How to look after your immune system

Dr Luke Powles
Associate Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK
19 October 2023
Next review due October 2026

Looking after your mind and body can help your immune system stay strong and function. Your immune system fights off harmful diseases to stop you getting ill. Here, I talk about how looking after your mental health, eating a healthy diet, and keeping physically active can help you stay well.

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Does stress affect my immune system?

There’s a link between your mental health and your immune system. Feeling stressed activates your body’s stress response, starting changes in your body designed to support you with what’s called ‘fight, flight or freeze’. When this happens, you might feel a whole range of sensations as you prepare to deal with the threat. Sensations include:

  • a racing heart
  • tense muscles
  • feeling very alert

Often, stress is temporary or short-lived. But ongoing stress response can affect your immune system. For example, it can increase inflammation in your body. This can disrupt how well your immune system works. As a result, this can make you more likely to get ill.

If you’re aware that stress can impact your immune system, you can try to reduce your stress levels. Some of the ways to lower stress include:

  • regular exercise (this releases endorphins – the feel-good hormones)
  • looking after your diet and sleep
  • limiting alcohol and caffeine
  • talking through your worries with people you trust, or writing them down
  • chatting to friends and the people that make you feel good
  • finding ways to relax, such as mindfulness, meditation, or breathing exercises
  • doing activities that you enjoy

What foods are good for the immune system?

Lots of nutrients help with building and maintaining your immune system. You can’t get them all from a single food – you need a varied diet to stay healthy. Vitamins and minerals help in various ways.

For example, they help the ‘defender’ cells of your immune system to fight infection. Fruit and vegetables are also vital for your immune system. So, getting your five-a-day is a great place to start, along with keeping hydrated with plenty of fluids.

Below are sources of vitamins and minerals that help keep your immune system healthy.

  • Vitamin A. You can find this in liver, milk, and cheese. Vitamin A can also be found in dark green leafy vegetables (spinach and kale) and orange-coloured fruits and vegetables (carrots, sweet potato, butternut squash, mango, and apricots).
  • Vitamin C is found in many types of fruit and vegetables, including peppers, kiwis, oranges, tomatoes, blackcurrants, strawberries, and broccoli.
  • Zinc is found in meat, poultry, eggs, cheese, crabs and some other shellfish, root veg, nuts and seeds, and wholegrain cereals and breads.
  • Selenium is found in nuts and seeds (Brazil nuts, cashews and sunflower seeds), grains, vegetables, eggs, poultry, fish, and shellfish.
  • Vitamin D is made in our body from sunlight. It is also found in oily fish, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals, spreads, and dairy products. We’re advised to think about taking a supplement of 10 micrograms a day in the autumn and winter months when there’s less sun. Your pharmacist can advise on taking vitamin D supplements.

Foods containing probiotics, such as some yoghurts, may also support your immunity. These contain ‘good’ bacteria that compete with harmful bacteria for space in your gut. Probiotics are generally safe but if you have a health condition, speak to a GP before taking them.

How can exercise help my immune system?

Exercise helps with your circulation, which moves the cells of your immune system around your body. This means they can do their job where they need to, and do it efficiently.

Research has also suggested that moderate, regular exercise is linked to:

  • a reduced risk of illness
  • improving how your immune system regulates itself
  • a reduction in inflammation
  • improving your body’s ability to defend itself

This all helps your immune system function as it should.

A few simple healthy changes can help your immune system so that you don’t get ill.

If you don’t exercise much, why not try a home workout or daily walk or jog? Could your diet do with some more vitamins? Try to include foods containing key vitamins and minerals in your meals.

And remember to look after your mental wellbeing. Take some time to practise relaxation and reducing stress as much as you can.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Dr Luke Powles
Dr Luke Powles
Associate Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK



Rasheda Begum, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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