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The immune system is the body's first line of defense against illness. It uses physical and chemical barriers and proteins to fight off infections from viruses, harmful bacteria, infections and parasites. In addition to vaccines, building up your immune system is the best way to stay healthy.

"As we go through life, we can get run down and become more susceptible to illnesses," said Dr. Ohan Karatoprak, Director of Family Medicine at Holy Name. "Boosting your immune system doesn’t take a herculean effort – it just requires consistency with daily preventive practices."

These five steps help get your immune system in optimum shape:

Eat well

Much of your immune system’s strength comes from the gut. Eating a diet filled with whole, unprocessed foods and antioxidants (berries, beans, kale) can help reduce inflammation and encourage good gut bacteria to help your immune system stay strong. Focus on fiber-rich vegetables (carrots, broccoli, eggplant), fruits (raspberries, pears, apples, bananas), legumes (beans, peas, lentils), whole grains (rolled oats, brown rice) and healthy fats (fish, nuts, avocados).

Wash Your Hands Frequently

Washing your hands is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs. Use soap to lather hands – including in-between fingers and under nails – for at least 20 seconds. Perhaps sing Happy Birthday to track the time. Key times to wash hands include before and after eating or preparing food, after using the bathroom, before and after treating a cut or wound, or while caring for someone who is sick at home.

Exercise on a Regular Basis

Physical activity helps the body in many ways, including boosting the immune system. Moderate-intensity exercise increases the circulation of immune cells, helping the body defend itself against illness. It helps flush out bacteria, clear the airways, keep bones strong, and slow down the release of stress hormones. It also helps decrease the risk of developing conditions such as heart disease and fatty liver disease. The workouts don’t have to be rigorous, just a consistent routine of a physical activity such as walking is effective.

Make Sure You Get Enough Sleep

Sleep not only helps your brain process input it received all day but it replenishes cells and proteins throughout the body. One study showed that people who received less than six hours of sleep were four times more likely to catch a cold. Aim for seven or more hours of sleep each night for better health.

Reduce Your Stress

Stress causes the body to produce extra levels of cortisol and cytokines, which trigger inflammation. It can also decrease the number of white blood cells that fight infection, causing you to catch more colds and other viruses. Easy ways to reduce your stress include exercising, practicing deep breathing techniques, taking up yoga or meditation, going outdoors, and laughing more.