It’s easy to envy those cheerful people who rarely get sick and recover rapidly from occasional illnesses. Conventional wisdom says that, “they were born that way”—but recent Cell research studies ( show that genetics play a surprisingly minor role in our health. Starting in the womb, each one of us builds a unique immune system, and the system’s ability to keep us healthy depends on many variables, including choices we can control (such as diet and lifestyle) and factors we cannot (such as aging or a past illness).

Once we realize that we can influence our own immunity, we are tempted to search for a secret key to health. How wonderful it would be to discover a one-size-fits-all solution! But of course, it’s really not so simple.


What Is the Immune System?

The immune system is difficult to understand. Our defense team of cells, proteins, tissues, and internal organs works collaboratively to protect our bodies against germs and illness. Researchers continue to unravel immunity’s intricate playbook to decipher how the different team members coordinate. Meanwhile, autoimmune disease continues to be the #1 most popular health information request, according to the National Women’s Health Information Center.


When Systems Go Awry

The story of immunity includes many twists and turns. When your immune system jumps into action to fight a health challenge, you might feel run-down or uncomfortable. Some of those feelings are the result of your body doing its job. For example, a cold can leave your nose feeling “stuffed-up” and itchy. That’s because white blood cells and connective tissues fight the cold virus by releasing histamine. While this neurotransmitter helps bring blood and liquids to the infected areas, it also causes the unpleasant side effects of inflammation and itchiness.

Auto-immune disorders confuse the tale of immunity: nonsensically, the body begins attacking itself. Normally, antibodies are protective blood proteins with the important job of identifying germs and other pathogens and marking them for destruction. During an auto-immune disorder, the antibodies go awry and attack the body’s own tissues. This strange process starts at a micro-level, but can cause a ripple effect throughout the body.

Nearly 50 million Americans suffer from an auto-immune related disorder, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. Some common autoimmune disorders include diabetes, Hashimoto’s disease, and lupus. Diabetes targets the pancreas, Hashimoto’s disease damages the thyroid gland, and lupus harms multiple parts of the body, including joints, lungs, blood cells, and nerves.

In diabetes, the body attacks the pancreatic cells which produce insulin, an energy-gatekeeper hormone which regulates blood sugar levels. Eventually, the damaged pancreas can’t produce enough insulin to keep up. Blood sugar levels rise, causing noticeable symptoms such as blurred vision, frequent urination, and other disturbing effects such as unplanned weight loss, nausea, or vomiting.

Hashimoto’s disease gradually destroys the thyroid gland and slows the production of hormones which control metabolism and heart rate. A person suffering from Hashimoto’s may get fatigued, feel muscle cramps, or be unable to lose unwanted weight.

Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disorder with uncomfortable symptoms, including painful joints, fever, and facial rash. Even with good medical treatment, immune system disorders can make it difficult for a person to get through daily life.

Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, a practicing family physician, Director at Cleveland Clinic, and New York Times bestselling author, believes that the cure to autoimmune disorders lies in a holistic approach—a paradigm shift to functional medicine, which many doctors overlook. He maintains, “These (autoimmune disorders) are often addressed by powerful immune suppressing medication and not by addressing the cause. The treatment is not more aspirin or a strong immune suppressant, but removing the tack. Treat the fire, not the smoke. When my patient described how he cured his autoimmune disease by finding and eliminating the causes of inflammation in his diet and environment, it was dismissed as a ‘spontaneous remission.’ In the face of a paradigm-shattering medical case, these doctors were hardly curious and quickly dismissive, describing what was shared as anecdotal.”


Dr. Hyman’s checklist for calming the immune response naturally:

✓ Get your doctor to treat hidden infections—eliminate yeast, viruses, bacteria, Lyme, etc.

✓ Check for hidden food allergens.

✓ Get tested for celiac disease (gluten intolerance).

✓ Get checked for heavy metal toxicity such as that caused by mercury.

✓ Fix your gut and treat irritable bowel syndrome.

✓ Use nutrients such as fish oil, vitamins C and D, and probiotics.

✓ Exercise regularly and manage stress.


The storyline gets more complex when we realize that building a healthier immune system means different things for different people. Each person is a distinct individual with unique habits and histories, which affect the body’s ability to protect itself. On the bright side, some foods and simple self-care practices may offer some relief while strengthening overall immunity.


Self-Care for Stronger Immunity

Researchers, health and fitness advisors, and your favorite auntie may all have their own points of view about how to build health. In general, certain self-care choices, as stated by Dr. Hymen, make a difference. For example, eating whole foods, reducing stress, resting, exercising adequately, and spending time in nature all may improve your body’s ability to stay healthy.

Start by eating a balanced diet and cooking with fresh ingredients. Increase your use of “superfoods”—delicious ingredients and dishes that pack an extra nutritional punch. Homemade chicken soup remains a world-famous home-remedy for the common cold. Scientists and nutritionists continue to explore the benefits of other popular and immune-boosting foods, including garlic (fights infection), yogurt (boosts immunity in the elderly), black tea (supports digestion), and ginger (reduces inflammation).


Super Foods to the Rescue

Halal chicken soup



Black Tea



For generations, the family of acupuncturist Jin Ohneiser (formerly Jin H. Ngan) has practiced traditional Chinese medicine, a time-honored approach to healing which treats the body as an integrated whole. Many of her clients in Chicago, Illinois, struggle with infertility and other systemic health issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Ohneiser firmly believes in the power of warm and healthy home-cooked meals as a key part of the healing process. “Breakfast should be warm and easy to digest. I like hot stew/soup, porridge, and hot tea in the morning,” says Jin.

Daphne Paras, a health and wellness educator, was diagnosed with Lupus in 2000. She’s convinced that healthy eating holds the key to her long-term well-being. “The conventional treatment of cortisone shots could have provided short-term relief, but changing my cooking, eating, and lifestyle habits noticeably reduced my inflammation and increased my vitality, which allowed me to return to normal activities over the long term.” Paras eliminated processed foods from her family’s diet, and cooks meals with grass-fed meats and organic greens. She often starts her day with a homemade fruit and vegetable smoothie.

Dance instructor and wellness student Ellie Huber worked hard to research and overcome her poorly diagnosed auto-immune issues. After identifying stress as a major factor, she approached her own health with an open mind. She started feeling better after slowing her busy lifestyle and adding non-vegetarian foods to her diet. “Constant stress triggers my fight-or-flight mode,” says Huber. “I learned to ease my tension by letting go of things I can’t control. Listening to my body, and backing off from overly-intense workouts also helped me heal. Adding high-quality Omega-3 fats to my meals with grass-fed butters and meats boosts my mood, and keeps my energy levels even.”

Recent research studies echo Paras’ and Huber’s insights and also confirms the positive impact of meditation and prayer. Scientists attribute many benefits to the “relaxation response,” a conscious yet calm state of mind and body. Studies published by PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, suggest that “mind-body intervention” may help reverse the destructive gene-level changes caused by stress and inflammation.

Spending time in nature and in prayer can also benefit immunity. Research in Japan by Qing Li has shown that “forest bathing can increase the number of cancer-fighting cells in the body for up to a month. Remember that enjoying nature doesn’t need to be a major outing. It can be as uncomplicated as caring for a houseplant or breathing the fresh air outside your doorstep.

Don’t forget to get enough sleep for a more responsive immune system. At night the body releases cytokines, special infection-fighting proteins. Sleep deprivation results in lower cytokine levels which can inhibit your body’s ability to stay healthy, according to psychoneuroimmunology studies at UCLA.

Taking steps to build a stronger immune system may increase your feelings of well-being. Daily stresses take a toll on immunity, so take it easy. Why not also be gentle on yourself by introducing some superfoods and simple self-care practices into your routine? Listen to your body’s signals, if something doesn’t seem right, don’t procrastinate consulting your physician.

Linda Gardner Phillips is a writer and creative director living at the Deerpath Farm Conservation Community in Lake County, Illinois. Her specialties include food, healthy living, and transformative design thinking. She can be reached at