The same aisle exists in pretty much any drugstore — the one with the powders, pills, chewable tablets, gummies, sprays, and drinks, all claiming to help you stave off or shorten illnesses.
It’s a comforting idea — that a heartier defense system is that close at hand — especially if you’re one of those people who always seems to be coming down with something. But as with almost all quick fixes, this one is mostly too good to be true. There’s no conclusive evidence that “megadosing” on vitamin C will keep you from getting sick. And while there’s some research to suggest that zinc supplements may help shorten the duration of a cold, they won’t prevent you from catching one in the first place.
That’s not to say there’s nothing you can do to build up your immunity over time — it’s just a longer, slower, more involved process. Like a gardener ripping out weeds and planting veggies, the immune system destroys harmful pathogens, promotes helpful bacteria, and maintains an equilibrium in the body. A host of things — certain illnesses, poor diet, aging, a sedentary lifestyle, stress, or a lack of sleep — can weaken your immune system, throwing the delicate balance out of whack. But certain lifestyle changes can strengthen your body’s defense, enabling it to better fight off disease.
Here are a few things you can do to help it along.
Lower your cleanliness standards.
According to Jack Gilbert, PhD, a microbial ecologist, professor, and the author of Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System, living in a sterile environment free of dirt or antigens can have a detrimental effect on the immune system, especially during childhood. “Your immune system needs to be constantly stimulated in order to be effectively healthy,” Gilbert says. “Bringing up a child in a sterile environment actually makes the immune system more likely to act out and become hyperresponsive.”
A prime example, Gilbert says, is the health disparity between the Amish and Hutterites, two farming communities in the rural United…