7 tips to keep your immune system healthy in a pandemic

Excerpt: Normal aging of the immune system and underlying medical conditions can make older adults more susceptible to respiratory illnesses in winter, including COVID-19. Taking good care of your immune system provides an additional safeguard against infectious illness, along with flu and pneumonia shots, frequent handwashing, and physical distancing. Regular exercise, restorative sleep, nutritious meals, relaxation techniques and social stimulation help to boost and maintain a healthy immune system.


Normal aging of the immune system and underlying medical conditions can make older adults more susceptible to respiratory illnesses in winter, including COVID-19,* according to the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

Getting vaccinated for the flu and pneumonia, along with good handwashing practices, physical distancing, and appropriate wearing of masks, provide vital protection for older adults against COVID-19 and other infectious illnesses.

But taking good care of your immune system provides an additional safeguard against infectious illness and can help you to be more resilient* during and after the pandemic, advises Mayo Clinic.

Here are some tips to help older adults boost and maintain a healthy immune system:

  1. Prevent infection with frequent handwashing. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Wash the palm and back of each hand, between your fingers and under your nails, and then rinse well. Dry your hands with a paper towel and turn off the tap using the paper towel,* advises the Public Health Agency of Canada. Good handwashing practices also help prevent colds, the flu, and foodborne illness,” says HealthLink BC.

  2. Keep physically active. Regular exercise of moderate intensity, such as walking, swimming or tai chi, contributes to a healthy immune system,* according to Harvard Medical School. It causes the body’s antibodies and white blood cells to circulate more rapidly, so they can detect and fight pathogens more efficiently.*

  3. Get restorative sleep. The optimal amount of sleep to bolster your immune system is 7 to 8 hours of good sleep each night.* Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as the common cold virus, and lack of sleep can affect how fast a person recovers.*

  4. Eat a variety of nutritious foods daily. Eating a variety of nutritious foods each day helps bolster your immune system,* advises HealthLink BC. Follow a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, which helps reduce inflammation and fight infection,* recommends Cleveland Clinic.

  5. Keep vitamin D levels up in winter. Vitamin D has many positive effects on immune cells, which help to limit inflammation, while vitamin-D deficiency increases the risk of respiratory infections,* says The Globe and Mail. To maintain normal vitamin D levels in winter, consider taking a daily vitamin D supplement in the amount recommended by your doctor.

  6. Manage chronic conditions well People with chronic conditions such as diabetes that are poorly controlled are at higher risk of infections,* according to Diabetes Canada. Managing diabetes well can help to reduce your risk of infection.

  7. Practice relaxation techniques to relieve stress. Chronic stress weakens the immune system, reducing white blood cells that help fight off infection.* Relaxation techniques such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, tai chi and yoga can ease stress and recharge your immune system.*

  8. Maintain social connections. Social isolation can weaken the immune system’s defences, making older adults more susceptible to diseases and infections,* says McGill University. But keeping strong social ties – even at a physical distance – can help protect against illness by strengthening immunity,* suggests Psychology Today.

*The following sources provide references for this blog, in order of appearance:

1. U.S. News & World Report. “How coronavirus affects older adults.” (2020), online: https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/how-coronavirus-affects-older-adults

2. Mayo Clinic. “Building immunity – Self care in times of difficulty.” (2020), online: https://connect.mayoclinic.org/page/charter-house/newsfeed-post/self-care-building-immunity/

3. Harvard Medical School. “How to boost your immune system.” (2020), online: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-boost-your-immune-system#:~:text=Healthy%20ways%20to%20strengthen%20your%20immune%20system.%201,meats%20thoroughly.%208%20Try%20to%20minimize%20stress.%20

4. Mayo Clinic. “Lack of sleep: Can it make you sick?” (2020), online: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/expert-answers/lack-of-sleep/faq-20057757#:~:text=Yes%2C%20lack%20of%20sleep%20can%20affect%20your%20immune,fast%20you%20recover%20if%20you%20do%20get%20sick.

5. HealthLink BC. “Healthy eating during COVID-19.” (2020), online: https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/covid-19/healthy-eating-covid-19

6. AARP. “5 ways to boost your immune system.” (2020), online: https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2020/boosting-immune-response.html

7. The Globe and Mail. “What to eat to maintain an immune system-friendly diet.” (2020), online: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/article-what-to-eat-to-maintain-an-immune-system-friendly-diet/

8. Diabetes Canada. “COVID-19 and diabetes.” (2020), online: https://www.diabetes.ca/campaigns/covid-19-(coronavirus)-and-diabetes

9. Cleveland Clinic. “What happens when your immune system gets stressed out?” (2017), online: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-when-your-immune-system-gets-stressed-out/

10. Mayo Clinic. “Relaxation techniques: Try these steps to reduce stress.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/relaxation-technique/art-20045368

11. McGill University. “The neurobiology of social distance.” (2020), online: https://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/channels/news/neurobiology-social-distance-322652

12. Psychology Today. “Optimizing your immune defenses during the pandemic.” (2020), online: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-healthy-journey/202006/optimizing-your-immune-defenses-during-the-pandemic