Can lifestyle modifications boost your immune system?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published March 22, 2019

Key Takeaways

Some people who are not immunocompromised complain that they have “weak” immune systems. These people, however, may overlook how truly effective the immune system is at protecting against disease. Germs can make their way into the body and result in infection, but this invasion only occasionally happens in healthy people. For every cold that manifests, countless immune system onslaughts are successfully defeated.

Boosting your immune system sounds great, but it can be challenging. Information about much of the immune system is only just emerging. Experts have yet to elucidate solid causative relationships between lifestyle modification and immune system benefits. Currently, researchers are looking into how diet, exercise, age, psychological stress, and other factors may impact the immune system.

Supplements to ‘boost’ your immunity

Various supplements available on websites and store shelves make untrue claims that they can “boost” the immune system. If boosting your immune system involves increasing the number of immune cells in the body, then these claims are certainly untrue. Scientists have yet to understand which immune cells need to be boosted—and in what number—to possibly impact the immune system in a positive way.

We do know that the body naturally makes plenty more lymphocytes and other immune cells than it actually needs, with many destined for apoptosis. Introducing more immune cells into the body than necessary can have adverse effects. For example, athletes who “blood dope” to improve performance by introducing more immune cells into their systems increase their chances of developing blood clots, and having heart attacks and strokes.


Indigent populations who live in substandard conditions and receive inadequate nutrition are more likely to experience serious infections that can impact the immune system. But this phenomenon is merely an association, and it remains to be elucidated whether a causative relationship exists.

Certain micronutrient deficiencies—such as zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E—have been hypothesized to change immune response in animal studies. The effects of these changes, however, are not clear, and researchers have not yet investigated the impact of similar deficiencies on human immune response.

Notably, micronutrient deficiencies are common among older people—even those living in developed nations. It remains unclear whether nutrient supplements can boost the immune system in those with micronutrient deficiencies. Nevertheless, if a person isn’t regularly consuming fruits and vegetables, a multivitamin or mineral supplement might help; such supplements may provide benefits aside from those involving the immune system. Megadoses of a single vitamin, however, are a bad idea. Consuming too much of any one vitamin can lead to toxicity.

Lifestyle modifications

Despite the lack of any scientifically proven links between lifestyle and better immune function, making positive choices to improve your overall health will undoubtedly also help your immune system. Here are some specific lifestyle choices that will serve your body well:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating plenty of fruits and veggies
  • Minimizing stress
  • Not smoking
  • Exercising regularly
  • Drinking alcohol only in moderation
  • Getting adequate sleep


Stress has been linked to various common ailments, including gastrointestinal disturbance, heart disease, and hives. Currently, scientists are exploring the relationship between stress and immune function. For instance, stress responses have been shown to heighten a person’s sensitivity to cold and flu.

Stress is subjective. One person’s stressor may be completely tolerable for another. Thus, it’s difficult to identify universal stressors in laboratory conditions. Furthermore, scientists can only evaluate signs and symptoms that are related to stress, such as heart rate and cortisol levels, in the absence of being able to directly measure stress itself.

Researchers examining stress do not focus on ephemeral stressors, but on chronic ones. Such stressors include relationships with friends, family, and colleagues. In these experiments, one factor is changed to see whether an objective response is elicited, which, in the case of the immune system, may entail a boost in antibodies. Again, it’s unclear whether such a boost is causative or merely associated with stress.

Certain self-guided interventions can help decrease stress response, including the following:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Repetitive prayer
  • Breathing exercises
  • Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong
  • Guided imagery


Independent of the immune system, exercise has plenty of benefits to the cardiovascular system, blood pressure, and body weight.

Most obviously, regular exercise promotes healthy living, which in turn sustains the immune system. More specifically, exercise may help with circulation, which promotes immune function efficiency.
According to some research involving world-class athletes, some components of blood and urine may even change following exercise. But, the reasons for these changes—and their impact on immune response—are unclear.

Looking forward, microarrays based on the human genome could be used to identify whether certain gene sequences are turned “on” or “off” in response to exercise. Changes in blood cells, for example, could be tested. Findings from this research could help experts to better understand the effects that lifestyle modifications, such as exercise, have on the immune system.

Overall, there is a dearth of proof that exercise contributes to good health, but this definitely could be the case. In other words, one key to an enhanced immune system could be exercise.

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