Although we can catch colds or get sick any time of the year, Winter definitely seems to be the time of year when even the most hardy of immune systems can weaken. If you’re someone who tends to get sick at this time of year, there are easy steps you can take to boost your immune system and help your body stay well this Winter.
It goes without saying that eating a nutrient-dense diet, including avoiding overdoing your sugar and alcohol intake, helps your body stay healthy. There are also certain foods, vitamins and minerals that you can increase at this time of year to help boost your immune system. Keep reading to find out more!
It’s well known that fatigue increases your susceptibility to illness because your body repairs and renews cells during sleep. Like stress, insomnia can cause a rise in inflammation, which weakens your immune system. Many studies have shown that people who get at least 7 hours sleep per night develop better antibody response when exposed to a cold virus. If you'd like to know more about how sleep contributes to whole body wellness, check out Are Your Sleep Patterns Making You Put On Weight?
The more stressed you are, the more your immune system will struggle, and your natural killer cells will be less effective. Getting sick after a stressful event isn’t just a coincidence; your brain and immune system are in constant communication with one another, which means that psychological upsets can result in physical symptoms.
The chemical reactions triggered by stress result in an onslaught of stress hormones being pumped around the body. While these hormones can sometimes be useful, their ability to interfere with the immune system can result in inflammation and a higher susceptibility to infection and tissue damage.
If you'd like to know more about the role stress plays in whole body wellness, check out Is Cortisol Wreaking Havoc On Your Body Composition?
As much as possible, try to avoid antibiotics. They've been shown to attack beneficial bacteria in the digestive system and suppress immune functions. Unless you really have to take them, see if you can find a natural alternative first. If there’s no avoiding them, take a good quality probiotic to keep your gut flora balanced, or eat foods with probiotic properties such as a probiotic yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso or kefir.
KEEP YOUR VITAMIN D LEVELS TOPPED UP
Winter is the time of year where we are most at risk of becoming vitamin D deficient. In Australia, we are lucky enough to still get a reasonable amount of sunlight during the winter months, however we tend to rug up and cover our skin, meaning our natural solar panels miss out on absorbing the sunshine and vitamin D.
One of vitamin D's most important roles is keeping your immune system strong and able to fight off the viruses and bacteria that cause illness. It directly interacts with the cells that are responsible for fighting infection. If you become sick often, especially with colds or the flu, low vitamin D levels may be a contributing factor. Several large observational studies have shown a link between a deficiency and respiratory tract infections like colds, bronchitis and pneumonia.
Spending 15-30 minutes outside, with your skin exposed to sunlight, at least 3 times a week is enough to produce sufficient amounts of vitamin D to keep at an optimum level. If you find this difficult, you can get small amounts of vitamin D from oily fish such as trout, mackerel and salmon, mushrooms, fortified cereals, tofu, dairy products, eggs, soy yoghurt and soy milk. You can also invest in a good quality vitamin D supplement or fish oil.
When thinking of preventing colds and flu, many people think vitamin C. While an optimal intake of vitamin C is important for immune functioning, so too is zinc. Few people have a low intake of vitamin C, but many more have a low intake of zinc, particularly women and children. Zinc is involved in the development and functioning of the body's infection-fighting white blood cells. Once your zinc is taken care of, then you can concentrate on your fresh fruit and vegetables, which are rich sources of a number of powerful antioxidants, including vitamin C, that help to protect the body's cells against damage and infection.
Foods high in zinc include the following:
Seafood, especially shellfish
Red meat and chicken
Beans, especially chickpeas
Seeds, especially pumpkin seeds
Nuts, especially cashews
Cacao or good quality dark chocolate
Some ready to eat cereals are fortified with zinc but choose wisely as many are high in sugar and overall, aren’t nutrient dense. If you can't get enough Zinc from food, invest in a good quality zinc supplement.
GO FOR GARLIC
Garlic is well known for it’s immune boosting properties, as both a medicinal herb and a food. It’s one of the few herbs that can be found across the 3 major traditional healing systems of the world – Traditional European Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.
Garlic has antimicrobial activity that helps fight the bugs that cause colds and flu. It also helps with relieving congestion and sinus symptoms.
Interestingly, research has shown that garlic can lose some of its benefits when cooked, but crushing the garlic and letting it stand before cooking helps protect its health boosting properties. To eat it raw, add to a salad dressing or a warm (but not hot) drink of water, lemon and honey.
ADD MUSHROOMS TO THE MENU
These small powerhouses of nutrition are immuno-modulators. This is due in part to their high levels of beta-glucans, which help activate cells that are pivotal to your immune defence and protect against viruses like colds.
That’s good reason to add some mushrooms to an omelette, green smoothies or dishes like salads, soups, and stews. If you’re FODMAP sensitive and mushrooms are generally off limits, try medicinal edible mushrooms like Reishi, which may be better tolerated.
There are many herbs know for their immune stimulating properties. Echinacea is one of the most popular and it’s the one that works for me. It’s most effective when taken at the first sign of illness. If I wake up with a sore throat, I take some Echinacea 3 times a day and 99% of the time I feel well again the next day!
Finally, don't forget to keep your fluid intake up. Many people find that they drink much less water in winter. Dehydration can not only make cough and flu symptoms much worse, but it is not good for your digestion in general. If you’re finding it hard to drink water while it’s cold, try switching to green tea, which has the additional bonus of being packed with antioxidants!
I hope you and your family can benefit from some of these tips, and have a healthy Winter. If you have questions please get in touch.