Senior couple hikers in snow-covered winter nature, stretching arms.

Editor’s note: We’ve been living with COVID-19 for almost three years now and nearly 70% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated. Unfortunately, along with a bad flu season and high number of recorded RSV cases, the COVID virus continues to evolve, and cases are expected to rise as people spend more time indoors. We urge everyone to follow the CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the flu, and RSV

The coronavirus continues to spread throughout the world, with more than 650 million confirmed cases worldwide. Since this article was first published in January 2021, several vaccines for COVID-19 have been approved and are available. These vaccines are effective at helping protect against severe disease and death from the virus.

In addition to getting vaccinated and following CDC guidelines, you can take steps to boost the immune system — its job is to protect us against harmful substances and germs. The better it can do its job, the healthier we will be. Let’s explore how to keep our immune systems healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Adequate Vitamin D

This fat-soluble vitamin is a hormone our bodies produce in response to the sun. Vitamin D is critical for a healthy immune system and bone health. Unfortunately, studies show that 42% of the population is deficient. This is especially common in colder or cloudy climates and in individuals with darker skin. For example, studies show that Blacks — and to a lesser extent, Latinos — have higher instances of Vitamin D deficiency than their white counterparts.

Some foods contain Vitamin D, and our bodies can produce it when in the presence of sunlight. Typically, diet alone is not sufficient, and supplementing is recommended. The National Institutes of Health recommends intake of 600 IUs of Vitamin D for youth and adults and 800 IUs for seniors over 70 years of age. However, recommendations vary for optimum health, with some considerably higher. Also, exposure to sunlight helps boost Vitamin D levels. Unfortunately, this can be difficult in cold climates when the skin is covered and the sun is relatively weak.

Balanced & Healthy Diet

As we all know, a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables promotes health. Specifically, there is also evidence that zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E impact our immune systems. Avoid fried and processed foods and eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods.

healthy young woman cutting up fresh pear
A healthy diet and regular exercise help keep your immune system healthy. Photo courtesy of Nathan Cowley, Pexels

Restful Sleep

In 1910, most people slept nine hours per night. Now, 40% of adults in the U.S. report getting less than six hours each night. About 30% to 40% of people in the U.S. report experiencing insomnia each year. The trend of inadequate sleep seems to be increasing over time. Although many of us are aware of the importance of sleep, we just don’t get enough of it.

There are many things we can do to embrace sound sleep. One of the most crucial steps is to acknowledge its importance and make restful sleep a priority.

Create a sleep routine and try to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day. Ensure the bedroom is dark while you sleep and avoid electronic screens before bed. Don’t eat large meals or drink alcohol late at night. Relax before going to bed, allowing yourself to unwind. Make sure that your pillows and mattress are comfortable for your body type and sleep position.

Proper Hydration

Because every cell, tissue, and organ in our bodies relies on proper hydration, it is essential to immune health. How much water we need depends on our level of activity, body size, climate, diet, and other factors. Although there is no agreed-upon recommendation for water intake, some sources recommend eight glasses a day. One way to ensure you are adequately hydrated is to drink enough water that your urine is clear and you don’t feel thirsty.

Reduce Stress

Because of the strong mind-body connection, stress has a significant impact on our overall health. Although some stress is unavoidable, establish healthy habits to help combat it. Regular exercise, yoga, meditation, vibrant friendships, laughter, and creative outlets are all helpful. Likewise, it’s crucial to avoid factors that increase stress, such as toxic relationships and overspending.

Gut Health

There is an increasing body of evidence that our gut health shapes our physical health. Our microbiome can impact mental health, body weight, immune health, and the prevalence of disease. Some of the factors that impact gut health are listed above, such as reducing stress, adequate hydration, regular exercise, and eating a balanced diet. Also, eating a prebiotic and probiotic-rich diet can help.

Probiotics are microorganisms that can improve gut flora while inhibiting unhealthy bacteria. Prebiotics help increase the growth and activity of probiotics. Thus, it’s helpful to have the two combined for a balanced gut.

Prebiotic-rich foods include onions, garlic, asparagus, oats, apples, flaxseeds, seaweed, and dandelion greens. Probiotic-rich foods include raw kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt (with active or live cultures), kefir, pickles (not containing vinegar), and miso. Also, taking a probiotic supplement can be helpful.

Originally published on January 11, 2021, this article was updated in December 2022.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.