Most of us try our best to live a healthy lifestyle by exercising and eating right — and for good reason. Maintaining our health helps ensure that our immune system, our body's defense system that protects against foreign invaders, is strong. Without a fighting immune system, we become susceptible to all sorts of infectious diseases and viruses.
There are big things we can do to keep our immune systems healthy, including eating right, exercising and staying up-to-date with vaccines, but there are also small things we can do on a daily basis to keep our body's defense system in tip-top shape.
In that spirit, here are nine everyday microhabits that can help boost your immune system and keep your body healthy.
1. Avoid Secondhand Smoke
Even if you don't smoke, you may suffer from the damage it can cause to parts of your immune system if you are exposed to it secondhand, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Chronic secondhand smoke exposure causes inflammation of both upper and lower respiratory tract and impairs the immune system's ability to produce antibodies in response to exposure to bacteria," explains Julia Blank, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "This leads to decreased clearance of bacteria from the lungs and increases asthma flares, which can both make a person more vulnerable to infection."
Try to avoid places where you'll be exposed to secondhand smoke, and ask others around you to get in the habit of going outside if and when they smoke.
2. Add More Protein to Your Breakfast
Protein is a vital nutrient for many reasons. It helps the body build and repair tissue, and it's also the centerpiece of a healthy immune system, says Roger Adams, PhD, personal trainer, doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness.
Research, including a March 2016 study in Food & Function, has shown that protein from high-quality sources (i.e. lean meat) is essential for optimal health. "If protein intake is poor, it can impair the body's ability to make antibodies, large proteins produced by the immune system in response to the invasion of foreign molecules," Adams says. "Without sufficient protein to make antibodies, the immune system loses its ability to fight infections."
Protein can be easier to come by at lunch or dinnertime, so breakfast is the perfect meal to squeeze in more.
How Much Protein Is Enough?
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends getting 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) of body weight each day, but keep in mind that people who are active need more. Weight-lifters or those training for a running or cycling event should eat between 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily. To put that into perspective, a weight-lifter who weighs 170 pounds should be getting somewhere between 92 and 131 grams of protein each day.
3. Three Words: Wash. Your. Hands.
This one might sound obvious, but too few people actually wash their hands well enough to eliminate illness-causing bacteria. In fact, one April 2013 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health observed the hand-washing behavior of nearly 4,000 people and found that as many as 95 percent don't wash their hands for a long enough time after going to the bathroom.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing your hands for at least 20 seconds to minimize germ exposure and keep the immune system from getting overwhelmed.
Sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice through as you soap up your hands to make sure you're hitting the 20-second mark.
4. Sneak in an Extra Serving of Veggies
All fruits and vegetables are beneficial for our health, but some can do more for our immune system than others. The cream of the crop are the ones rich in color, as they tend to have more nutrients, Adams says.
"The more colors, the more antioxidants, which the body uses to fight off free radicals that may contribute to cellular damage," he says. "Also, these foods are loaded with vitamins and minerals essential for a healthy immune system."
Unfortunately, most people aren't getting enough. For adults, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating two cups of brightly colored fruits and two to three cups of vibrant veggies per day. But even one extra serving will do you good.
5. Set an Alarm for Bedtime
Sleep is essential to a healthy, functioning immune system. One February 2019 study in the Journal of Experimental Medicine found that a good night's sleep can boost the efficiency of T cells in the body, a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight off viruses.
"Many people stay up late and miss the opportunity to boost their immunity by proper sleep hygiene," says Shiva Lalezar, DO, functional medicine and anti-aging specialist. "The adrenal glands, which produce cortisol (the stress hormone), epinephrine and norepinephrine, get disrupted by poor or inadequate sleep, which, in turn has a negative impact on the immune system."
In order to go to bed at a proper hour, you have to create a healthy bedtime routine, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Start by giving yourself a curfew — for example, head to bed at 10 p.m. every night — and avoiding stimulating activities for at least four hours prior. Just like you set an alarm to wake up in the morning, set one to remind you to start winding down for sleep.
6. Drink a Glass of Water When You Wake Up
Staying hydrated by drinking enough water on a day-to-day basis will also give your immune system a boost.
"Dry mucous membranes and cracked skin can all be areas pathogens can invade your body," says Adams. "Staying hydrated will reduce dryness in essential areas, like the mucus membranes in your nose, and give your body's natural resources a better chance at warding off pathogens."
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that men drink approximately 15.5 cups and women get 11.5 cups of H2O each day. Start by downing a glass first thing in the morning to start your day on the right foot.
Read more: 8 Hydration Mistakes You're Probably Making
7. Wash Down Some Ginger and Lemon Juice
According to Lalezar, a shot of ginger and lemon juice a day can help reduce inflammation and boost immunity.
"Ginger is a rich antioxidant and is antibacterial, and lemon is high in vitamin C, is an antioxidant and has antiviral and antibacterial properties," she says.
She recommends pre-mixing lemon juice with two tablespoons of minced or chopped ginger and keeping it in the fridge for a few weeks. "The lemon juice will act as a preservative to keep the ginger fresh during that time."
Is This an Emergency?
- Journal of Environmental Health: "Hand Washing Practices in a College Town Environment"
- Food & Function: "Dietary protein intake and human health."
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "When and How to Wash Your Hands"
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance"
- National Sleep Foundation: "How to Train Yourself to Go to Sleep Earlier"
- Journal of Experimental Medicine: "Gαs-coupled receptor signaling and sleep regulate integrin activation of human antigen-specific T cells"
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: "Dietary Reference Intakes: Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke"