20 ways to boost your immune system

Be fighting fit instead of fighting the flu

bowls foods

Whatever your age, fitness and training schedule we can all feel under attack during the winter months, with endless colds, the dreaded ‘24-hour bug’ or a dose of flu. One of the best ways to counter this onslaught is to keep your immune system fighting fit.


How healthy is your immune system?

  • Do you get more than three colds a year?
  • Do you find it hard to get rid of infections?
  • Do you suffer from joint pains and fatigue?
  • Do your glands in your neck, armpits or groin feel tender?
  • Is your performance during training or competition failing?
  • Do you suffer from an inflammatory disease such as eczema, asthma or arthritis?
  • Do you have antibiotics at least once a year?
  • Do you frequently suffer from respiratory symptoms?
  • Do you get less than 5-7 hours of sleep each night?
  • Do you suffer from allergies to certain foods?

If you answered YES to five or more of these questions, it’s time to focus on boosting your immune system.

Various factors can compromise our immunity including poor diet, nutritional deficiency, environmental pollution, stress and, yes, over-training. The good news is there are plenty of natural remedies to help. Try some of these…

1. Vitamin C

Vitamin C is one of the best anti-viral agents there is for athletes. Our white blood cells need this powerful vitamin to fight infection, so boosting your intake when you’re feeling under par can be a good move. An ongoing daily intake is around 1,000mg — best in divided doses during the day. If you find some supplements a little acidic, look for the more alkaline form known as ascorbate (calcium or magnesium ascorbate) or a time release supplement. If you take too much you’ll get loose bowels, which is an indication to reduce the dose.

2. Cherries

As well as tasting delicious, cherries are packed with nutrients. Their rich red colour comes from anthocyanin, a super anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent. They also contain plenty of ellagic acid and vitamin C. While winter may not be the season to get them fresh, there’s an excellent sports recovery drink containing 100 percent Montmorency cherries known as CherryActive, which is taken by numerous elite athletes including cyclists. Not only a potent antioxidant, it can reduce muscle soreness and, being a natural source of melatonin, promote restful sleep.

Nutritional advisor to British Cycling Nigel Mitchell includes CherryActive in the endurance squad’s nutritional strategy and it was a key feature in their preparation for the Beijing Olympics.

Cherries on wood
As well as tasting delicious, cherries are packed with nutrients
Westend61 / Getty

3. Elderberries

If you want something to work fast try elderberry. High in antioxidants, it’s available as extracts (often sold as Sambucol), throat sprays, capsules, lozenges and drinks. Useful for fighting fever and viruses, reducing muscle pain and tackling sore throats, it’ll get you back on your feet quickly as well as give your overall immune system a boost.

4. Echinacea

Probably one of the most widely used immune-boosting herbs around, echinacea is effective against flu and the cold sore-causing herpes virus, and contains compounds that can boost immune cell production. Normally recommended as soon as symptoms are felt, use it as a short term rather than long term treatment (up to three months at a time). It can be taken in the form of capsules or as liquid extract.

5. Tea

We’re not talking about the usual cuppa here. While green tea is a good choice, being rich in antioxidants, there are some other great bug-busting teas. Uncaria tomentosa or cat’s claw (so-called because its thorn is shaped like the claw of a cat) is a woody vine that has been used for centuries to treat cancer, joint problems and many diseases.

It has immune-stimulating, antioxidant and anti-microbial properties and is best taken when you show the early warning signs of an infection. Cat’s claw comes in capsules or as tea. Take two cups a day, sweetened with a little manuka honey (another bug-buster) according to taste.

Alternatively try pau d’arco, a natural herb retrieved from the inner bark of an Amazon rainforest tree that contains many active ingredients to support the body’s defence mechanisms and maintain circulation.

6. Probiotics

Did you know that the largest immune organ in the body is your gut? In fact between 70-80 percent of all immune cells exist there. Constant use of antibiotics and other medications can wipe out not just the bad bacteria but the ‘good’ guys too.

Taking a daily dose of these healthy bugs (probiotics) ideally combined with fibre foods (prebiotics) to feed them is a great long term immune support. Available in drinks, yoghurts, smoothies or as powdered and capsule forms, ideally look for a supplement supplying at least 1 billion bacteria comprising lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, but for greater benefits take up to 10 billion per day.

7. Zinc and Selenium

Two ‘must have’ minerals this winter are zinc and selenium. Both are needed for the production of immune cells. A zinc deficiency causes shrinkage of the thymus gland, which is a gland that produces key immune cells called T lymphocytes. They’re also required for the production of crucial antioxidant enzymes.

  • Top zinc-rich foods include wholegrains, nuts, seeds, poultry, yogurt and shellfish
  • Selenium is notoriously hard to come by in a typical western diet due to the poor levels in soil, but good food sources include Brazil nuts, mushrooms, fish, calf’s liver and lean lamb

8. Iron

Iron is essential to the immune system and can often be depleted with intense exercise. Good food sources include lean meat, poultry, fish, dried fruits and leafy green vegetables. But don’t go overboard on supplements, as too much iron can actually be counterproductive. Check first with your health practitioner if in doubt.

9. Garlic

The active ingredient, and the one responsible for garlic’s powerful odour, is allicin. Allicin is anti-viral, antibacterial and anti-fungal. It’s also rich in sulphur, making it a perfect detoxifying agent. Consider a clove or capsule for a daily dose but to fight an infection you’ll need a higher dose — so if you want to avoid garlic breath and keep your friends, we recommend you opt for a supplement.

Fresh garlic (Allium sativum) Hampton Court Flower Show 2009
Garlic is rich in sulphur, making it a perfect detoxifying agent
Rosalind Simon / Getty

10. Omega 3 and 6

By this we don’t mean lots of saturated fatty sauces and creams over the festive season. Instead focus on getting more of the essential fats (EFAs). Omega 3 and 6 fats found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herrings, sardines etc) and nuts and seeds enhance immunity by ensuring immune-cell health.

If you’re suffering from recurrent colds and have dry skin and hair it’s time to look at EFA supplements. If aching joints are also a problem then a fish oil supplement can also help by acting as a natural painkiller.

11. Astragalus

The festive season can be a particularly stressful time whether you’re in training or not. Pumping your body full of adrenaline and cortisol can actually interfere with immune-cell function, leaving you more prone to infections. Take time to chill out and consider taking astragalus — a tonic herb that builds energy and helps boost resistance to disease.

12. Plant sterols

Plant sterols, or phytosterols, are included in many functional foods such as margarine and yoghurt as well as being present in nuts, seeds, oils fruits and vegetables. Originally used for their cholesterol-lowering effects, what many people don’t realise is that they also have immune-boosting properties.

They can strengthen the immune system to fight off colds and flu, improve joint health, prostate health and prepare your immune system for strenuous endurance sports including cycling. Key sterols are beta sitosterol and beta sitosterolin, both of which are also available in a wide range of supplements.

13. Sunlight

Sunlight helps your body make vitamin D, which is important for immune health. In addition, include vitamin D sources in your diet such as dairy products, eggs and oily fish. If the sun does shine, get outside and soak up some of those rays.

14. Mushrooms

A range of Chinese and Japanese mushrooms have long been used to support the immune system, being rich in potent polysaccharides and sugar compounds.

Cyclists are particularly prone to respiratory infections because of being out in the cold air for hours at a time. Mushrooms such as cordyceps, shiitake, reishi and maitake are all potent immune enhancers, useful for boosting energy, combating exhaustion and promoting immune-cell function. Shiitake are commonly available in supermarkets while the others are available in supplement form from health shops.

15. Antioxidants

Antioxidants play an important role during the winter months, and some of the best sources are fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds. By including a wide range of brightly coloured produce in your diet you can maximise the variety of different plant antioxidants such as carotenoids and flavonoids, which are fantastic immune boosters. Aim for at least seven portions a day, using them in smoothies as well as meals.

bowls super foods
Load up with antioxidants, which are found in many foods including fruits and vegetables
Lew Robertson / Getty

16. Thyme and rosemary

Throw in some herbs when you cook and fight off colds as you eat. Thyme and rosemary both possess antimicrobial properties, so add to dishes (they add great extra flavour to roast meats and casseroles) or make teas by putting the fresh or dried herb in a cup of hot water and leave to infuse for around 10 minutes.

17. Grapefruit seed extract

Grapefruit seed extract, also called Citricidal, is a powerful antibiotic, anti-fungal and anti-viral agent. It’s particularly useful if you’re travelling because it comes in the form of liquid concentrate, a couple of drops of which can be added to water and swallowed or gargled. It can even be used as ear drops, depending on the site of infection.

18. Eucalyptus and lavender oils

Essential oils not only attack bacteria but can also boost white blood cells. Eucalyptus and lavender are popular oils used in massage blends for immune strengthening. Great for easing tired limbs after a long ride.

19. Stop over-training

While moderate exercise can stimulate your own body’s defences (30-40 minutes 3-5 times a week), over-training can actually stress your immune system and deplete your body of key nutrients, particularly B vitamins and antioxidants. More is definitely not better — exercising too much means you’re not giving your body adequate time to recover. Early warning signs include illness, injuries and decreased performance. So take at least one day off exercising per week and ease up if you’re suffering from ongoing aches and pains.

20. Get a good night’s sleep

Get your nightly eight hours and you’ll be boosting your health while you sleep. Not only important for repairing muscles and aiding growth hormone it can also improve the efficiency of your immune system. So dream on…