5 things you can do right now to strengthen your immune system for winter

Getty / Boris SV
Originally Published: 

With the pandemic coasting right along and flu season looming, everyone is wondering how to stay well. You probably know by now that there are no magic immune-boosting supplements or new age wellness tricks that will guarantee you a virus-free winter. There are, however, plenty of accessible habits that will strengthen your immune system, not just now, but in the long run. I talked to Mehmet Oz — a.k.a Dr. Oz, host of The Dr. Oz Show— about how to adopt healthier habits now so you can feel more confident in your body’s ability to fight off colds, flus, and anything else this winter.

“A lot of the things that make your immune system more resilient are things you have control over,” says Oz, who is also an NYC-based cardiologist and professor of surgery at Columbia University. This is great; it means that you have control over some elements of your health, but it also puts a lot of responsibility in your hands. “If you are sloppy about lifestyle issues, you’re setting yourself up for failure,” he says.

Sleep well

One of the first, and most important things that plays into wellness is rest. You need about 7-8 hours of sleep, Oz tells Mic, but more than 9 is too much. And apparently, it’s not just about how much sleep you get — it’s when you sleep matters, too.

Yes, I am about to tell you that you should sleep at night. I know it might not be how you wanted to do adulting, but staying in tempo with circadian rhythms — the body’s sunlight-aligned internal timing system — helps the immune system function at its peak. This is not new age woo or my attempt to sell you on the glory of being a morning person. Recent research suggests that sleeping enough and during the dark hours of the day is crucial for immune system balance.

Get sunshine

Part of staying in circadian rhythm means getting sunlight, which is also good for your immune system and may play a part in warding off coronavirus. “The virus probably doesn’t like the sun,” Oz says. “More importantly, your body does. Being exposed to sunlight through the skin releases beneficial chemicals in your body and brain.” Some of the chemicals triggered by sunlight boost the immune system — like vitamin D — and some of them are hormones like serotonin, that help in mood regulation. Early morning sun exposure is best for setting up your circadian rhythm and, as Oz notes, “walking in the sun is an easy lifestyle switch to make.”

Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images

Exercise everyday

Taking a walk in the sun counts also as multitasking, immunity-wise, because not only do you need the sunlight, you need the exercise. “Living a sedentary lifestyle is devastating for the body,” says Oz. “Exercise revs up your engine. It is a powerful stimulant to immune function.” He uses a great analogy here. He tells me to imagine my cave person ancestors running from predators and think about what messages exercise sends to the body. “Exercise tells the body to protect itself,” he says.

You don’t need to overdo the exercise thing. “You need to raise your heart rate for about 20 minutes a day and it takes about ten minutes to get there,” Oz says. I asked him if the kind of exercise you do matters. “No,” he says, as long as it gets the heart rate bumping.” HIIT, Tae Bo, CrossFit — whatever’s trending is fine. It doesn’t matter. Just move your body for 30 minutes or so and it will activate your immune system.

Eat balanced

And for those who are still wallowing in pandemic comfort food phase, you need to embrace a balanced plate. “Eat real food — food that looks basically the way it did when it came out of the ground,” he says. There are no magic super foods, but Oz says that eating nutrient dense meals is important for immune function. He also points out that eating whole foods, like, nuts, is a good way to maintain a healthy weight because the body gets more nutrients in fewer calories.

But what about all the bespoke supplements on my Insta feed? Oz asserts that you don’t need them. But he does think that most people should be taking zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin C. Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the duration of a cold, zinc helps the body make important proteins, and vitamin D can help the body fight respiratory infections. It’s worth noting that Black people are particularly prone to vitamin D deficiency because the melanin in their skin prevents the body from producing it quickly through sun exposure.

Focus on your purpose

None of these physiological immune strengthening tips are obscure or inaccessible. The reality that I connect most with, though, is that immune function is intimately connected to mental and emotional wellbeing. “If you feel like you control your destiny, you feel less isolated and lonely,” he says. “Taking away people’s agency leads to chronic illness,” Oz says.

How do you find agency in this terrifyingly uncertain time, though? You need to have purpose, he tells me. And having purpose means living your life in a way that is bigger than just you. It’s good for everyone. “People who give to others live longer,” Oz says. Welp. You really can’t argue with a medical doctor telling you that the way to be healthy is to be a better person.