Sleep, Exercise, and Eat Your Way to a Stronger Immune System

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Prepared by: Tara Patriquin, R.H.N., RMT |

Staying healthy is a balancing act between immune boosters and immunity drainers. After all, we’re surrounded by things that compromise our immune system on a daily basis; whether it’s pollution, questionable lifestyle choices, or viruses, for example. It seems that at no time do we hear more about “immune boosters” than in the winter. The common cold is one of the leading reasons for medical visits during the winter. But, building a healthy immune system is a year-round job.

It is big business to sell products designed to strengthen your immune system. You can Google any number of lists offering the best immune boosters, with everything from the now mainstream Echinacea to the little known Graviola extract. But I’ve never been the most compliant with a supplement regimen, and I’m a simple girl after a simple approach. I keep my immune boosters old school: sleep, exercise, and diet. After all, these are the pillars of health and you always have them at your disposal; no hunting for rare ingredients required!


Our natural sleep patterns are controlled by an internal body clock called a circadian clock. Without getting too detailed, the important thing to understand about sleep is that this is when many of our critical metabolic processes do their best work, regulating body temperature, hormone levels, heart rate and other vital body functions. In other words, when we sleep we heal. Sleep requirements differ between individuals, but every human being needs enough sleep each day to revive brain cells and other body systems so they’ll continue to function effectively. If someone is suffering chronic loss of sleep, these important functions soon become impaired and overall health is affected.

In fact, a Chronobiology International publication as recent as August 2013 explores the link between the circadian clock and the body’s natural biological clock that regulates our immune cells and activity. The researchers discovered that the crosstalk between these clocks had potentially grave consequences on a person’s overall health in states of sleep deprivation.

Many factors of our sleep habits are within our control. For example, it is relatively easy to manage your caffeine intake, meal consumption, and mental stimulation near your bedtime. Keeping a consistent sleep and rise time on the alarm clock is also extremely helpful to regulating your circadian clock.

One of my favourite bedtime routines is to practice some Pranayama: the art of mindful breathing. The extra oxygen that you will take in will not only help to alleviate muscle tension, but it will relax the mind too. The rhythmic pattern of breathing can also be calming and meditative. And since stress can interfere with the immune system, a little meditation can go a long way. I’ve written more in-depth on the science of Pranayama on


You don’t need to be a genius to know that exercise, particularly strength-training exercise, is the best support to our musculoskeletal health. Did you know that it is also an incredible immune-booster. However, the trick is in finding the amount of exercise that is right for you and your immune system. The biggest risk is in chronic overtraining. The idea that we need to go to the gym 5 days a week and sweat it out for an hour is rapidly falling by the wayside. Just as we heal in our sleep, we rebuild our exhausted muscles during our rest days. Remember that building tissue is a metabolic process that requires the right combination of stimulation, nutrients, and rest.

The most beneficial exercise approach is one or two high-intensity strength training sessions per week, along with other gentle exercise on intermittent days, such as yoga, swimming, skating, or cycling. These activities not only promote cardiovascular health, they also help you to produce “feel good” hormones, such as endorphins and oxytocin. These hormones not only reduce perception of pain, but enhance the immune response.


I saved the best for last: diet! That old cliché, “You are what you eat” couldn’t be any more true when it comes to the immune system. We need certain nutrients to fuel cells, build tissue, and fend off the ‘enemy,’ and it all starts deep down in the guts with a healthy digestive system. Many practitioners believe that healthy digestion is the key to unlocking overall health. In the context of immunity, perhaps the best allies are probiotics. Probiotics help to restore the good bacteria in the digestive tract. Intestinal bacteria are like natural antibiotics. They help to disarm any bad bacteria in your guts. You can take a probiotic supplement, or you can consume foods that promote the production and survival of good bacteria, such as the following fermented foods: kefir, kimchi, kombucha tea, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, and of course, yoghurt.

Some other powerful immune boosters you can add to your diet are roots that you likely already use to add flavour to your meal, such as onions, raw garlic, horseradish, radishes, daikon, and ginger. These have long been acknowledged for their medicinal properties from Paleolithic times to present day. In fact, the therapeutic benefits of garlic have been documented in the oldest published medical text, Ebers Papyrus. Specifically, these roots aid in digestion, improve circulation, contain a host of nutrients and enzymes, and have anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties.

All foods aside, there is one supplement that I am compliant with in my diet: Vitamin D. We hear a lot about Vitamin C and its efficacy in boosting the immune system. It certainly deserves all the attention it gets. But Vitamin D doesn’t get as much press, when it should. Dating as far back as before the invention of antibiotics, Vitamin D is reported to have been critical in the treatment of Tuberculosis. It is both powerful at improving the immune system and helping to ward off stress and seasonal depression. Supplementation is especially crucial at times when our exposure to sunlight is diminished.

Of course, all the good foods on the planet can only do so much if we are bombarding our digestive system with aggravating foods that actually tax the immune system. Hopefully no one will be surprised when I name refined sugar and processed foods as the two worst things in our modern day diet. The topic of “the ideal diet” is a very grey area. I strongly believe in the value of dietary diversity. One thing that is black and white, though, is that refined sugar and processed foods have no valuable place in a healthy diet. If you can limit consumption of these offenders to only 10% of your dietary regimen, you will see vast improvements in energy, mood, and your overall health. So next time you reach for some “contraband”, ask yourself what it’s worth to you. Imagine the possibilities if you keep the health of your immune system at the forefront of your lifestyle choices!

Still, even when you do everything right you might get stuck with a cold. My medicine cabinet is stocked with Oil of Oregano (a potent antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory) and a Neti Pot (be sure to use clean distilled water).

And at the first signs of a cold, I drink plenty of homemade “neo-citran”:

  • 8 oz boiling water
  • The juice of half a lemon
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 tbsp Raw Honey
    (Raw honey is another incredible immune booster that cannot go without mention. Honey contains many essential nutrients, most notably B vitamins, along with vitamins C, D, and E. It is also believed to have antibacterial and antifungal properties.)

Stay healthy, stay happy!

-Posted January 2014-

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