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The 8 Best Things You Can Do to Boost Your Immune System, Ranked

With flu season comes a barrage of advice, old wives’ tales, and tonics promising to keep us from getting sick. We asked the experts how the most popular “immunity boosters” really stack up.
The 8 Best Things You Can Do to Boost Your Immune System, Ranked

Whether it’s that compulsive hand-sanitizing colleague or a packet of miracle powder at the drugstore, advice on how to fend off flus and colds during the dark months is everywhere. While some of it works, much of it is a total waste of time. So we asked a few experts about the most popular so-called immunity boosters and had them give each a score from 1 to 10 based on their effectiveness. See which of these you subscribe to and tally up your own score—our experts say if you hit 35 or more, you’re pretty well protected; if less, it’s time to stock up on oranges.

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Doctors agree that this is the single most effective thing you can get to keep from getting sick. “But there’s still a lot of confusion about flu shots,” says Tom Talbot, M.D., an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University. You see, the flu virus changes yearly, so scientists have to scramble to create a vaccine for it—and it doesn’t always work. But, on average, the shot still reduces your chances of getting sick by up to 70%.

EXPERT TIP: Studies show that a workout after the shot speeds circulation, boosting its effectiveness.

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“It sounds so obvious, but there’s a reason why our life expectancy has improved over the centuries as we’ve learned hygiene interventions,” explains Talbot. Germs live on things like door handles and elevator buttons for up to three days. “You don’t need to obsess over it,” says Cunningham-Rundles. “Just wash your hands more.” Talbot and Cunningham-Rundles agree with the CDC that washing is more effective than using sanitizer because it removes the grime rather than sterilizing it.

EXPERT TIP: Carry a pen so you don’t have to borrow one (or, worse, touch the one at the bank).

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Sleep is hugely important in boosting immunity,” says Cunningham-Rundles. One new study in the journal Sleep found that people who get five to six hours are four times as likely to catch a cold than those who sleep more.

EXPERT TIP: The same study found that all it may take is adding one hour to your nightly total.

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“The best way to get vitamins and nutrients is through real food,” says Bay Area–based nutritionist Saskia Kleinert. She suggests vitamin C–heavy fruits like oranges and strawberries; leafy greens for vitamin A, which inhibits replication of viruses; and probiotics like yogurt, so-called immuno-potentiators.

EXPERT TIP: Kleinert recommends a daily smoothie:

2 cups kale, 1/2 cup strawberries,

1/2 cup orange juice, 1/2 cup yogurt, 1 tbsp organic honey.

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“We know that stress hormones like cortisol impact immune function in a very negative way,” says Talbot. In fact, one major study shows that we’re twice as likely to get sick if chronically stressed out.

EXPERT TIP: Lowering stress is easier said than done. But a study from Loma Linda University showed that even something as simple as laughing more can decrease stress hormones while also boosting infection-fighting HGH and beta-endorphins. Study subjects who watched just one hour-long funny video had higher levels of both. And, as Talbot points out, “people who laugh a lot tend to be low stress. And low-stress people tend to not get sick as often.”

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Exercise increases white blood cells, which fight bacteria and viruses. But it doesn’t get a perfect score because a new study found that too much exercise too soon after recovering from illness is a common cause of relapse. “Overdoing it can lead to immune suppression,” warns Susanna Cunningham-Rundles, Ph.D., immunology professor at Weill Cornell Medical College.

EXPERT TIP: Cunningham-Rundles says not to work out until you’re free of fever for at least 24 hours, easing in with light exercise. 

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Those who eat vitamin-rich foods are found to have much stronger immune systems than those who only take supplements. “And most people don’t need all those added nutrients,” Kleinert says.

EXPERT TIP: Take vitamins if a dietary restriction prevents you from eating certain immune-boosting foods.

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Zinc does boost immune-response time by activating T cells to attack viruses and bacteria. The problem is, it’s most helpful the day you begin feeling symptoms. “Zinc basically shortens the duration of a cold and reduces its severity,” explains Talbot. Studies have shown that zinc is particularly effective at combating the rhinovirus, a key villain in colds.

EXPERT TIP: Don’t use the nasal sprays, which can affect your sense of smell and make you nauseated. Stick to lozenges (about 60mg, three a day).

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