How to Boost Your Immune System and Protect Yourself During Outbreaks

By Val Silver

how to boost your immune system naturally and protect yourself during outbreaks

When outbreaks occur, naturally boost your immune system health and implement "best practices" to ward off and reduce the severity of infections. Thanks to extensive research, experts are learning how the immune system functions, what it needs to work well, and how you can protect your health using natural remedies, foods, and simple daily habits.

A healthy immune system guards against viral and bacterial illnesses. Have you ever noticed how some people don't get "what is going around", while others get a touch of it and still others get very sick? In large part, that has to do with how well the immune system is functioning.

Enhancing immune function so the system functions optimally is complicated. The goal is optimal functioning - not too little and not too much. Overzealous immune cells can cause as much havoc in the body as a weak system that doesn't respond enough to threats. Thanks to extensive research, experts are learning how the immune system functions, what it needs to work well, and how you can protect your health using natural remedies, foods, and simple daily habits.

Reminder: Always check with your medical provider (and follow their advice) before using medicinal natural remedies, supplements, and  certain foods (such as grapefruit) when you are taking prescription drugs or are being treated for a medical condition to avoid a negative interaction. The information in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide or replace medical advice.

Seek medical help immediately if  you contact a viral or bacterial illness if you have an impaired immune system, a high fever, trouble breathing, or severe symptoms. If you have a bacterial infection, antibiotics may be your best bet for a full, speedy recovery. You can still use approved remedies and practice healthy habits to support your recovery and reduce your risks of future infections. 

Best Practices That Help You Stay Well During Outbreaks

While it is challenging to avoid novel viruses or other microbes during outbreaks, you can minimize how ill you get if infected. Novel microbes are viruses, bacteria, and other microscopic creatures that your immune system, and humanity at large, have never been exposed to. Others can cloak themselves or use other measures to avoid detection until their numbers make you ill. 

The following information is compiled from current research on protective lifestyle habits and how to boost your immune system. An immune system that functions optimally reduces your risk of getting sick, and when you do, it can minimize the duration and severity of the illness. 

Healthy habits to minimize your risk of infection:

  • Wash your hands often throughout the day with soap. Scrub between your fingers. Let the water flow under your nails and around your jewelry. Dry them on a clean towel, not with an air blower. Wash your hands after touching handrails, handles, and serving spoons in high traffic areas. Use a tissue barrier between your hands and these items. 
  • Don't overuse hand sanitizers. They disrupt the balance of friendly microbes on your skin. Use them when soap and water aren't available. 
  • Moisturize chapped hands so nothing enters through broken skin.
  • Keep your fingers out of your eyes, nose, and mouth and your hands off your face. This is a tough one, but many microbial hitchhikers enter through these orifices. 
covid, wash your hands
  • Practice healthy habits to naturally boost your immune system: get plenty of sleep, eat a nutritious diet, get adequate (not excessive) exercise. Your body needs essential nutrients to do all its jobs, including fighting off germs. Just the right amount of exercise and sleep helps promote optimal immunity.
  • The World Health Organization advises that you stay at least 6 feet from anyone who is coughing or sneezing
  • Keep calm. When you feel distressed and anxious, your immune system has less ability to fight off antigens due to an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokine levels. If the inflammatory response becomes too strong, you get too much fluid in your lungs, which can be deadly.  Besides, worry helps no one.  Practice stress-relief techniques such as meditation and deep breathing. Herbal adaptogens help your body stay in balance when distress is ongoing. Hysteria leads to misinformation and inappropriate action with the potential for far-reaching consequences. 
  • Don't put your life on hold. Unless you have unhealthy lungs and/or an impaired immune system, your risk of getting deathly ill from a cold, influenza, or COVID-19 is low. Sure, you don't want to get sick or risk infecting a vulnerable family member, but isolating yourself for weeks or months in fear is unhealthy. Use common sense. Practice good hygiene and recommended protocols for wearing masks and physical distancing; avoid crowds. Low traffic areas are likely to also be low risk.
  • Don't be a germaphobe. It is impossible to kill and avoid all pathogens. Again, fear is stressful and inhibits immunity. Your immune system needs to interact with a variety of microbes to educate itself and be strong. Unless you have compromised immunity or you are trying to avoid a current outbreak, resist the urge to be hyper-vigilant about germs. Let your children play outside in the dirt and crawl on the floor with family pets. Join them.
  • Aim for indoor humidity at 40-50% for nasal and sinus health. Dryness makes moving into the body easier. Some experts theorize that the flu is less active in humid summer weather because water droplets trap airborne viruses and drop them to the ground.
  • A folk remedy for keeping nasal passages moist so that dust and microbes are continually swept away is to apply a drop of antimicrobial sesame or coconut oil inside each nostril. 
  • Educate yourself. Check "facts" with reliable sources, such as those coming from epidemiology experts (not just the media) who study disease patterns and risks.  For information on infectious diseases, visit the World Health Organization website for current information, separating myth from facts, advice on self-isolation, mask usage, and more.
  • If you are sick with an infectious virus or bacteria, be considerate and isolate yourself while you are infectious. Sneeze or cough into a tissue or create a barrier with the crook of your elbow, not your hand! Keep your hands off things that other people will touch after you. Wear a mask if you have to go out in public places.
  • Support your gut health. Did you know that 70% of your immune system resides in your gut? And that gut bacteria teach your immune system how to behave? Gut microbes help break down food so the nutrients can be absorbed and waste properly eliminated. Healthy gut bacteria also stimulate T-cell development. These cells are responsible for distinguishing harmful invaders and substances from your body's cells. Support gut health by eating well, staying hydrated, avoiding toxins, limiting alcohol and caffeine, and minimizing stress. 

How to Boost Your Immune System Naturally

In addition to practicing habits that reduce your risks of making your body an "open house" for opportunistic pathogens, you can promote a strong, healthy immune system with the following foods, herbs, and supplements.

These are some of the best ways to boost your immune system health so that if and when an infectious disease does take hold in your body, you can reduce the length and severity of illness while your killer cells deal with the infection.

Immune system boosting foods and beverages

One of the most natural ways to boost your immune system health is to eat clean, nutritious food on a regular basis.  Foods that boost your immune system and keep your body healthy are an important line of defense against infectious diseases. 

Although it is challenging to get enough nutrients without overeating or depriving yourself of "foods" you like, consuming a wide variety of nutritious foods, including  a generous amount of superfoods, and enjoying nutritious, antioxidant-rich beverages will ensure you get what your body needs to fight off germs and give you the vitality you want.  It becomes especially important to eat lots enough immune-boosting foods as you age because the older you get, the more immunity tends to decline. 

A major benefit of many whole, healthy foods, including herbs and spices, is that they decrease inflammation.

By the way, many convenient processed "foods" and alcohol consumption actually suppress immunity, increase inflammation, and rob the body of nutrients so they can be digested.

Immune-friendly foods and beverages:

  • Fermented foods rich in live culture probiotics, such as yogurt, kefir, miso, apple cider vinegar with the mother, and homemade sauerkraut  support friendly gut bacteria that help regulate and boost your immune system function. 
  • Vitamin C-rich foods including all citrus fruits, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, cantaloupe, leafy greens, red bell peppers, goji berries, and kiwi. Kiwi has been shown to reduce the duration of the common cold and respiratory infections in the elderly by a few days and reduce a child's risk of infection by 50%. 
  • Cruciferous vegetables contain an array of vitamins and the immune boosting phytochemical sulforaphane. Cooked kale tops the list for anti-inflammatory polyphenols which help the body defend itself against pathogens.  
  • Foods rich in zinc, such as oysters, beef, pork loin, Alaska king crab, green peas, peanuts, pecans, and wild rice.
  • Vitamin E-rich foods such as sunflower seeds, avocados, and dark leafy greens.
  • White button mushrooms improve immunity in the respiratory tract and the mouth. Shiitake mushrooms promote better T-cell functioning and reduce inflammation. Consume mushrooms often for a cumulative effect. 
  • Green tea contains high levels of a powerful antioxidant called EGCG which enhances immune function. It is also a good source of L-theanine, an amino acid that may help T-cells produce germ-fighting compounds. 
  • Water protects you from microbial invaders by keeping your cells healthy and your mucus membranes moist. It helps your body produce the lymphatic fluid that carries white blood cells and other immune cells throughout your body. Even mild dehydration puts your body under stress. If you have a runny nose and/or fever, you may need to drink extra water to stay hydrated. Hydrating foods, such as juicy fruits, watermelon and cucumbers also give you a dose of health-enhancing nutrients with their water. 
  • Foods rich in soluble fiber such as oats, flax meal, apples, chia seeds, psyllium, peas, avocados, and beans. Soluble fiber boosts production of the anti-inflammatory protein interleukin-4, which stimulates the body's infection-fighting T-cells. Soluble fiber also absorbs toxins in the intestines and ferries them out of the body.

Some foods have antimicrobial properties that can inhibit some types of bacterial or viral infections.

  • Raw garlic is effective against many bacterial and viral pathogens such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli (E. coli). Onions work in a similar but weaker way.
  • Grape products and wine offer some protection against certain types of bacteria, viruses, fungi, microbial toxins, and parasites.  The resveratrol in red grapes has a positive impact on immunity (as does the pterostibene in blueberries).
  • Yogurt protects against certain bacterial pathogens, especially gram-negative bacteria such as E. coli. Effectiveness lessens with digestion.
  • Moringia is a member of the horseradish family. It inhibits gram -positive bacteria such as Staph.
  • Fire cider made with honey, lemons, onion, ginger, garlic, apple cider vinegar and horseradish boosts your immune system as well as elderberry syrup. Here is a recipe to make your own fire cider at home.
  • Raw honey has been applied topically for centuries to heal infected wounds. The antibacterial effects of honey are often attributed to its hydrogen peroxide content. Manuka honey (from the Tea Tree) has been shown to inhibit dozens of kinds of bacteria, including MRSA, even though it contains less hydrogen peroxide. At low concentrations, Tualang honey inhibits the growth of bacterial species that cause gastric infections, such as S. typhiS. flexneri and E. coliTualang honey may speed recovery from these infections when taken in its pure undiluted form.  Honey can also be infused with herbs or spices for additonal medicinal benefits. For affected areas of skin,  you can apply a balm of 1-2 drops of tea tree essential oil added to a teaspoon of raw honey or coconut oil.
honey and cinnamon, fight infections, wound healing

How to boost your immune system health and inhibit viruses with supplements

Vitamins and minerals work together to build and sustain a healthy body, including the immune system. So, to reiterate: a healthy diet high in nutrients and low in highly-processed foods will serve you best. When you want to boost your immune system quickly and you are worried about catching a bug, supplements can help.

The nutritious, clean foods and beverages you consume will provide the following immune boosting supplements with the full complement of vitamins (including vitamin B6, selenium and vitamin E) and minerals they need to work well.

Vitamin C

Therapeutic doses of Vitamin C is well-researched as a natural remedy against infections. Vitamin C enhances immunity by stimulating the function and production of white blood cells and the production of antibodies that neutralize invading bacteria, viruses, and protozoa.

The jury is out on how much vitamin C is enough (or too much) on a daily basis to boost your immune system and prevent or treat colds, flu, and other viral infections. The RDA for vitamin C is 75 mg to 120 mg, with an additional 35 mg for smokers. For short-term use, up to 2,000 mg a day is considered the upper limit. If you get diarrhea, you know you have had too much.

Your need for vitamin C may be much higher if you are fighting an infection. To find the right dose, some experts suggest you do a flush with vitamin C powder under a doctor's supervision to figure out your intolerance level and then supplement at 75% of that amount. Since this vitamin is water-soluble, take it in divided doses throughout the day for sustained support and to reduce potential gastrointestinal upsets. 

Based on a study of more than 300 patients, the Shanghai Medical Association published a consensus recommending high-dose vitamin C as part of the treatment protocol for the coronavirus and coronavirus pneumonia. The recommended dose is 50 to 100 mg per kilogram of body weight per day for light infections and up to 200 mg per day of intravenous vitamin C is advised for severely ill patients.  High doses are needed during sickness because  you must get enough vitamin C to supply enough electrons to reduce targets of excess oxidation. This protects against a potential cytokine storm in the lungs - an excess accumulation of fluid and immune cells that  can block airways, damage tissues and organs, and even cause death. 

Read more on a protocol for preventing and treating colds, flu, and viral infections with vitamin C here.


Research confirms that you can boost your immune system and inhibit a variety of viruses, including Influenza types A and B,  with quercetin. It works by regulating the function of immune cells, inhibiting the ability of the virus to infect cells and replicate in already infected cells. It also reduces the ability of the virus to resist treatment with antiviral medication. 

In a U.S. Department of Defense study, quercetin reduced the risk of viral illness following periods of extreme physical stress, which makes you more susceptible to illness by impairing your immune function. Cyclists received a daily dose of 1,000 mg of quercetin, vitamin C, and niacin (to improve absorption) for five weeks. After bicycling three hours a day for three days in a row, only 5% of them contracted a viral illness compared with 45% of cyclists in the placebo group. 

Small amounts of quercetin are found in fruits and vegetables. The outer skins of onion are an exceptionally rich source. Throw them in your soup or stew pot. Remove before serving. 

Vitamin D

According to a Spanish study, more than 82% of COVID-19 patients had a vitamin D deficiency. Another study found that people with vitamin D levels above 30 mg/mL had only a tiny risk of developing a severe or deadly case of the virus.

Vitamin D helps regulate the immune system. It reduces the risk of respiratory infections by reducing viral survival and replication, reducing inflammatory cytokine production, and maintaining the integrity of endothelial cells. 

Deficiencies are common in people living in northern regions, darker-skinned individuals, and senior adults. Vitamin D deficiencies increase susceptibility to respiratory tract infections and autoimmune diseases. 

Suggested ideal vitamin D levels range between 40 and 80 ng/mL.  A daily dose of 1000–4000 IU (25–100 micrograms) ensures optimal blood levels for most people when sun exposure is less than optimal. Ill people may need extra supplementation. 

Vitamin D is fat-soluble so it stays in your body until it is used up. Get your levels checked periodically to make sure you are not deficient or taking too much.


A zinc deficiency has been linked to weaker immunity and greater risk of infection.

Zinc acetate or zinc gluconate lozenges can act as a first line of defense against the cold virus if you take it soon enough, at the first sign of a sore throat. It interferes with the ability of the virus to attach and replicate while it is in your throat.

Adults can dissolve a lozenge in their mouth (don't chew it) every two hours for two days. Read the package for dosing instructions, including the upper limit so you don't overdose on zinc and experience negative side effects. You may still get a cold, but the duration and/or severity may be reduced.

According to The Institute of Medicine, the daily tolerable upper limit for zinc is 40 mg for adults and less for children. Around 12 mg per day is the recommended dose for most adults. 

Note: Even though zinc-containing nasal sprays can prevent the rhinovirus from attaching in your nasal passages, they have been linked to more than 100 cases of partial or complete loss of smell. 


Magnesium is a vital micro-nutrient involved in many biological systems. It helps muscles relax and plays a key role in supporting the immune system's ability to respond to foreign cells in the body. 

Raw and cooked dark leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews, black beans and dark chocolate are some good food sources. If you choose to take magnesium supplements, opt for the citrate or glycinate forms. Magnesium oxide has the lowest absorption rate of around 5%, so this isn't the best choice.

Another way to increase your magnesium level is to take Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) baths. These baths help you relax and absorb magnesium through the skin. Magnesium chloride flakes are another option. Use in the bath or add to water and rub on the skin. Leave on at least 20 minutes before showering. 

You can also take magnesium supplements. Magnesium oxide has the lowest absorption rate of only 5%, so choose the citrate or glycinate forms. 

N-acetylcysteine (NAC)

 NAC lowers your chances of influenza infection, thins mucus and reduces your risk of developing severe bronchitis. It also encourages glutathione production, which is important in helping the liver detoxify waste and toxins. A typical dose for adults is 1200-1800 mg.

Build a healthy immune system with herbs and spices. 

Herbs and spices can help you have a healthy immune system that functions optimally. The following immune boosting herbs and spices have a long history of use for promoting health. Many of them can be added to recipes, sprinkled on food, or enjoyed in tea or coffee. Some of them are best taken in capsule or tincture form due to flavor or other inedible qualities. They can often be blended together for a synergistic effect. 

Depending on their range of actions, antiviral herbs may or may not boost your immune system. They do work with your immune system to give it the upper hand against specific invading viruses. Antiviral herbs inhibit viruses by interfering with their ability to attach to cell walls and/or they limit their ability to replicate once they are inside the cells. 

  • Medicinal mushrooms have been the subjects of much research for their cancer-fighting and ability to regulate and boost your immune system. Reishi, maiitake, turkey tail, and cordyceps can be taken as tinctures or infused into soups and stews. Remove before eating. Agarixus blazei, the almond mushroom, is an edible variety that is a favorite in Asian cuisine. Chaga can be drunk as a tea or added to foods. Mushrooms are also a rich source of beta-glucan, a polysaccharide shown to enhance immune function and reduce the severity of influenza infection.
  • Culinary herbs including sage, fennel, peppermint, and basil act against specific viruses. Apply fresh or freshly dried herbs liberally to foods, soups, and stews and enjoy as teas. 
  • Cinnamon, ginger, and cloves are tasty spices that kill a variety of pathogenic bacteria.  Cinnamon has gained a reputation for lowering blood sugar but for its compounds that fight gastrointestinal and respiratory pathogens. Clove oil has a history of use in oral health.
  • Elderberries are renowned for their antiviral effect against the flu virus. They inhibit early stages of infection by blocking proteins that allow viruses to attach and enter host cells. Enjoy elderberries in syrup, pies, jams, and jellies. You can make a delicious syrup with elderberries, honey, cloves, and cinnamon for added protection against microbes. A tablespoon of this syrup in hot water makes a tasty tea you can enjoy several times a day.  Use dried or fresh berries to make syrup. 

The following video, "How to Make Elderberry Syrup" demonstrates how to make elderberry syrup that soothes the respiratory and digestive systems while supporting a healthy immune system. 

  • Echinacea supports immune health and respiratory health. Echinacea purpurea extract has been shown to kill many kinds of bacteria, including Streptococcus pyogenes, the bacteria responsible for strep throat, necrotizing fascitis, and toxic shock syndrome. Echinacea tea soothes the throat and reduces the recurrence of  infection.
  • Astragalus is an adaptogenic herb rich in polysaccharides and flavonoids that can boost your immune system fast. Studies show that it is an antiviral herb specific for herpes viruses, avian influenza H9, and hepatitis C. Astragalus powder or a piece of astragalus root can be added to a pot of soup or stew while it is cooking. Pair echinacea with astragalus for a higher level of immune support. If you are under a lot of stress, pair astragalus with another adaptogenic herb such as ashwagandha for added support. 
  • Turmeric is a member of the ginger family that is almost famous for its health  benefits. This anti-inflammatory spice also acts as an antimicrobial against many bacteria and enhances the efficacy of certain antibiotics. If you cook with turmeric or use it in tea, add a little black pepper to enhance absorption. Enjoy as tasty golden milk for a myriad of health benefits. (I like the Gaia blend because it tastes good and has ashwagandha in it.)
  • Essential oils of eucalyptus, tea tree, peppermint, thyme, rosemary, bergamot, nutmeg, frankincense, oregano, pine, and cypress oils can help relieve coughs and respiratory ailments when inhaled. Diffuse one or a blend of favorites or use in a steam inhalation.

How to disinfect with essential oils

Herbs and spices can be used to disinfect homes and public places as well as fight microbes in the body. Most essential oils of plants have antimicrobial properties. Protect yourself from viral outbreaks and harmful bacteria with their help. They can be diffused in the air to inhibit airborne viruses and bacteria, added to the wash, sprayed on clean surfaces. or added to natural cleaning products to kill germs. 

If you don't have essential oils, soak the dried plant matter in hot water and use the tea in your spray. Or use lemon juice added to water. Supercharge the antiviral action by disinfecting with 60-80% ethyl alcohol to 20-40% water and several drops of essential oils.  Folklore says that the steam from pots of boiling water and rosemary leaves protected caregivers from contracting the black plague.

Essential oils high in phenolic acid are the most antimicrobial. Topping the list are thyme, oregano, and clove oils. Other essential oils known for their antimicrobial properties include cinnamon, tea tree, peppermint, eucalyptus, clove, and lemon oils.

As a general guideline, for immediate use, add 3-4 drops of a good quality essential oil, such as tea tree or thyme oil to a gallon of water. You can also substitute a half-cup or more of white vinegar for an added boost. Use in a humidifier or to the solution you use for washing the floor. You do not need therapeutic-grade oil for cleaning or diffusing. 

To make a disinfectant spray, combine 10-30 drops of one or more antimicrobial essential oils (depending on which ones you use and how strong they are) with 1/2 cup of white vinegar (anti-bacterial) and 3 cups of water. Apply liberally to surfaces that won't be licked by children or pets. Let dry. Do not rinse or wipe off. This is a quick and easy way to disinfect hard surfaces from a variety of microbes. Test a small area of the surface first to make sure it doesn't get discolored before spraying large areas.

For laundry, add 10-20 drops of essential oils to the wash cycle. As a bonus, eucalyptus oil will kill dust mites on your bedding and linens. 

Make DIY hand sanitizer. For this recipe use 190 proof Everclear or grain alcohol or isopropyl alcohol with an alcohol content of at least 90%. Combine one cup of alcohol, 1/3 cup of glycerin or aloe vera gel, and 15-20 drops of essential oils in a glass jar. Shake gently before using. 

Although it is a good idea to boost your immune system naturally and implement preventive measures during cold and flu season, it is best to support your overall well-being all the time. Then, all of your body systems will function optimally and you have the best chance of recovering quickly if and when infections strike. 

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How to Boost Your Immune System page updated 11/2020

For Educational Purposes Only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult with your health provider before using natural remedies and/or complementary therapies if you are pregnant, nursing, or you are being treated for a medical condition. Be aware that certain herbs and supplements interact with medications.

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