The most common indications of suboptimal immune function are an increased tendency to experience colds, flu, sore throats, sinusitis and other respiratory, gastrointestinal or skin infections, and needing more time than usual to recover from them.

You may also feel generally unwell or lethargic and may experience enlargement and/or tenderness of the lymph nodes in your neck, underarms or groin.

Reduced immune system function is sometimes a symptom of underlying medical problems but is more commonly a consequence of chronic stress, poor diet and lifestyle habits.

Following are five strategies you can implement to support and strengthen your immune system long term.

  1. Correct Nutritional Deficiencies

A whole food diet, with a good balance of macronutrients of protein, carbohydrates, fat and fibre and essential for a well-functioning immune system.

Minerals and vitamins such as vitamin C, vitamin A, zinc, magnesium, Vitamin D and B Complex vitamins are essential for the production and activation of immune cells and a healthy functioning immune system.

Antioxidants, such as selenium, glutathione, vitamin E, vitamin A, alpha-lipoic acid, and CoQ10 also improve immune function and exhibit a protective role in infections caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites.

However, with today’s busy and stressful lifestyles many people fail to eat an adequate, whole foods diet. Factor in also a decline in the quality of soil and over processing of our food, deficiencies in vitamin D, zinc and magnesium, for example, are quite common in our western societies.

Here we’ll have a look at the importance of the following vitamins – A, C, D and zinc to our immune system.

VITAMIN A has been known for a long time to protect cell walls so the virus can’t get into the cell and replicate – this is key to slow down the rate of spreading of the virus in the body. Importantly, iodine is needed for vitamin A to do its job, meaning your thyroid needs to be working well. Many people with abnormal thyroid function are more susceptible to colds and flu because of this.

VITAMIN C deficiency results in a reduced resistance against pathogens. High levels enhance several immune system parameters and has been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of colds. Several immune cells such as macrophages, natural killer cells and T-cells need it to perform their important tasks and can accumulate vitamin C when required.

There’s no toxic upper limit to vitamin C so on the first signs of a cold or virus you can supplement 1000mg every 2 hours, or until bowel tolerance is reached (or in other words, when you need to need to run to the bathroom) to shorten the severity of the cold.

VITAMIN D is paramount for an optimally functioning immune system!

It is known as the sunshine vitamin as it’s synthesized by the action of sunlight on the skin.

Although it is classified as a vitamin, vitamin D really functions more like a hormone as there are vitamin D receptors (VDR) on most cells of the immune system including B cells, T cells and antigen presenting cells, as well as all other tissues and cells!

The immune system defends the body from foreign, invading organisms, promoting protective immunity while maintaining tolerance to self. Vitamin D enhances innate immunity (that’s your first line of defence) so it’s really important when there is a virus or infection in the body as it modulates the immune system’s response to these invading pathogens.

It basically helps to identify and deal with unknown or new infections (like Covid-19!) as does vitamin C.

Your adaptive immune system will then activate, producing antibodies targeted to the specific virus or antigen in question. A deficiency in vitamin D has been linked to an increased susceptibility to infections, as well as a number of autoimmune conditions

So how can we get more vitamin D, you ask?

Firstly it’s important to get your levels tested through a blood test to know where you stand before supplementing. An optimal range to aim for is 80-120 nmol/dl, especially now as we are approaching winter.

I recommend getting 20-30 minutes of daily sun exposure in the midmorning sun. 11 to 2 pm is the optimal window to make vitamin D. There’s a great app you can download onto your mobile called D-Minder which tracks in real time how much vitamin D you’re potentially making, by factoring in the percentage of skin exposed to sunlight, and your latitude/longitudinal position.

There’s also small amounts of vitamin D in fish liver oils (cod, halibut, herring, tuna), butter, egg yolk, milk and sprouted seeds.

ZINC deficiencies are quite common in western societies and the developing world. It is involved in more than 200 zinc-dependent enzymes throughout the body.

Regarding immune function, zinc is vital for the production and regulation of cellular and humoral immune responses, and the production of certain cytokines within your innate immune system.

Zinc is also required to make thymulin which is a hormone produced by the thymus gland and is important for T-cell function.

For common colds, zinc has been shown to decrease the length of time it lasts when taken as a lozenge. I recommend taking one zinc gluconate or acetate lozenge (providing 9-24mg elemental zinc) every two hours while awake when cold symptoms are present.

  1. Manage Your Stress

Under normal circumstances, the body produces defence molecules to protect the body against viruses and bacteria. Everything that does not belong to the body is identified and attacked by these cells.

The main types of immune cells are white blood cells. There are two types of white blood cells – lymphocytes and phagocytes.

And there are two types of lymphocytes:

  1. T cells – if the invader gets inside a cell, these T cells lock onto the infected cell, multiply and destroy it.
  2. B cells – produce antibodies which are released into the fluid surrounding the body’s cells to destroy the invading viruses and bacteria.

The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can suppress the effectiveness of the immune system by lowering the number of circulating lymphocytes.

When we’re stressed, the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens/pathogens is reduced. That is why we are more susceptible to infections when we’re stressed, overrun or overworked.

Stress can also have an indirect effect on the immune system as a person may use unhealthy behavioural coping strategies to reduce their stress, such as drinking, and eating junk/sugary foods.

Intense or ongoing stress will impede immune system function; not only increasing your susceptibility to catching colds, viruses etc, but also increasing your recovery time when you do get sick.

Taking steps to manage your stress levels goes a long way in supporting an optimally functioning immune system. Useful options that can help reduce stress include exercise (be cautious not to overdo it or over-train as this can temporarily suppress immune function), regular meditation, implementation of effective coping strategies, and nurturing supportive social networks.

Another way to reduce stress is to engage the diaphragm with ANY type of deep breathing (laughter included) This immediately engages the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system signals ALL body systems to SLOW down, thus producing “feel good” hormones (endorphins) that help lower stress hormones. Once that signal is received, blood pressure drops, heart rate slows, and an overall sense of calm replaces anxiety/stress – the perfect antidote to stress.

  1. Get Good Quality Sleep

Lack of sleep has also been shown to increase your susceptibility to catching cold viruses.  Studies show that people who don’t get good quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as the common cold virus. Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.

During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, some of which help promote sleep. Certain cytokines need to increase when you have an infection or inflammation, or when you’re under stress. Sleep deprivation may decrease production of these protective cytokines. In addition, infection-fighting antibodies and white blood cells are reduced during periods when you don’t get enough sleep.

Some ways increase the quality of your sleep can be through avoiding consumption of caffeinated drinks, such as coffee and tea, after lunch. Avoiding exposure to blue light after sunset, from television and computer screens, and mobile phones will assist in the release of melatonin from your pituitary gland. Melatonin is your sleep hormone and cannot be secreted adequately in the presence of blue light. Turning you phone to night-shift mode and wearing blue-blocking glasses after sunset are great ways to support melatonin release and thus increase the quality of your sleep.

Herbs such as lavender, chamomile, magnolia, zizyphus and californian poppy are some of the herbal remedies and natural sleep aids that can help increase sleep quality. Learning to manage stress and anxiety levels through exercise and meditation can also help with sleep.

  1. Laugh Often

I really believe in the adage “laughter is the best medicine”. As adults we have suppressed the natural inclination that we had as young children to find humour in the little things. It is estimated that the average 4-year-old laughs 300 times a day. The average 40-year-old? Only four.

But what does laughing have to do with boosting immune function?

Well, firstly let’s look at the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system is your body’s highly efficient waste disposal system and the backbone of the immune system. It is an extensive, mesh-like network of very fine vessels (intertwined with the venous system yet separate from blood vessels), located immediately beneath the skin and above the muscles.

It continuously collects waste materials from all over the body (dead blood cells, pathogens, toxins, etc.) that are deposited into the tissues via blood capillaries. It then cleans that fluid and returns it back into the circulating blood at the neck. It also removes excess fluid and waste products from the interstitial spaces between the cells, and more.

The lymphatic system has several small swellings called lymph nodes. These are clusters of “cleaning stations” interspersed along the lymphatic pathways, primarily in the armpit, neck, chest, abdomen and groin. They specialise in producing white blood cells (lymphocytes) to clean the fluid, antibodies to defend against future predators, and macrophages to remove all manner of unwanted debris.

Biophysical studies have shown that belly laughter accomplishes the diaphragmatic breathing necessary (diaphragm fluttering up and down at a very quick rate) to create a strong negative pressure within the thoracic duct (the largest lymphatic vessel in the body). Under negative pressure, the lymphatic fluid seeks an area of lesser pressure, thus shooting the lymph up and out through lymphatic vessels, increasing the speed and flow up to 10-15 times its normal rate of flow.

This assists the lymphatic vessels in carrying this fluid through your body and helps your lymph nodes to clean and filter this fluid, removing waste products, dead cells, and even unwanted microorganisms.

The increased flow of lymphatic fluid means more lymph is passing through lymph nodes, which itself means that more lymphocytes (t and b-cell lymphocytes, plus NK cells – the natural killer cells) are produced. Increased number of lymphocytes circulating in the blood means better immunity toward ALL diseases, especially cancer.

Any muscular movement will stimulate and increase the flow of lymphatic fluid, but laughter may prove to be one of the most painless and beneficial ways for accomplishing that goal.

Watching a one-hour comedy video for example has been found to produce:

  • Increased number and activation of T cells
  • Increased number of Helper T cells (the cells attacked by the AIDS virus)
  • Increased ratio of Helper/Suppressor T cells
  • Increased number and activity of Natural Killer (NK) cells
  • Increased levels of Gamma Interferon
  • Increased number of B cells
  1. Make Your Own Immune Tonic

This immune tonic is more about prevention and giving your body what it needs to function optimally, especially as we come to the cooler months where we want our immune system to be strong and able to fight off viruses and pathogens easily.

It really packs a punch with so many immune boosting goodies 🤜🏼💥

Ingredients (makes approx. 200 mL)
– 4 lemons
– 3 garlic cloves, peeled
– 3 cm knob of fresh ginger, peeled
– 3 cm knob of fresh turmeric root, peeled
– Pinch of cayenne pepper
– 2 tablespoons manuka honey *you can also use raw honey
– 150 mL organic apple cider vinegar
– 200 mL glass bottle to store

Put the lemons, garlic, turmeric and ginger through a juicer, then mix in all the other ingredients.
Pour into your glass bottle, seal and label.
Store in the fridge and use within 2 weeks.

Best taken daily as a 20mL shot. At first it will be a little hard to drink (I’m not going to lie!) but after a few days or so you will begin to crave the acidity of it. Have a glass of water handy as taking a few sips afterwards helps.
Alternatively you can add a shot to your fresh juice or into a little warm water.

In Summary

If you’re constantly catching every cold or virus going around perhaps it’s time to look at supporting and strengthening your immune system by implementing some of the above strategies and suggestions. Starting at the end of summer and throughout autumn gives you a good time frame to achieve a robust immune system ready for winter’s flu season and is something that can be done every year.

However, if you seem to suffer from a chronically suppressed immune system, or take a very long time to recover from respiratory infections, seeing a naturopath is a great way of understanding and addressing the root causes of a depleted immune system, and helps get you back to optimal health, naturally and effectively.