetables, bones, meats etc.) are packed with nutrients. Not only do they make it easier for your body to digest and absorb, it provides the building blocks our immune system needs to function optimally.

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Hydrotherapy

The use of contrast showers and saunas may be beneficial. Contrast showers can increase circulation throughout your body leading to more immune cells scavenging around. Saunas help elevate your temperature passively to fend off invaders (this is why we have fevers).
* avoid saunas if you have a fever *

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Seek help

Always speak to your naturopathic doctor or health care practitioner if symptoms are severe and/or persists!

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Contrast shower: how-to

  1. Start with 2 minutes of hot water (as hot as you can tolerate)
  2. Follow with 45 seconds of cold water (as cold as you can tolerate)
  3. Repeat pattern at least 3 times
  4. Always end with cold
  5. Rub dry with a towel

Note: This guide is for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute professional advice and/or treatment. Always speak to a health care practitioner before starting any regimen.

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