Science backed immune system boosters

Your immune system is remarkable and works in symphony to help protect you from disease causing microorganisms.

Unfortunately It’s a complex interlinked system which means just taking a Zinc or Vitamin C supplement is not enough to bullet proof your immunity.

In this guide we are going to look at how you can implement practical science backed strategies to minimise your downtime and make you less susceptible to catching that winter bug.

A quick overview of how your immune system works

Your immune system is a complex system, and whilst it’s common to read about “quick tips to boost your immune system” the reality is not that easy or straightforward as taking a bit of this and a bit of that.

Right now scientists are still at the early stages of truly understanding all the factors that come into play but early research has come up with some interesting and sometimes counter-intuitive findings.

To understand how we can improve our odds and recover faster from winter bugs we need to first understand how our immune system works.

Whilst the subject is complicated, we can simplify how the immune system works by splitting it into two parts:

The innate response is the first line of defense, activating fast to deal with invading pathogens through the skin (inflammation, swelling), chemical messengers (histamine, leukotrienes & prostaglandins), and immune system cells that attack foreign cells in the body (white blood cells).

Amongst the mind boggling responses initiated our innate response is what causes the initial symptoms you start feeling including the phlegm production, temperature increase, and that feeling of lethargy when you catch something.


The second part is our acquired system, also known as our adaptive immunity. This second part acts like a lab identifying the threat and creating specific antibodies and immune cells to attack the infection.

Our adaptive immune system needs days to go through this investigation process but has a memory which makes future responses against specific antigen infections more efficient the next time they are encountered.


Is there anything you can you do to help your immune system?

As far as our adaptive immune system is concerned the only way right now to speed up the process is through vaccinations. These contain a harmless versions of the pathogen you want to protect yourself against so that the acquired system can identify the threat, create antibodies, store it in it’s memory and act quicker next time it encounters it.

Research on our innate response on the other hand is showing a lot of promise, and this is what most interventions target.

Lets look at the areas where you can get the most improvements:

Your micro-biome: Say hello to your gut buddies

gut bacteria - Science backed immune system boosters

Right now as you read this, trillions of cells in your body are working in the background to ensure your existence. And then there’s your micro-biome consisting of microbes (good bacteria) which has a population that is 10 times bigger which lives and communicates in symbiosis with your cells to help turn your food into essential nutrients, and play a vital role in your immune system.

According to Liam O’Mahony, a molecular immunologist at the Swiss Institute of Allergy and Asthma Research in Davos these good microbes work on multiple levels:

Taking up space (so that disease causing bugs can’t establish)


Secreting antimicrobial substances to fend off dangerous pathogens


Regulating inflammatory signals of our innate immune response (in other words the feelings of sickness you get for ex: lethargy, filling up with phlegm, whilst your immune system fights an infection)

Scientists are finding that your micro-biome is an important key to understanding the difference between those who tend to get sick often and those who tend to shrug off colds and flu with minimal effects.

Build strong defenses: Cultivate your micro biome

The best way to help your friendly resident micro-biome thrive is by feeding them with the foods they need and depriving the bad bacteria of the nutrients they want.

To get started:

  • Include fermented foods in your diet. For example: Sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, kefir, yogurt, and kombucha are rich in prebiotics.
  • Boost your intake of fructooligosaccharides (FOS) which is a fermentable fibre rich in inulin. Yacon is the richest source of FOS followed by Jerusalem artichoke, chicory and the Blue Agave plant. You can also take advantage of a Yacon supplement to boost your FOS intake.
  • Consume a minimum of 25g of fibre a day, ideally from non starchy vegetables and fruits. Oats, barley as well as reishi, shiitake and maitake mushrooms are sources of beta-glucan, a type of fibre with antimicrobial and antioxidant capabilities[1].
  • Remove sugar and processed foods from your diet

Only use antibiotics when necessary

Antibiotics made a big impact on human history helping treat bacterial infections that were once deadly, but today they are are commonly misunderstood as a universal treatment for all infections.

According to the Mayo Clinic, common viral infections that do not benefit from antibiotic treatment include:

Flu (influenza)
Most coughs
Most sore throats
Some ear infections
Some sinus infections
Stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis)

Taking antibiotics for these ailments is not only ineffective, but effectively kills off your friendly bacteria in the process, opening up space for other types of bad bacteria to multiply.

Only use antibiotics when necessary as overuse promotes antibiotic resistance making them less effective the next time round, whilst decimating your gut bacteria friends.

Phytoncides – The Japanese secret to health?

forrest - Science backed immune system boosters

The Japanese have long practiced “shinrin-yoku” also known as Forest Bathing, which consists of taking relaxing walks in nature.

The benefits of this seemingly insignificant activity was so effective that it became a part of the national public health program in 1982, and over  $4 million dollars have been invested in researching the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing.

It turns out that forrest environments release antimicrobial compounds that ward off pests called Phytoncides.

This natural tree defence seems to have a beneficial effect on humans including:

Promoting an increase in white blood cells called natural killer cells (NK) with an impact up to 7 days after the visit[2]

Forest environments seem to promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity compared to city environments[3].

As strange as it sounds, a weekly forest walk could help keep stress at bay, promote better health and stimulate white blood cells key to your innate immune response.

Does exercise really help boost your immune system?

running - Science backed immune system boosters

It is still early days in terms of studies looking at the effects of exercise on the immune system.

The most promising study found that near-daily brisk walking compared with inactivity reduced the number of sickness days by half over a 12- to 15-week period without change in resting immune function[4].

The University of California found that 20 minutes of moderate exercise acted as an anti-inflammatory, which could help with the symptoms associated with immune system response[5].

Another study found that regular exercise can enhance vaccination response, increase T-cells and boost the function of the natural killer cells in the immune system[6].

There are also other promising theories which have yet to be proven including:

  • Physical activity may help flush out bacteria from your lungs and airways
  • Physical exercise may boost white blood cells circulation, which could speed early illness detection[7].
  • The brief rise in body temperature during and right after exercise may prevent bacteria from growing promoting a type of fever reaction

But a word or warning here… One study found that prolonged heavy exertion altered immunity negatively, which could lead to viruses and bacteria to gain a foothold.

As a result gentle to moderate daily exercise can be helpful, but you should avoid strenuous exercise if you feel the onset of a cold coming.

Can supplements help?

supplements - Science backed immune system boosters

This is an exciting area where the research is still very much in process…

zinc 200 150x150 - Science backed immune system boosters


Zinc seems to be one of the more important micronutrients and studies have found that zinc deficiency in children with diarrhoea and the elderly can greatly alter their immune systems[8].

turmeric 200 150x150 - Science backed immune system boosters


Curcumin has historically been used for it’s anti-inflammatory effects and studies have found it may help modulate the activation of T cells, B cells, macrophages, neutrophils, natural killer cells, and dendritic cells and at low dosages may also enhance antibody responses[9].

vitamin D 200 150x150 - Science backed immune system boosters

Vitamin D

Inadequate Vitamin D has been linked to higher susceptibility to chronic infections and studies have found that that Vitamin D acts as an immune system modulator[10].

vitamin c 200 150x150 - Science backed immune system boosters


And there is some evidence that micronutrient deficiencies such as selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E — alter immune responses in animals, however these deficiencies have yet to be thoroughly assessed in humans[11].

krill 200 150x150 - Science backed immune system boosters

Omega 3

Another study has found Omega 3 fish oil combined with physical exercise may have a moderating effect on inflammatory cells, and a beneficial effect on immune system helpers[12].

garlic 200 150x150 - Science backed immune system boosters


Garlic contains allicin and over 100 sulfuric compounds which provides antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal properties. Studies have found that consuming garlic may help lower the likelihood of getting a cold, as well as speed up recovery if infected[13].

ginger 200 150x150 - Science backed immune system boosters


Ginger which is used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine may have antimicrobial[14] and antibiotic properties[15].

honey 200 150x150 - Science backed immune system boosters


Lastly honey has been used since ancient times for its antimicrobial properties but there is a large variation in the antimicrobial activity of some natural honeys, with medicinal and manuka honey providing the most significant antibacterial effects[16].

Your winter supplement toolkit:

  • As a result taking 1,500 to 2000 IUs per day of Vitamin D along with Vitamin K2 may help in winter months.

  • Curcumin either used in cooking or enhanced in the form of a concentrated bio available Curcumin supplement may be a useful complement too.

  • Omega 3 deficiency is very common, so a diet rich in Omega 3 rich foods such as wild fish, pasture raised meat , pasture eggs can help along with moderate exercise as mentioned earlier. Also an Omega 3 supplement such as Krill Oil can also supplement your dietary intake so you can reap the benefits of optimal Omega 3 levels daily.

  • Raw ginger, garlic and honey can easily be integrated into your meals / drinks (although beware that cooking these reduces their effect).

  • Lastly if you have a healthy diet packed with a variety of vegetables, healthy fats and pasture raised / wild protein you should avoid most of the pitfalls linked with the vitamin and mineral deficiencies. But if you suspect any vitamin or mineral deficiencies in your diet then a multivitamin can help too.

Preventative steps you can take to avoid infections

Now that we covered how you can help your body deal better with infections lets look at two easy ways you can improve your odds when cold and flu season comes.

Practice good hygiene

Remember that one of the main reasons the common cold has seasonal spikes in the colder months is that we spend more of our time huddled inside with other people and their bugs.

Wash hands frequently, keep surfaces clean, be wary of people sneezing around you, air your office and avoid closed spaces…

Stress weakens the immune system

A wide range of studies have found that stress associated with higher cortisol levels negatively impacts your immune system, lowering the amount of white natural killer cells, infection fighting T-cells[17].

Early studies on happiness, yoga and meditation on the other hand may help shift gene-expression profiles in the participants’ white blood cells away from inflammatory genes and towards antiviral genes[18].

Scheduling rest, happiness boosting activities, exercising, practicing meditation or yoga and forrest walks are great ways to keep your stress in check at this critical time.










Spicing up” of the immune system by curcumin.



Nutrition and the immune system: an introduction.








Stress Weakens the Immune System