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Lots of people are panicking about health, feeling helpless and searching for natural ways to boost the immune system. First, and foremost, the best thing you can do right now is follow the CDC guidelines, as well as your local community guidelines, for “social distancing.” And, of course, follow the advice of your doctor. This article offers advice on how to boost your immune system naturally, which you can achieve during your time at home.
Disclaimer: This article is co-authored by Katy Huie Harrison, PhD in English, and Jessica Wood, Doctor of Pharmacy. Every effort has been made to ensure that the content provided herein is accurate, up-to-date, and helpful to the reader at the time of publishing. However, this information should never replace that of the CDC, your local health officials, or your doctor, nor is it an exhaustive treatment of the subject. The advice provided in this article is intended to supplement what is provided by all of those resources, and you should consult your doctor before changing any part of your health regimen. No liability is assumed. The reader is considered responsible for choices, actions, and results undertaken after reading work on Undefining Motherhood.
So many of the typical guidelines for boosting your immune system naturally feel impossible during our current world state. Harvard Medical School, for instance, suggests minimizing stress.
But how are we supposed to NOT be stressed when we’re stuck at home while the world goes through a crisis like we’ve never seen?
The good news is that Harvard, and many other reputable sources, have tons of recommendations we can implement even when stuck at home during worrisome times.
We’re here to walk you through some of them.
(Note: We agree that reducing your stress level is good, but hard. Want help reducing stress? Grab our 10 ideas for free self care here!)
In this article, you’ll find our 10 tips for how to boost your immune system naturally, including a science-based look at using essential oils and natural remedies.
How someone with a background in science began studying natural immune boosters
This article is co-authored, so we’ll use names to help you understand who’s telling personal stories.
Jessica comes from the world of science. She has two degrees in the science fields:
- Bachelor of Science in Applied Psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology
- Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) from Mercer University
We tell you that NOT to make her seem like a “smarty pants-expert-person you should listen to.” We tell you that so you know that she LOVES, like seriously loves, FACTS and DATA.
“I want to know how things work, why they work, and that what I am doing is 100% the right thing to do. I analyze and research, and I keep working at things until I find the solution.”
This is why you might find it amusing to see her writing a list of natural ways to boost your immune system that includes recommending essential oils and natural remedies.
“Amusing,” because these remedies and oils are not considered science-backed, though as we’ll show you, that’s changing.
Studying ways to boost your immune system naturally
Here’s Jessica’s story.
“When my oldest son was not quite 2 years old, we traveled a lot for my husband’s job. It seemed like he had the sniffles or a fever for months on end.
Every time I went to see a doctor, I was told, ‘It’s viral. Just rest, drink fluids, treat symptoms to help him be comfortable, and watch him.’
I hated the dreaded, ‘Its just a virus’ diagnosis because it meant there was nothing to do but wait/monitor symptoms and call if it worsened. But more importantly, I hated that my child was sick all the time.
On top of that, almost every time he got over the sniffles, he would then stop sleeping, and lo and behold, he would have an ear infection.
(Insert lots of sobbing mom moments).
So, I started to look at what I could do to give him any relief. “I also wanted to try to prevent this runny nose/congestion from turning into another dang ear infection.”
Finding essential oils sparked a passion
“A good friend had started using essential oils from Doterra, and she recommended I try them.
She explained how she used them and recommended a book called the Modern Essentials Handbook to learn more.
If you want all the nitty-gritty HOW/WHY the oils work in our body or against bugs, etc, this is your guidebook!
In terms of immunity, the most helpful properties are that essential oils can be antimicrobial and work as “preventative therapeutic agents for various oral diseases.”
“What hooked me was that I did not have to worry about using something with tons of synthetic chemicals on my not-yet-2-year-old son, or any side effects of these natural remedies. So, I began to learn.”
Note: Oils exist in different grades, and you often see some of the oils we’ll discuss later in this article in your cosmetics. Those are cosmetic grade versions of these oils; we are only recommending therapeutic grades.
10 ways to boost your immune system naturally
“As my children (I now have 2 sons) have aged, I began researching other natural ways to improve their health through nutrition, exercise, supplements, and more.
Using my scientific background and pharmaceutical knowledge, I’ve felt well equipped to analyze whether a source is reputable to determine what works.
This list is based on mine and Katy’s combined research, and it is what I do to help my own family maintain their health.
Let me reiterate for good measure–it is meant to supplement information from the CDC, local health officials, and your doctor. Also, consult your doctor before making changes to your health regimen.”
We know, we know. You hear it all the time. Drink your water. And there’s a reason. Actually, there are lots of reasons.
According to Meg Carber, Registered Dietician, dehydration has lots of negative impacts like feeling tired, headaches, dizziness, lack of mental clarity, and more.
And according to research out of the University of Connecticut, hydration is also important for your immune function.
The Harvard School of Public Health notes that proper water intake is essential for bodily functions like:
- Regulating body temperature
- Preventing infection
- Proper organ function
- Delivering nutrients to cells
We’ll talk more about making sure nutrients get to your cells, so remember that all these suggestions are inherently linked.
Proper hydration can also improve sleep, another important factor in improving natural immunity.
So you’re stuck at home and it’s hard to exercise without getting to the gym. We get it.
But, even with social distancing rules and shelter-in-place mandates, most of us are allowed to get outside for exercise, assuming you maintain proper distance from other people.
And there’s a reason there’s an allowance for exercise: it’s important for both mental and physical health.
In addition to obvious long-term health benefits like decreasing chronic stress, lowering blood pressure, and reducing the risk of heart disease, physical activity can also help you maintain a healthy immune system.
While there is no known way to track how exercise impacts your immunity to specific diseases, on the whole, scientific theories suggest it may help:
- Prevent bacteria growth and “flush bacteria from the lungs and airways”
- Improve the circulation of white blood cells (“the body’s immune system cells”)
- “Lower stress hormones,” which “may protect against illness
Exercise you can do at home
Struggling to get the exercise you need at home? Check out the Balance Virtual Bootcamp by Karen at Well Balanced Women. Katy is doing this exact bootcamp at home.
“After watching Karen manage to workout on a towel in a hotel room we shared, I knew she could give me just what I needed to exercise at home simply and without stress. I’m not an avid exerciser, but here I go.”
NOTE: It starts on Mondays, so no matter when you sign up, you’ll always get your email to start on Monday.
3. Get enough sleep
If you’re rolling your eyes at us right now, we get it. We can’t get enough sleep either.
There’s a lot of anxiety about the world right now, and you know what it’s really, crazy hard to do when you’re stressed? Fall asleep.
But you know what helps reduce that stress AND your immune function? Sleep!
I (hey, Katy talking here) am working on figuring it out my own sleep issues right now, and our best suggestion is that you do the same. Having trouble calming your mind and body enough to fall asleep? Here are a few things that could help.
- Avoid light from your phone or television before bed, as both reduce your natural melatonin production
- Don’t read or watch the news before bed. Amping yourself up mentally makes it really hard to fall asleep, and to sleep well
- Hydrate! Remember, it’s all connected, and proper hydration improves sleep
- Exercise. I know I’ve said it already, but there is a connection between exercise and getting good sleep
- Download the Calm app, a really helpful mobile app for meditation and sleep
Research shows that sleep has a “strong regulatory influence on immune function,” so putting in some effort to get good sleep is essential when you’re trying to reduce susceptibility to infection, avoid catching a cold, or reduce the duration of an illness.
Also, research shows that “intense aerobic exercise” can help slow the buildup of harmful free radicals in the body.
4. Maintain a healthy diet
Roll your eyes at us again. We know, we know. We’re telling you to maintain a healthy diet while knowing that sometime later today, Katy will likely ingest an obscene amount of cookie dough. Stress eating is real, y’all. (Jessica is somewhat less subject to this phenomenon. The rest of us will never understand.)
However difficult, maintaining a healthy diet matters, especially in terms of immune function.
Your diet provides you with essential micronutrients that are vital for immune health. We’ll get into a few of the specific vitamins and nutrients you need in the coming suggestions.
But ultimately, the combination of “macronutrients, micronutrients, and the gut microbiome” all play a role in helping your immune system function properly.
To maintain strong immune function, try your best to enjoy a varied diet that’s high in vegetables, fat, and fiber.
Need help? Here are some great online suggestions for you:
- Need help maintaining healthy eating AND emotions during a stressful season?
Meg Carber has a great mini ecourse to help us all keep our eating on track right now.
- Interested in learning more about how a plant-based diet can help your immunity?
Download this free guide from Mary Ellen Valverde, a Registered Dietitian in New Jersey.
Remember that mention of the “gut microbiome” from the last section? This is how you maintain that.
Here’s the thing , though. You need a healthy diet to start with.
Your body produces gut bacteria largely based on what you put in it. So if what you’re putting in it gives you bad bacteria, probiotics will increase the bad as well as the good.
Like we said, this all works together.
You can get probiotics from your food, supplements, or both, but you want to be sure any supplement you take is reputable. This usually means that a probiotic supplement should contain 5+ billion cultures.
Your gut will adjust and adapt, making more of what it consistently receives.
For this reason, you want to change the types of probiotics you use, eating different types of yogurt and changing supplements each month so your body is getting different cultures.
Even more ideally, switch probiotic supplement brands each week, cycling through your favorites.
6. Vitamin C
Research suggests that adequate Vitamin C intake is essential for immune function.
Why? It contributes to immune defense by supporting various cellular functions of both the innate and adaptive immune system.”
What’s also great about vitamin C is that it’s water soluble, so you can’t really take too much of it. If you consume in too much, you’ll just pee it out (pretty picture, we know).
That means it’s safe to incorporate into your diet and use nutritional supplements.
How can you increase your Vitamin C intake?
- Brussels sprouts
- Supplements like this spray version of Vitamin C
Not something we’ve heard as much about until recently, Zinc plays a major role in your immune system’s ability to fight off viruses and infection.
A study out of Ohio State University shows that Zinc helps shut down the pathways a pathogen follows, “tapping the brakes on the immune response in a way that prevents out-of-control inflammation that can be damaging and even deadly.”
I also take a Zinc supplement.
This herbal remedy to boost your immune system naturally has blown up in recent years. But it’s not new. Jessica’s mom used to give it to her and her brother when they were sick as kids.
BUT, it is gaining traction now because more and more people are learning about it. And it’s beginning to be studied in some controlled/scientific ways. (Joy!!)
In other words, elderberry is gaining legit credibility for its healing properties.
The consensus is that elderberry IS a great way to boost your immune system naturally.
It attacks the cold and flu virus, mostly via antioxidant properties. It also stimulates our immune system to work at a higher level.
How to take Elderberry to boost your immune system
When the cold and flu seasons begin, everyone in my family begins to take elderberry DAILY!
We use a variety of types of elderberry:
- Jessica’s oldest kiddo likes the syrup
- Her youngest and Katy’s little both like the gummies
- Jessica and her husband use whatever they have on hand:
There are also teas made with elderberry. We don’t know how well they work, but when we feel crummy, we drink lots of hot tea anyway. We often add lemon (essential oil or the fruit sliced, plus local honey).
Pro tip: This is one of those situations where brand matters. That’s why we’ve linked to our very favorites. We use Gaia syrup and capsules. I also buy Sambucus/Sambucol brand elderberry products as well, particularly their gummies.
How to use: Pick your formulation (syrup, gummy, capsule, lozenge) and take as directed. For immune-boosting, take daily. When sick, most formations we use (Gaia & Sambucus) will have a recommended dose increase to ramp up the elderberry you take and help boost your immune system naturally.
We do take more when we are sick. I DO feel that it is helpful (anecdotal evidence).
9. Local honey
We’ve all heard that eating local honey is great for wellness in general. We just also happen to believe this is an amazing item to always have.
Whether for eating, baking, illness … it’s just always good to have on hand.
The local part allows you to tap into the allergens and antigens that you are exposed to in your locale. So, you will get a better result if you buy local versus the generic teddy-bear kind at the grocery store.
Honey is naturally antiseptic and helps with pollen allergies too. It is thick and rich, so ANYONE in the family (as long as they are over 1 year old) can use it to suppress a cough, too.
Jessica much prefers this over any cough suppressant on the market, especially for her kids.
Jack, Katy’s little guy, practically begs for spoonfuls of honey!
10. Essential oils
Yes. We know. Essential oils get a lot of crap for being pretty “woo woo.” But we disagree.
Research into essential oils is still in its early stages, but there is scientific backing to the use of essential oils in addition to other preventative and care measures.
According to research out of the University of Pécs in Hungary, for instance, “multiple studies” point to the “immune enhancing functions” of eucalyptus and ginger in the form of essential oils.
Another recent study, a collaboration out of universities in Italy and Hungary, found antimicrobial properties in many essential oils.
Much of the evidence beyond some of these smaller, more recent studies is anecdotal, but anecdotal to the point that immunologists and virologists, especially in foreign countries, are beginning to take note and conduct academic research.
Jessica is going to talk specifically about essential oils, for a few reasons:
- The PharmD being an essential oil fanatic tells us something about its efficacy
- She knows more about them. Katy gets all her essential oil advice from Jessica.
I would NEVER apply store-bought oils to myself or my kids. (Store brand or random diffusers, YES, oils NO!).
Here’s why: their sources and production are not guaranteed because there are no FDA regulations on essential oils (they are treated as a food-grade product and not a medicine).
So if you want to diffuse them for the scent, no problem.
But if you want to apply them directly to skin, go with a trusted brand.
It sounds counterintuitive to much of what society tells us about purchasing and marketing, but when it comes to essential oils, I specifically recommend two direct sales companies: Doterra and Young Living.
(Note: We do not receive commission or profit from any of these direct sales links.)
These companies have built their businesses cultivating growers and sources to properly get the oils from the genome of the plant that gives the most benefit.
I use Doterra because they have research-backed harvesting, sourcing and production, but I consider both trustworthy.
I do not recommend you use any oils from your local store as anything other than something that will make your house smell good when diffused.
Note from the PharmD
I do not believe these oils will prevent illness … I do not believe these oils are a cure for any illness.
I solely believe that their anti-bacterial, anti-viral, cleansing properties help us feel better and boost our ability to stay healthy!
They are absolutely not a replacement for medical advice, or traditional medical treatments like Tylenol for fevers.
You must always seek medical advice and do what you think is best.
Never use oils if you have any allergies or sensitivities to any components of these oils. They come from the plants and fruits listed (like lemon, eucalyptus, lavender, cinnamon, etc).
So, if you are sensitive to the food or plant you will be sensitive to oils containing them!
Want to learn more about essential oils as a natural way to boost your immune system? Download our Guide to Using Essential Oils for Immunity!
Stay Healthy Out There!
We hope these 10 ways to boost your immune system naturally are helpful for you and your family.
As a remember, we are NOT experts, although we are science/fact junkies with terminal degrees!
Do your own research; think it through; use common sense! Always discuss anything you want to add or change with your doctors before you do so!
Good luck and stay healthy out there! P.S. Remember to wash your hands and stay home if you can!! 🙂
What are some of your favorite natural remedies? Tell us all about them in the comments!
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.