5 Lifestyle Practices to Enhance Your Immune Function

Feb 15, 2024 | Written by Matthew Lees, PhD | Reviewed by Scott Sherr, MD and Marion Hall

5 Lifestyle Practices to Enhance Your Immune Function

The immune system is an indispensable system of organs, cells, and proteins that operate throughout the body to combat infection and protect cells from abnormal changes. Without the immune system, we would lack any meaningful protection from harmful things that might enter the body, such as germs or pathogens that can cause disease (bacteria, fungi, viruses, or parasites). In this role, the immune system has two arms or strands, referred to as the innate and adaptive immune systems [1,2].

The innate system works against foreign bodies or material, arrives quickly at the site of injury, and combats pathogens. It is a faster albeit more general line of defense in this regard. In contrast, the adaptive system is relatively slower to engage but is geared towards specific pathogens or altered cells within the body.

Interestingly, the immune system does far more than simply fight infection. It also recognizes and neutralizes harmful substances we might encounter in the environment. In addition, it also detects abnormal cells, such as those associated with cancer, that can lead to disease and/or death.

When the immune system is operating normally, we are completely unaware, but when issues emerge or it isn’t functioning as well as it should, we tend to get sick. Germs that the body hasn’t encountered before are more likely to make us ill.

In a previous blog article, we discussed five supplements (and a bonus!) that can boost your immune function. In today’s article, we will investigate five lifestyle aspects that can influence the immune system in a range of fundamentally important ways.

1. Physical Exercise

Exercise has a profound effect on the immune system. Although prolonged periods of intense exercise are generally accepted to perturb immunity, regular moderate-intensity exercise is a beneficial stimulus. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that elite athletes report symptoms associated with upper respiratory tract infections during periods of heavy training and competition that could be partly due to reduced mucosal immunity [3-5]. These periods of heavy activity serve as “open windows” for opportunistic infections [4].

Single bouts of exercise provoke leukocytosis (an increase in the white blood cell count above the normal range) and a redistribution of effector cells between the lymphoid and peripheral tissues [3]. These single bouts, ideally at moderate intensity, have been described as “immuno-enhancing” and have been implemented in “at-risk” patients to increase vaccine responses [3].

Improvements in immunity due to moderate physical activity are thought to be brought about by reduced inflammation, maintenance of thymic mass (a key organ in immune cell production), alterations in the composition of “younger” and “older” immune cells, enhanced immunosurveillance, and/or exercise-induced reduction in psychological stress [3].

2. Sleep

Sleep has a two-way, or bidirectional, relationship with immunity and the immune system. That is, the activation of the immune system during the onset of infection can interrupt or disrupt sleep, yet also increase sleep duration and intensity [6]. Enhancing sleep during an infection is known to be beneficial for host defense, and in the absence of infection sleep quality is associated with a reduced infection risk, improved infection outcomes, and optimal vaccination responses [6,7]. Sleep can influence the cytokines (small cell-signaling proteins) that promote interactions between antigen-presenting cells and T-helper cells, thus enhancing the efficiency of the adaptive immune response [7].

Prolonged disruption of sleep and/or low-quality sleep can lead to a state of chronic low-grade inflammation that is associated with diseases that have an inflammatory aspect to them, such as diabetes. Sleep is therefore one of the foremost lifestyle factors that can be manipulated to enhance immune function.

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3. Manage Stress Effectively

Stress takes many forms, be it physical (i.e., exercise), physiological, or psychological [8-10]. In the short term (i.e., lasting for minutes to hours), stress can be a beneficial phenomenon that enhances both innate and adaptive immune responses [9].

These short-term changes include beneficial alterations in dendritic cells, neutrophils, macrophages, and lymphocyte trafficking, maturation, and function. There are also desirable changes in the local and systemic production of cytokines [9].

Over the long term, stress suppresses or disrupts innate and adaptive immune function by altering cytokine balance, bringing about low-grade chronic inflammation, and suppressing the numbers, trafficking ability, and function of immunoprotective cells [9].

It is therefore important to strike a balance between the beneficial aspects of short-term stress on the immune system, whilst avoiding the prolonged, chronic stress that can negatively impact the immune system. This principle applies to not just psychological stress, but physical and physiological too.

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4. Eat Fruits and Vegetables

As discussed above, a prolonged state of low-grade inflammation contributes to a greater risk of chronic disease. Meta-analytic research (a process that aggregates all of the studies on a given topic) has shown that fruit or vegetable intake is associated with reduced levels of inflammatory biomarkers, such as C-reactive protein and tumor necrosis factor-alpha in the circulation, whilst enhancing the immune cell profile [11]. It is thought that the anti-inflammatory effects of consuming fruits and vegetables are due to their high antioxidant content, alongside other biologically active components.

Research from elsewhere has revealed that increased fruit and vegetable intake improved the vaccination antibody response to a pneumococcal vaccine in older people (65 to 85 years) [12]. In asthmatic children, improving the quality of the diet by increasing fruit and vegetable intake enhanced the innate immune response and helped prevent asthma-related illness [13].

Ensuring an optimal intake of fruits and vegetables is an achievable dietary lifestyle manipulation that can be pursued to maintain a healthy immune system across the lifespan.

5. Responsible Alcohol Consumption

Evidence is accumulating that light to moderate consumption of polyphenol-containing alcoholic beverages such as wine or beer provides health benefits. However, high doses of alcohol can suppress immune responses, and alcohol abuse is linked with a variety of infectious diseases [14].

Moderate consumption of alcohol appears to have a beneficial effect on the immune system compared with abstinence or abuse of alcohol [15]. These benefits take the form of reduced inflammation and enhanced responses to vaccination. In contrast, chronic heavy drinking is associated with a greater incidence of bacterial and viral infection, and a decreased frequency of lymphocytes [15]. There is also evidence that alcohol consumption can increase the permeability of the gut, leading to compromised mucosal immunity [16].

In light of the above, the expression “drink in moderation” is therefore an apt one for the promotion of optimal immune health.


In this article, we have looked at five different lifestyle factors or strategies that have a significant impact on the immune system.

Physical exercise is a vitally important part of any lifestyle modification, yet it is important to manage the workload for maximum effectiveness. In the short term, it can be a powerful stimulus for the immune system but can produce negative effects during periods of heavy training activity. Likewise, stresses of various kinds have a similar profile of effect on immune function, with beneficial effects in the acute phase morphing into negative effects when endured in a prolonged, chronic setting.

The promotion of sleep quality is also a crucial but often overlooked aspect of health that influences immune function to a significant degree. We also examined the role of fruit and vegetable intake in promoting optimal immune function due to their rich antioxidant content and other biologically active components.

Finally, we explored the influence of alcohol intake on immune function, distinguishing between abstinence, moderate consumption, and alcohol abuse as well as the impact of each on immune function.

By manipulating these important lifestyle variables, the function and efficiency of the immune system can be optimized for long-term health and well-being.

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[2]          D.D. Chaplin, Overview of the immune response, J Allergy Clin Immunol 125 (2010) S3-23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2009.12.980.

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[7]          L. Besedovsky, T. Lange, J. Born, Sleep and immune function, Pflugers Arch - Eur J Physiol 463 (2012) 121–137. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0.

[8]          F.S. Dhabhar, Enhancing versus suppressive effects of stress on immune function: implications for immunoprotection and immunopathology, Neuroimmunomodulation 16 (2009) 300–317. https://doi.org/10.1159/000216188.

[9]          F.S. Dhabhar, Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful, Immunol Res 58 (2014) 193–210. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12026-014-8517-0.

[10]        J.N. Morey, I.A. Boggero, A.B. Scott, S.C. Segerstrom, Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function, Curr Opin Psychol 5 (2015) 13–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007.

[11]        B. Hosseini, B.S. Berthon, A. Saedisomeolia, M.R. Starkey, A. Collison, P.A.B. Wark, L.G. Wood, Effects of fruit and vegetable consumption on inflammatory biomarkers and immune cell populations: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis, Am J Clin Nutr 108 (2018) 136–155. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqy082.

[12]        A. Gibson, J.D. Edgar, C.E. Neville, S.E.C.M. Gilchrist, M.C. McKinley, C.C. Patterson, I.S. Young, J.V. Woodside, Effect of fruit and vegetable consumption on immune function in older people: a randomized controlled trial, Am J Clin Nutr 96 (2012) 1429–1436. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.112.039057.

[13]        B. Hosseini, B.S. Berthon, M.E. Jensen, R.F. McLoughlin, P.A.B. Wark, K. Nichol, E.J. Williams, K.J. Baines, A. Collison, M.R. Starkey, J. Mattes, L.G. Wood, The Effects of Increasing Fruit and Vegetable Intake in Children with Asthma on the Modulation of Innate Immune Responses, Nutrients 14 (2022) 3087. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14153087.

[14]        J. Romeo, J. Wärnberg, E. Nova, L.E. Díaz, S. Gómez-Martinez, A. Marcos, Moderate alcohol consumption and the immune system: a review, Br J Nutr 98 Suppl 1 (2007) S111-115. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114507838049.

[15]        T. Barr, C. Helms, K. Grant, I. Messaoudi, Opposing effects of alcohol on the immune system, Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry 65 (2016) 242–251. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pnpbp.2015.09.001.

[16]        J. Calleja-Conde, V. Echeverry-Alzate, K.-M. Bühler, P. Durán-González, J.Á. Morales-García, L. Segovia-Rodríguez, F. Rodríguez de Fonseca, E. Giné, J.A. López-Moreno, The Immune System through the Lens of Alcohol Intake and Gut Microbiota, Int J Mol Sci 22 (2021) 7485. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms22147485.

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