How To Boost Your Immune System This Winter
With the cold and flu season about to kick off in Australia and the current concern over COVID-19, boosting our immune systems has never felt more urgent. As a naturopath, I've long advocated taking a holistic approach to general health and the power of a positive immune response. If you'd like to explore how to boost your immune system naturally during the winter months to at least get through the odd infection without being knocked out for days or weeks, read on for my top tips.
Immune Tip 1: Keep Your Gut Healthy
Keep your gut healthy, & your bacteria well fed & balanced! The gut (& it’s inhabitants) represent a HUGE part of your natural immunity - our bugs really help ’call the shots’ in your immune system. We want numbers & diversity - so it makes sense to avoid antibiotics whenever possible, & feed them regularly with a variety of fibrous foods. Here’s a list of things to always have on your plate for them, & some things to definitely take off if you wanna maximise your immunity! Eat lots of: - fibrous plant foods. These are rich in microbe-accessible-carbohydrates or MACS. Garlic, leek, onion, asparagus, beans, lentils, nuts & seeds, vegetables. These MACs get converted (by bacteria) into short-chain-fatty-acids (SCFAs), which regulate immune responses through their effects on a number of cell types, including colonocytes, neutrophils & T-cells. Of course, Blend11 fits the bill perfectly as it's full of diverse, complex, largely unprocessed & mostly organic plant fibre in a super-easy, palatable delivery to ensure frequent / daily consumption. Also remember to eat and drink fermented foods daily - like kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut etc. Send in bacterial ‘reinforcements’ with a quality probiotic capsule if you aren’t a fan of anything fermented. Avoid: sugar, artificial sweeteners, food additives, processed grain products, trans fats & inflammatory oils. DID YOU KNOW? Your gut health / bacterial population can actually influence the efficacy of vaccines - studies have shown that poor bacterial balance can result in poor vaccine efficacy & even a greater likelihood of vaccine adverse reaction. More research is underway as to exactly how they interact (vaccines & the microbiome), & it will be very interesting to see what discoveries are made in the coming years - it may mean big changes to our current approach to vaccination. For now - we do know that whether you are planning on getting the jab or not, maintaining good gut health is paramount to immunity, & may effect how you respond to your shots.
Immune Tip 2: Vitamin D
Vitamin D: Get your sunshine vitamin every day (or be very conscious to make it up on the weekends or whenever you can get your bare skin out). Sit in the sun to eat your lunch, & take off whatever clothes you can without alarming passers-by. Vit D is SO vital to your immune system - & if that isn’t motivation enough to get some, did you know that you also need it to look fit & toned too? Vitamin D is super important in maintaining strong muscles & therefore a healthy metabolism & body composition.
Immune Tip 3: Improve Circulation
Circulation / Oxygenation: Keep your circulation going strong! Ok so it’s cold & dark early…you just wanna sleep in….don’t! Make yourself get up, (leave your warm clothes right there next to the bed ready to go (or even wear them to bed if that helps - there's activewear for every occasion these days!) Do something first thing in the morning that really gets the blood pumping through your veins (ok it might be ok to stay in bed & do that on some days, even sex is an immune booster)! Vigorous morning exercise will not only make you forget about the cold, it will also supercharge your immune system. Many studies have proven that moderate intensity, regular exercise is one of the best cold & flu prevention strategies - the key is keeping it up long term. Your ‘seek & destroy’ natural killer cells are more active & able to nail viruses quickly & effectively when you exercise regularly. You can go overboard with exercise though, which will have the opposite effect on immunity. Many athletes will know the effects of over-exercising, where increased cortisol (a stress hormone) will actually inhibit NK cell activity, & gut microbial balance can also be upset. Find your ‘sweet spot’.
Immune Tip 4: Get Adequate Protein
Adequate protein: You need protein to build immune cells. Top up regularly throughout the day & be particularly conscious of your intake if you are either pregnant or breastfeeding; a rapidly growing child / teenager or an athlete. Vegans (& vegetarians) must also pay close attention to protein quality & quantity. The elderly may need help with protein digestion, particularly if taking meds for reflux / heartburn - stomach acid is needed for protein digestion, & production declines with age. See a naturopath for supplements and strategies to help - we have natural whey & pea protein available now at goodMix - perfect for smoothies.
Immune Tip 5: Use Supplements
Supplements: Supergreens, Vitamin A & C, zinc, & L-glutamine are all great supportive supplements for winter immunity. If you know your zinc levels tend to be low (you can get them checked in any health store or pharmacy with a naturopath on staff) then by all means take a quality supplement leading into winter. Monitoring zinc is esp important if you are a long-term vegan / vego). If you are an athlete or suffer from leaky gut, use L-glutamine to help your immune system & recovery post-workout & assist with keeping your gut-lining intact. We need adequate A, C & zinc to make protective immune cells. Look for a zinc lozenge, & a vitamin C with bioflavonoids, & good old cod liver oil for vitamin A. A quality supergreen supplement, like Greens+Aloe can help not only with supplying the many nutrients required for immunity, but with supporting good gut flora & a healthy gut lining. The right nutrition, plus gut support = stronger immunity.
Immune Tip 6: Stay Hydrated
Stay hydrated always. So basic, yet so often forgotten when it starts to get cooler. You need to keep well hydrated to keep your mucous membranes fully functional (i.e. the linings of your mouth, nose & respiratory tract where viruses often first get in & start replicating to give you a cold or flu). Healthy hydrated mucous membranes = better immune defence. Drink hot herbal teas if you’re not keen on cold water, or steaming & nutritious broths.
Immune Tip 7: Manage Your Stress
Watch your stress levels - keep them under control however works best for you. No one in the modern world is immune to stress, you need to have in place your own strategies for stress relief. Sports, funny movies, catching up with mates regularly, massage, yoga, meditation, art & craft, music, reading for pleasure….do whatever gets you to ‘forget about the world’ for a while….& do it regularly! If you fail to address chronic stress, you are risking immune dysfunction - as it puts your body into an inflammatory state (which plays a role in pretty much every form of sickness!) Chronically elevated cortisol (a stress hormone) will actually suppress immune cell production & activity, leaving you vulnerable to infection…and also cancer, if cold & flu aren’t motivation enough!
Immune Tip 8: Sleep
Sleep - get cosy! Your immune system needs a good night’s sleep! Make your bedroom into a super comfy winter-nest with flannel sheets, a quality mattress, doona / blankets that keep you warm without overheating…have a hot bath before bed if you have trouble sleeping, & try some passionflower herbal drops (a relaxing, herbal sleep inducer). Also avoid staring at screens for at least 1 hr prior to bedtime, & keep cacao, coffee etc for the mornings if you are sensitive to stimulants. If you have trouble sleeping - it’s great to learn how to meditate, so you can just lie there practicing (which is extremely beneficial for your immune system & very restful). You won’t be stressing about not sleeping, but grateful of the chance to get some uninterrupted meditation practice time in! A Vipassana course is highly recommended for the complete beginner who seriously wants to learn, or seek advice from a local yoga instructor.
Immune Tip 9: Wash Your Hands
Remember to wash your hands, & keep them out of your mouth, eyes & nose - esp important when you frequent places like primary schools, daycare centres & other areas where small children hang out (this might also be your house!) Young kids are unfortunately great cold & flu ‘spreaders’, & often not good with things like covering their mouths when coughing / sneezing, & thorough hand washing! Teach your kids to wash their hands properly, esp when sickness is around them. A small hand sanitiser (get a chemical free alcohol-based one from a health food store), can be an awesome substitute for hand washing when a sink is not readily available - don't be germ paranoid, there are plenty of 'good germs' on our skin & the skin of others, just use sanitisers in high risk times / environments.
Immune Tip 10: Herbal Helpers
Herbal Immune System Helpers! Garlic, echinacea, andrographis, elderberry, olive leaf…some liquid herbs can be really nasty-tasting, but they can help to shorten the duration & lessen the intensity of your symptoms if taken at the appropriate times, & in the right dose. Pretty much anything herbal / nutritional should be used at the very first sign of cold symptoms in order to be effective - there’s not much point in starting immune-boosting herbs 3 days into a cold / flu when the symptoms are already getting nasty, you need to have a well-stocked ‘immunity kit’ at home, ready to go so you can jump on any little sniffle or sore throat before it gets established (every minute you wait can cost you as they replicate so fast!). If someone in the workplace / household is sick - that is your cue to start taking preventative immune-boosters - even before you have any symptoms yourself. An ounce of prevention is truly worth it! In general: remember that strong immunity is not something you can just ‘switch on’ overnight with the addition of a few supplements. You need to gear your lifestyle around it - all of the above tips can be used throughout the year, & it is so much more beneficial to approach cold / flu prevention from this angle than to simply line up for a shot at the start of flu season. Hope this has been helpful, & we’d love to hear your top ‘winter immunity’ strategies - sometimes the ‘grandma’s old recipe’ type cures can be the best! Jeanie Xx
N.B. This article was first published on May 20th 2016 and has been updated and re-published as of March 2020.