Six expert tips for boosting your immune system

Living Well | Sue Hewitt | Images: Getty | Posted on 11 May 2021

Keep colds and flu at bay this season with these proven immune-boosting tips.

As we head into winter’s cold and flu season, it’s 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 illnesses. The stronger our immune system, the better equipped we are to avoid getting sick, or at least shorten the duration of an illness.

Here are six expert tips for boosting your immune system.

Couple on couch blowing noses

Stay well this winter with our expert immune-boosting guide.


Six expert tips for 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. 

She says there’s no need for extravagant and expensive foods, but rather ensure you eat a variety of colourful vegetables, as each colour provides its own suite of antioxidants. Favourite cold busting foods she says include citrus fruits which a full of vitamin C or blueberries which are high in antioxidants.  

As for vitamin and mineral supplements, Zerina says it’s best to save your money. If your body doesn’t need it, the supplements will pass straight through. he 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.  

Get moving

Experts agree exercise is great for building your body’s defence system, and as a bonus it also promotes the release of 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.” 

Those 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. 

Older people or those with limited mobility can still reap the benefits with simple strengthening exercises such as sitting in a low chair and using your legs and glutes to stand. “You might only be able to do two reps, but that’s still great; rest for a few minutes and do another two reps until you have done two reps done 10 times,” she says. 

The important thing, she says is to get into a routine. “Just keep going and gradually improving.”   

Get a good night's sleep

The simple act of having a good night’s rest allows the body to regenerate and renew the immune system. While you sleep, the body releases small proteins that help fight inflammation, infection and trauma, if you’re sick or injured, and boosts your immune system. You might need four hours or eight or 10 ,but listen to your body and hit the pillow when you need it. 

If you have trouble sleeping the state health department recommends trying 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
Woman practicing yoga

Physical activity and regular mindfulness practice can pay dividends when it comes to keeping a healthy immune system.


Keep calm  

We all get tense from time to time, but prolonged stress releases elevated levels of the hormone cortisol which suppresses the immune system. Monash University’s Dr Nicole Kellow says physical activity is one of the best cures for stress, and done outdoors also gives us vitamin D.  

Myriad studies have also proven the psychological, physiological, mental and emotional benefits of daily mindfulness practice. From yoga classes to meditation rituals to mindfulness apps there’s a mindfulness method to suit almost everyone. 

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 clogs the lungs and is prone to infection.   

The good news, Sarah says, is that  lungs heal relatively rapidly when you stop smoking. Lung function improves and the risk of infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia decreases. 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.  

If all else fails, there's always chicken soup  

Chicken soup has been regarded as a remedy for colds and flu 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 any single ingredient in the soup and concluded it was most likely a combination of ingredients that worked the magic. Stephen tested his wife’s homemade chicken soup recipe, handed down by her Lithuanian gradndmother, which included chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery stems, parsley, salt and pepper.


While steaming hot bowls of chicken soup and sipping on honey and lemon might help ward off a cold, when it comes to the flu, prevention is better than a cure. Experts recommend getting a flu vaccination as soon as possible to help increase your immunity. Scared of needles? Try these expert tips to help combat the fear.