Given the popularity of “immune-boosting” supplements, most of which are packed with vitamin C, you’d think that all it takes is a healthy dose of vitamins to avoid the sniffles. We imagine vitamin C like it’s Popeye’s spinach: a handful of orange-flavored pills will give your white blood cells instant strength to fight off any cold or flu.
Unfortunately, for anyone trying not to get sick, that's not quite the case. As nice as it’d be to drink a glass of orange juice and suddenly be Popeye-strong, it doesn’t work that way. In fact, taking a bunch of vitamins could have some not-fun consequences. “Really high doses of vitamin C gives you diarrhea,” says Abinash Virk, MD, from the division of infectious diseases at Mayo Clinic Health System. “Besides, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, meaning that the body will only absorb what you need and then pee out the rest.”
So if you can’t pop a bunch of vitamin C to boost your immune system, what can you do? The good news: There are plenty of ways to build a robust immune system. The bad news? You can’t just give your immune system a “boost” during cold and flu season and then forget about it the rest of the year. Unless you’re already a pretty healthy person, there’s not much you can do to boost your immune system in the short-term, says Shanna Levine, MD, a clinical instructor of internal medicine at Mount Siani Hospital. You've got to commit to your body and wellbeing full-time, and here is exactly how.
Get your flu shot.
It’s obvious, but one of the best things you can do to help fight off the flu is to get your flu shot, says Keith Roach, MD, internist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. The flu vaccine is created with different strains every year, based on what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes will be the most common influenza strain. So that means you need to get a new flu shot every year. It works by introducing your body to a tiny bit of the influenza virus so that you build up antibodies that are ready to fight the full-fledged flu in case you’re exposed to it. That certainly takes a load off your immune system.
Don’t mess with your immune system.
There are certain things that actively work against our immune systems, such as: drinking alcohol, not sleeping enough, and stressing out too much. So, it’s especially important to do better during cold and flu season. Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done, given that these seasons also coincide with the holiday season, and the bad weather that comes with it. “The weather is crummy, there’s lots of rich foods, and parties, and stress, and alcohol is more abundant this time of year,” says Dr. Roach. Try your best to take care of yourself. Get enough sleep, do whatever you can to de-stress, and try to cut yourself off after a couple drinks.
Doctors like Dr. Roach and Dr. Levine are pretty iffy on supplements, but they do love the vitamins you get from fresh fruits and vegetables. “My personal advice is that you don’t need the supplements,” Dr. Roach says. There’s no reason anyone who’s eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables would need to supplement their vitamins, he says. And even if you’re not eating many fruits or veggies, doctors are hesitant to recommend supplements because there’s no real proof that they’ll help anyway.
Eating well can be harder in the wintertime, though. Fresh fruits and veggies may be more expensive or less readily available. If you can’t get fresh fruits and vegetables, Dr. Roach suggests frozen. “Frozen is next best to fresh,” he says. “You don’t want canned because canned fruits and vegetables often have too much sugar or salt and have lost a lot of their nutrients.” But mixing in frozen veggies into soups and stews, or using frozen vitamin-packed berries for smoothies should really help.
Even if it is cold outside, that doesn’t mean you should give up on your workout routine. Exercise is important for your immune system, Dr. Levine says, because it acts like a natural anti-inflammatory. She’s not saying you need to run a marathon every day, but getting regular exercise — 30 minutes of actual sweating, five times a week — will do wonders for your immune system.
Drink enough water.
Most Americans are constantly dehydrated, Dr. Levine says, and that directly harms our immune response. In fact, she believes that dehydration is why things like Emergen-C and Airborne seem to work. At most, those kinds of vitamin packets act as a placebo, she says, but they can be helpful because they force people to drink an extra eight to 12 ounces of water. Ideally, people should drink about nine glasses of water a day, and even more if they’ve been sweating.
Get enough sleep.
Sleep is your body’s time to rest and rebuild, Dr. Levine says. So if you’re not getting enough, or your sleep isn’t restful, then you’re not giving your body the chance to take care of itself. “There’s no magic number for most people, but a minimum of eight hours feels good (I don’t like people getting any less than seven hours),” Dr. Levine says.
Oversleeping can also be detrimental to your immune system, so you need to find a sweet spot and keep a good schedule (there is no such thing as “catching up” on sleep). “We see worse health outcomes in people who work overnight,” Dr. Levine says. “So it’s important that you’re keeping your circadian rhythm in check.” Ask yourself: Do you feel refreshed when you get up?
Eat some probiotics.
“There’s some data that probiotics can improve general immune health, and that may help decrease the likelihood of getting a cold or influenza,” Dr. Virk says. But again, she’d much rather you get your probiotics from healthy food sources, like yogurt or kefir, than from supplements.
Wash your hands — a lot.
It’s not necessarily going to boost your immune system, but making sure your hands are clean will definitely help you avoid the cold or flu, and therefore make sure your immunity isn’t compromised.
“There’s no magic pill that will keep people away from cold and flu,” Dr. Virk says. “But I think the closest to magic is hand-hygiene.” The most common way to get the flu or a cold is from touching the virus and then touching your mouth or nose, she says. “So if you did a lot of hand hygiene, especially when you’re outside of house like at shopping malls, airports, or grocery stores, you’d be much less likely to get it.” So, wash your hands whenever you can, and try to keep your hands away from your face. It's hard out there this time of year — but the point is to take proper care of yourself all year round, to give yourself the best chance of staying as healthy as can be.