Staying healthy and keeping your immune system in tip-top shape is top of mind for many of us, especially during cold and flu season. And when it comes to supporting our health, natural (aka complementary and alternative medicine) is a route we like to explore. Read on for 8 ways to naturally fuel your immune system.

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With cold and flu season just around the corner, the Delta variant of the coronavirus on the rise and kids back to school, staying healthy and keeping our immune system in tip-top shape is top of mind for most of us.

While, no single food, supplement or tactic will totally going to protect you from getting sick, there are plenty of ways you can help safeguard yourself and your family. When it comes to the flu and COVID, getting vaccinated is the best form of protection. That, along with washing your hands regularly, sanitizing high-touch surfaces, wearing a mask and social distancing can also help keep colds and viruses away.

And when it comes to supporting our health, natural is a route we like to explore: in fact, complementary and alternative medicine is gaining momentum and is predicted to grow significantly over the next few years, according to Grand View Research.

"The good news is that there's a lot you can do naturally support immunity," says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert and author of Smoothies & Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen.

Here are 8 science- and expert-backed ways to keep your immune system humming along:

1. Stay Hydrated

Most of us know it's important to stay hydrated. You feel better—physically and mentally—when you're hydrated. "But hydration is also important for trapping viruses and bacteria that try to enter through your nose," says Largeman-Roth. "If your nasal passages are dried out, they can't trap and get rid of the things that might make you sick."

2. Get Your Vitamin C

"Including foods rich in vitamin C, like citrus fruits, green veggies—such as broccoli and kale—berries and bell peppers is important for keeping your immune system healthy," says Largeman-Roth. Remember, your body doesn't make or store vitamin C so it's a vitamin you need on the daily. Thankfully, it's a vitamin that's easy to get enough of from food, so there's no need for supplements.

Overall, research on C strongly supports that it's helpful in shortening the duration of your cold, not preventing you from getting one. And the potential benefit of vitamin C for COVID-19 is extremely limited, but promising, per a 2021 study in The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences.

3. Sleep, Sleep, Sleep!

Sleep is elusive for many of us, especially during stressful times, but it's a must! Falling short on sleep inhibits your immune system, lowers your immunity to certain illnesses like the flu, and can boost inflammatory compounds that may spur chronic conditions, according to research.

For the best night's sleep: "Turn off tech at least an hour before bed, avoid caffeine in the afternoon, use lavender to relax before bed," says Largeman-Roth. And skip the wine for a snack of fresh grapes. "Grapes contain melatonin, a hormone that regulates the body's sleep-wake cycle. They offer some hydration, which helps to keep you healthy," Largeman-Roth adds.

4. Stay on Top of Zinc

Falling short on the mineral zinc can make you more susceptible to pathogens—aka illness-causing bacteria. Getting adequate amounts is key to keeping your immune system on point. Zinc helps to maintain our immune system, and is believed to alter our resistance to infection. "And also, without it, kids don't grow normally, wounds don't heal and our sense of taste and smell are affected," adds Largeman-Roth.

"But many people don't know where to get it," says Largeman-Roth. The leading sources of zinc are animal proteins like oysters, beef, crab, lobster, pork and dark poultry meat. You can also find it in legumes and dairy products like yogurt and milk. If you regularly include these foods in your diet, you shouldn't have a problem hitting the daily recommended amount, so there's no need for supplements.

5. Be Social

Socialize with those you like, of course. But here's why: "laughing stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, increases your intake of oxygen and boosts endorphins released by your brain. Laughing also stimulates circulation, aids muscle relaxation and—long term—improves the immune system by boosting neuropeptides that help fight stress," says Largeman-Roth.

6. Add D to Your Routine

"We can get vitamin D from eggs, fatty fish (like wild Alaskan salmon) and fortified foods," says Largeman-Roth. Because there aren't as many food sources of vitamin D, certain foods are fortified with the vitamin, meaning it's added in to help the general public hit the daily recommended amount. These fortified products include dairy products and dairy alternatives (like soy, almond and oat milks), as well as orange juice and some cereals. Vitamin D is important because it plays a key role in supporting your immune system. It also protects against—and reduces the severity of—respiratory infections, per research.

"Spending time outdoors in the sun for at least 20 minutes a day is another way for your body to make vitamin D. Getting outside also lowers cortisol levels, a stress hormone," which in turn can help you feel better and improve immunity.

7. Be Mindful of Your Calorie Intake

Carrying excess weight may hamper your immunity. Obesity goes hand in hand with decreased immunity, according to research. So up your activity (make sure it's activity you actually enjoy doing, to increase your chance of sticking with it) and focus on filling your plate with more fruits and veggies at meals. This will not only help to boost your nutrient intake, but will also help you eat fewer calories overall—without feeling like you're giving anything up, or left hungry after a meal.

8. Try Ashwagandha

This well-known ayurvedic herb (and adaptogen) has anti-inflammatory powers, helping to mop up harmful free radicals. It also has immunity benefits. Research suggests it may stimulate the immune system, particularly when the immune system is compromised, and can also help boost white blood cells. You can find it in pill, liquid dropper-style form or a powder, but be sure to talk with your doctor before trying it, as it may interact with certain medications.

Bottom line

Remember that your immune system is exactly that—an entire system with multiple factors that contribute to its function. It needs balance, and not an excess of one or two things. And when it comes to COVID-19, there isn't enough research, at least not yet, that suggests adding any vitamin, mineral or supplement will protect against COVID. The best thing you can do to protect yourself from the flu or COVID is to get vaccinated.

A well-rounded diet, with a little more focus on vitamin C-, vitamin D- and zinc-rich foods during cold and flu season, may also help up your defenses even more.