10 Ways to Boost Your Body’s Natural Defenses (All Science and No Hype)

Health + Wellness
A woman walks a dog in a forest.
A walk in the forest can boost immune health. Photo credit: Ryan O'Leary / EyeEm / Getty Images

Many people know that maintaining a healthy lifestyle includes getting a good night’s rest and eating a balanced diet. However, people are also guilty of approaching their health with a maintenance mindset, and sadly, may refer to taking care of themselves as “indulging in” self-care. On the contrary, taking care of yourself also has the added benefit of improving the very mechanisms your body uses to fight off disease and soothe stress.

The solutions to better immune health are more practical and simpler than you think. However, that also means that we have to bust a few “well-known general health tip” myths as health isn’t an “one size fits all” solution. Here are ten ways to boost your body’s natural defenses to get you started (all science and no hype).

1. Know Your Sleep Pattern, Then Honor It

According to Harvard University, poor sleep means a slow and grumpy immune system, triggering inflammation in the body. In turn, infections influence the amount of sleep you get and when. In general, not sleeping well may be linked with forcing your body to sleep at a time it just won’t do.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep for adults and longer hours for young adults. However, the foundation also recognizes that not everyone has a preset sleeping pattern. Here are three sleep patterns we know of, one of which your body’s circadian rhythm may naturally fall into:

  • Monophasic: You usually get your sleep in one stretch, even if you wake up to go to the bathroom.
  • Biphasic: You sleep in two stretches, one longer period (say five hours) and one shorter period (say two hours).
  • Polyphasic: You sleep in several stretches or segments throughout the day/night.

How do you know if your sleep pattern is healthy for you? You start by asking: What is my norm, and do I feel well-rested and energetic?

Some people keep a dream journal, but they should also keep a sleep journal. Pay attention to what time your body naturally feels inclined to wake up and rest to find your chronotype. Your circadian rhythm (sleep cycle) can be adapted to your schedule, but your chronotype is more biologically ingrained, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Then, you can work with your body and your daily obligations to more naturally sync them up.

2. Stay Hydrated 

Many people accept the old advice of “drinking eight eight-ounce glasses of water daily” as a hard rule for adequate water intake. The hydration need of each body differs, however. There’s no Universal Hydration Law to abide by. Many people stay hydrated by drinking water and other fluids when they feel thirsty. Trust your knowledge of your body.

Around 22% of water intake comes from food for Americans, according to a 2010 analysis published in Nutrition Reviews. U.S. Dietary Recommendations for water consumption are based on “median water intakes,” but these aren’t connected with measurements of dehydration status of the population to assist. There are also no adequate biomarkers to assure hydration status at the population level, according to researchers, and water intake differs among age groups. 

Water intake includes soft water, hard water, carbonated or distilled, as well as “food water” and water intake at the cellular level. Drinking coffee and tea counts. Besides, your immune health is dependent on the nutrients flowing through your bloodstream, and your bloodstream is made up of mostly water, as is your body. Staying hydrated is essential for detoxification pathways to do their jobs: like the lymph system draining out pathogens. We talk a lot about detox teas but not enough about how hydration does the job right from the start.

Notice signs of dehydration, such as thirst, dark yellow urine, lightheadedness, fatigue, and dry mouth, lips and eyes. Dehydration can happen easily if you have a high alcohol intake, sweat a lot or have a persistent high temperature, for example. Thirst can also be a craving for a certain type of food and its unique nutrients.

3. Increase Plant-Based Foods in Your Diet

At mealtime, is your plate filled with color? The USDA advocates for making half your plate fruits and vegetables.

The Anderson Cancer Center shares that a plant-based diet fortifies the immune system to safeguard you against microorganisms and germs. The center indicates that plant foods also reduce inflammation, and a healthy immune system can respond quickly to identify and eliminate pathogens before they progress to disease.

While eating some meat each week isn’t bad for you, a balanced diet remains important. A plant-based diet centered around fried plant foods isn’t as healthy. Including variety, such as chickpeas and tofu, is what makes the diet healthier and well-rounded.

4. Bathe in the Forest (or at Least Smell the Honeysuckle)

Yes, nature showers are just as important as regular showers. The New York State Department of Conservation advocates for forest visits to improve immune health, and several studies the department cites also support the benefits of forest bathing. This translated term was coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries as “shinrin-yoku” in 1982. However, you can also get some benefits simply by staring at nature scenes: Patients with “green” views in their rooms have shown a quicker recovery time and took fewer pain killers, among one of the department’s examples provided.

More recently, a 2019 systematic review published in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine analyzed the merit of forest bathing on health. Researchers collected 210 papers spanning dates between 2015 and 2019, retaining 28 papers that met the study’s inclusion criteria. Researchers found that forest bathing activities may improve people’s psychological and physical health significantly

Forest bathing allows for intervention in the subhealth state, a period between health and disease: This is when you notice symptoms like fatigue, poor sleep, pain and cognitive challenges. Subhealth also increases the risk of infection and reduces the ability of the immune system to respond as aptly. Exposure to nature could provide stress relief before things get worse before they get better. 

With issues concerning pollution, there’s an increased need for city planners to consider marrying urban and natural environments as more and more people reside in cities. Finding respite on an evening walk with the dog also counts — your dog thoroughly investigates every fire hydrant, and you smell the honeysuckle overtaking a fence that should have been replaced when you were born. Every mindful moment spent in nature, however distilled, still counts.

5. Don’t Let Stress Slip By

Stress weakens your immune system, according to the American Psychological Association. In the 1980s, immunologist Ronald Glaser, Ph.D., and psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., were intrigued by animal studies linking stress with infection. So they ran a study on how stress affected medical students: Every year for a decade, the pair discovered that immunity decreased for the same three-day exam period as stress skyrocketed. The association also cites recent studies linking loneliness and social isolation with lowered immune health.

During times of stress, make a note of it and accept that these periods occur. It does not reflect who you are as a person or your capabilities. Turn to healthy coping methods where possible, reaching out to loved ones, engaging in various hobbies, exercising, resting and reading. Where one thing does not work, open yourself up to trying new things for the novelty, such as taking an improv class.

6. Nurture Your Gut Microbiota

Probiotics nurture your gut bacteria and help balance the gut biome. These beneficial bacteria support immune health, in addition to improving other conditions. Natural probiotic health foods include yogurt, sourdough bread and kimchi. However, you can also take probiotics orally as capsules.

One 2019 study published in Annals of Nutritional and Metabolism identifies probiotics as an emerging way to naturally treat allergies, recover the histology of intestinal bacteria and prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Once ingested, oral probiotics interact with immune cells to activate natural immune mechanisms in the body that help protect against pathogens without making your immune system panic (no inflammatory reactions such as hives). 

Yes, probiotics taken orally can be effective. Just take them as directed.

7. Exercise at Least Moderately

The CDC recommends moderate-intensity exercise with two days of strength training regularly as a tool for boosting immune health and lowering one’s risk of chronic disease.

There’s also a myth going around that intense exercise suppresses the immune system. A 2020 analysis published in Exercise Immunology Review related that there’s little evidence to support this: Athletes dealing with immune issues are dealing with poor sleep and diet as the more relevant contributors.

8. Dance More, Flow More

Dance benefits overall health by strengthening the immune system through physiological processes and muscular processes, according to an older study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Dance conditions an individual to moderate, eliminate or avoid tension and chronic fatigue, which can also apply to other conditions linked with stress.

A 2021 comparative study published in Frontiers analyzed the effects of tai chi and square dancing on older empty nesters for immune health, physical health and life satisfaction. The control group consisted of sedentary participants. Results showed the greatest improved health outcomes for those in the tai chi group but great life satisfaction in the square dancing group. Whereas tai chi is more individually-directed, square dancing is a group activity. Researchers suggested tai chi for those who wish to improve immune-related health concerns.

9. Take Care of Your Skin

You are born with innate immune mechanisms that detect and block germs from entering your body, and this includes your skin. 

Protect your skin to preserve its defense capabilities. Eating a whole food balanced diet and staying hydrated ensures your skin is healthy. 

Avoiding harsh chemicals and having a good skincare routine also help protect your skin. According to the CDC, you should wear a sunscreen of at least SPF 15 that blocks UVA and UVB rays.

10. Keep Up With Checkups

General health checks were associated with increased chronic disease recognition and treatment, risk factor control, preventive service uptake, and improved patient-reported outcomes, according to a 2021 review published in JAMA.

Talk with your doctor about natural ways to boost your body’s natural defenses, like the tips shared above, to better your health now and prevent future issues down the line.

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