Optimizing Your Immune System: A Whole Body Approach

May 15, 2023
A person surrounded by workout gear holds a bowl of fresh fruit and vegetables.


When it comes to getting sick, we’re all looking for that magic pill or vitamin-packed potion that will boost your immune system and have you feeling better overnight. Your immune system is key to defending your body when you’re feeling under the weather so the idea of boosting it can be appealing.

But the reality is, you can’t ‘boost’ your immune system to prevent illness.  

In fact, according to Emily Brown, a registered and licensed dietitian/nutritionist at BayCare, the concept of ‘boosting’ the immune system is misleading. We want the immune system to be in ‘balance,’ rather than ‘boosted’ or ‘over-reactive.' Autoimmune diseases are a clear example of an immune system out of balance and functioning on overdrive.  
Instead of ‘boosting’ your immune system, you want to optimize it. 
“Optimizing health in terms of nutrition is nothing fancy or groundbreaking. It’s all about maintaining a general healthful diet and lifestyle,” Brown explains. 

A smiling young woman with shoulder length brown holds up fruits and vegetables in both hands.
Emily Brown is a registered and licensed dietitian/nutritionist at BayCare.

When we practice a healthful lifestyle and consume a general healthful diet, which is optimal nutrition, we’re helping slow the impacts of aging and the rate of decline of the immune system and overall body. 
Because our immune system is so complex, Brown says there isn’t a simple list of five nutrients to consume. But there are five principles of health that are key to optimizing your immune response to fighting off illnesses. 

  1. Adequate Quality Sleep 
    If you are not sleeping well, it does not matter if you're getting optimal nutrition because your body can't properly repair and heal. This will cause elevated cortisol levels and decreased sensitivity to reactions within the immune system where the immune cells become less functioning. Getting adequate, quality sleep provides a necessary foundation to support the immune system. For more on good sleep hygiene, click here.

  2. Physical Activity
    Getting daily physical activity and enough movement throughout the day is crucial to maintaining overall health. Implementing exercise into your daily routine fuels your mind, body and spirit. Even if you can’t make it into the gym, going out for a walk or playing with your kids outside are easy ways to get the movement your body needs. Tune in to BayCare Health Chat here for a deeper dive on the benefits of exercise in terms of disease prevention and wellness.

  3. Stress Management  
    One thing that taxes the immune system is chronic stress. Chronic stress, according to Brown, can over activate the immune system. All types of stress activate the immune system, producing an inflammatory response. However, chronic stress leads to persistent inflammation which in turn can contribute to chronic disease. 

  4. Eliminate Toxic Substances
    Ridding the body of substances like alcohol and tobacco can help reduce your body’s toxic load. If you use any form of tobacco (cigarettes, vape, cigars), it is recommended to quit. Tobacco Free Florida offers free online, group and individual tools to help you get and stay tobacco free. If you do drink alcohol, Brown says it should be in moderation. That means no more than one drink a day for women; and no more than two drinks for men. For more on Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol, click here.

  5. Proper Nutrition 
    Eating at regular meal intervals and focusing on wholesome, quality ingredients at each of those meal intervals is essential. Brown suggests following the American Diabetes Association plate pattern as your guide to make healthy and easy meals. The goal is to fill your plate at least halfway with non-starchy vegetables, one quarter of your plate with lean protein foods and one quarter of your plate with carbohydrates. Optimize your intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatories by making ¾ of the food on your plate from plant sources (vegetables, fruits, plant proteins like pulses and unsaturated fats like olive, avocado and flax oil). Learn more about how the food we eat can actually be our medicine here.

“Avoid foods that have added fat, saturated fat, trans-fat and added sugar. Packaging foods into food products often adds these things, and the naturally occurring phytonutrients in foods can be lost in the packaging process,” Brown explains.  

If there are two nutrition concepts to take home, Brown says it’s eating the rainbow – a wide array of colorful fruits, vegetables and plant proteins every day; and to eat foods that look like they looked when they grew on the farm.  
So instead of five nutrients, focus of the five pillars of general health lifestyle that will optimize your immune system, optimize cognitive function, and optimize your body's overall capacity to maintain a well-balanced immune defense. 

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