Expert tips for boosting your immune system

Living Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 23 March 2020

Expert tips for boosting your body's immune system, plus what doesn't work.

As we head into winter’s cold and flu season alongside the menace of coronavirus, it’s never been more important to ensure you have a healthy immune system.

The immune system is a complex network of cells and proteins that fight off infections from cold and flu viruses to more serious conditions like pneumonia or cancer. Here are some healthy essentials to follow.

Pug wrapped in a blanket

You'll be as snug as this pug in a blanket with our expert tips for boosting your immunity.


Expert guide to boosting your immunity


Choose healthy foods 

Use food to supercharge your immune system, says Dr Zerina Tomkins of the University of Melbourne. As a cell biologist and registered nurse who has worked in infectious disease wards, Zerina knows the benefits of fresh food, especially fruit and vegetables, over processed foods. 

Don’t go overboard, she says, there’s no need for extravagant and expensive foods, but rather use foods rich in vitamins and antioxidants, like citrus fruits full of vitamin C or blueberries with antioxidants.  

Eat the rainbow 

Ensure you eat a variety of colourful vegetables, with each colour bringing its own suite of antioxidants to your body. 

“Small steps will make a difference; nothing has to be complicated,” Zerina says. 

The Australian government’s dietary guidelines say you should enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from these five food groups every day: 

  • Plenty of vegetables of different types and colours 
  • Fruit 
  • Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high-fibre varieties such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley 
  • Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans 
  • Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat. 
What about meat substitutes? 

There are many meat substitutes, and ways to bulk up meat in dishes you prepare.  Legumes absorb the flavour of meat and bulk out dishes, says Dr Nicole Kellow, an accredited dietitian who works at Monash University’s Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food. Chickpeas, red kidney beans and other legumes can be soaked and added to a meal, while tofu, nuts and seeds are another source of flavour. 

Do I need to take supplements? 

If your body doesn’t need it, it will pee it out, says health specialist Zerina. The best source of vitamins is real food, she says. A few hours in the sunshine doing physical activities will boost your immune system and give you adequate vitamin D. 

Asparagus in pink background
Lade full of chicken soup
Eggplant on purple background

Include a wide range of fruits and vegetables in your diet.


Get moving 

All the experts agree exercise is great for building your body’s defence system and making you happy because it releases feel-good endorphins. 

Although experts recommend 150 minutes of exercise a week, Dr Michelle Hall of the University of Melbourne’s Centre of Health, Exercise and Sports Medicine, says you can start with small steps. 

“If you can find 10 minutes in your day go for a brisk walk that makes you moderately out of breath but not breathless, then you can build on that,” she says. “Never overdo it, that can actually suppress your immune system. So take it easy and build gradually.” 

What if I have injuries or pain? 

People with joint pain may need to take a break between the days they walk or exercise, but others with muscle soreness can make it a daily routine, she says. 

The elderly can do simple strengthening exercises using the common repetition system where they repeat exercises that rate about seven out of 10 on a scale of difficulty, Michelle says. “They might only be able to do two reps, but that’s still great; then they can rest for a few minutes and do another two reps so you have two reps done 10 times,” she says. 

Home exercises include sitting in a low chair and using your legs and butt to stand. “You’ve got to get into a routine, it’s like brushing your teeth, and keep going and improving.” 

Get a good night's sleep 

In a magical display of what the human body is capable of, the simple action of having a good night’s rest allows the body to regenerate itself and renew the  immune system. While you sleep, the body releases small proteins that help it fight inflammation, infection and trauma if you’re sick or injured, and boosts your overall immune system. 

You might need four hours or eight or 10 but listen to your body and hit the pillow when you need it. 

What if I have trouble falling asleep?

The Victorian government’s Better Health Channel says for those who find settling down at night difficult, try meditation rather than pills to bring on a deep, restful sleep, and avoid mind-stimulating activities close to bedtime. 

Close up of person wearing runners going up stairs
Neon sign with Instagram like button

Physical activity and social connection are vitally important, especially during times of self-isolation.


Butt out

Every breath you draw of cigarette smoke damages the lungs and the immune system, says Quit Victoria director Dr Sarah White. 

“Lungs naturally produce mucus, but people who smoke have more and thicker mucus that is hard to clean out of the lungs,” she says. This mucus clogs the lungs and is prone to becoming infected.  

The good news, Sarah says, is that your lungs heal relatively rapidly when you stop smoking. Your lung function improves and infections like bronchitis and pneumonia decrease in a few months.  

“Within three months of quitting, your lungs’ natural cleaning system will start to recover and will become better at removing mucus, tar and dust from your lungs,” she says. “Your immune system will also begin to recover so your body is better at fighting off infection.” 

She says the best thing smokers can do for their health is to stop smoking. The best way to do that is to use a tailored quit counselling service such as Quitline 137 848, plus nicotine replacement patches and gum. 

The Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation also says you should avoid substance abuse to maintain your health.  

Keep calm  

We all get tense, but prolonged stress releases elevated levels of the hormone cortisol which suppresses the immune system. Stress robs us of sleep, the enjoyment of life and makes us cranky. 

Monash University’s Dr Nicole Kellow says physical activity is one of the best cures for stress, and done outdoors gives us vitamin D.  

Practise mindfulness 

Myriad studies have proven the psychological, physiological, mental and emotional benefits of daily mindfulness practice. And, with many Aussies working from home, it’s more important than ever to find ways to relax, switch off and reduce your cortisol. From virtual yoga and meditation classes to a digital gratitude journal, there’s something for everyone. Plus, check out our guide to the top mindfulness apps.  

Keep connected  

Stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues through Skype and Facetime where you can see your loved ones, as well as using social media channels, emails and the phone. Workmates can use the Microsoft Teams app for conferences outside the office. 

If you are at home in self-isolation you can still walk out the front and wave to neighbours – you could set up a regular ‘catch-up’ from your verandas. Health experts say the important thing is not to disconnect from your networks. 

Chicken soup has been regarded as a remedy for colds and flus for centuries, and has also been scientifically proven to be good for relieving cold symptoms.

The healing power of chicken soup was tested by University of Nebraska Medical Center physician and researcher Stephen Rennard who, in a study published in 2000, found that chicken soup may ease the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections. LINK: https://www.unmc.edu/news.cfm?match=9973

He found that the soup inhibited the movement of neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell that fight infection, and that this helps reduce upper respiratory cold symptoms.

Researchers in the study couldn’t pinpoint the most beneficial ingredient and suspected it was a combination of ingredients that worked the magic.

Stephen tested his wife’s homemade chicken soup recipe, handed down by her Lithuanian grandmother. It included chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery stems, parsley, salt and pepper.

And if you do get the sniffles...

Chicken soup has been regarded as a remedy for colds and flus for centuries, and has also been scientifically proven to be good for relieving cold symptoms.

The healing power of chicken soup was tested by University of Nebraska Medical Centre physician and researcher Stephen Rennard who, in a study published in 2000, found that chicken soup may ease the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections.

He found that the soup inhibited the movement of neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cells that fight infection, and that this helps reduce upper respiratory cold symptoms.

Researchers in the study couldn't pinpoint the most beneficial ingredient and suspected it was a combination of ingredients that worked the magic. Stephen tested his wife’s homemade chicken soup recipe, handed down by her Lithuanian gradndmother. It included chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery stems, parsley, salt and pepper.

Man covering his face with his hands
Close up of lit cigarette on black background

Take time to reduce stress and quit smoking.


Immune-boosting tips for expectant mums 


Your immune system is compromised during pregnancy, according to Melanie McGrice, a Dietitians Association of Australia spokeswoman and dietitian who specialises in pre-natal care.  

She says mums-to-be must eat a “rainbow” of coloured fruits and vegetables to provide antioxidants to boost their immune system, and citrus for vitamin C. 

They also need zinc and omega 3 fats found in fish and seafood and may want to consider taking a probiotic including Lactobacillus rhamnosus to ensure gut health. 

Consider low-GI foods that slowly break down in the body, Michelle says. It might mean switching from white bread to multi-grain or from tropical fruits to those from temperate climates like stone fruits and apples. 

She says many dietitians are now doing virtual consultations via the web and suggests searching the Dietitians Association of Australia for a practitioner. She has a YouTube channel, Nourish with Melanie, offering women’s dietary advice.