Many of us equate fall and winter with cold and flu season, but what if you made it through the entire season without getting sick? What if no one in your family–not your kids, your spouse–fell victim to whatever is going around? Sound too good to be true? It’s not. You can boost your immune health with certain foods, a little extra sleep, and the right herbs and supplements.
Why do we tend to get sick during the colder months?
Let me dispel one myth for you right away: It’s not because being cold makes you more susceptible to catching a cold. So you can nip that wives’ tale about being outside with wet hair in the cold in the bud right away.
Here are a few reasons immunity is compromised during the winter:
- People are indoors in close contact, breathing heated indoor air that dehydrates mucus membranes, preventing the body from effectively defending against infection. Your mucous membranes (lining your nose, mouth, gut) are your first lines of defense.
- In nations where children do not go to school in the summer, there is a more pronounced beginning to flu season that coincides with the start of public school. It is thought that the school/daycare environment is perfect for the spread of illness.
- Vitamin D production is lower in winter because there’s less sunshine, and D is necessary for immune health.
7 Ways to Boost Immunity
1) Avoid excess sugar. It’s well documented that sugar suppresses the immune system. It can also promote inflammation and feed cancer cells. What do we tend to indulge on during the holiday season? Booze and sweets. Both tax your immune system (alcohol breaks down as a sugar), so stay away from refined sugar (the white stuff). Also know that turbinado “sugar in the raw” and unrefined sugar and palm sugar and coconut sugar and all the trendy health food sugars are STILL SUGAR.
2) Take care of your mucous membranes & your gut. Did you know the majority of your immune system is in your digestive tract? Your intestinal tract is coated by a thin mucosal barrier called Secretory IgA or SIgA. Trillions of good bacteria keep SIgA healthy and intact to fight off invaders. It’s basically all one mucosal barrier system from the inside of your nose down to your intestines, so using your neti pot to clear bacteria in the nasal passages may help. Avoid sugar and gluten (bread, pasta, cereals, crackers, cookies, etc) which irritate the gut lining, cause inflammation, and reduce SIgA. Eat probiotic foods like raw kraut (cultured veggies) or kefir if you tolerate dairy (or try this dairy free water kefir). Take a probiotic with at least 15 million CFU to help both digestion and immune health.
3) Avoid foods you’re sensitive to. The most common are dairy, eggs, gluten, and soy. Each time you consume a food you’re allergic to or have a sensitivity to, your immune system fires into action, and you don’t want your immune system constantly firing and overtaxed. Trouble is, you may not even know what these foods are. Read more here.
4) Sleep. Get 8-9 hours each night. This really should be a big fat #1. This is especially important for children, who may need even more sleep. Lack of sleep raises cortisol, your main stress hormone, which increases inflammation, fight or flight response, and lowers immunity. Ever wonder why you feel run down or tend to get sick more often when you’re under stress? Seriously, sleep is one of the cornerstones of good health. Click here for tips on how to get more of it.
5) Supplements. Make sure you get extra vitamin D during the cold months. It’s essential for regulating your immune system. Get a formula with K2 or the D won’t be absorbed (a problem I see regularly). I use this one. There’s mixed evidence that echinacea works as well as purported, but I LOVE the medicinal mushrooms for boosting immune health. You can get a formula or even get them in your morning coffee (I occasionally use and love this one). This immune boosting tincture is a must if you’re around sick people– it will keep you healthy. Zinc is crucial too for a strong immune system too, and many people are deficient.
6) Get the immune boosting foods. Nature knows what we need during the winter months: vitamin C. And the citrus that provides it will start coming in soon. Broccoli and strawberries are high in vitamin C as well. Eat foods rich in antioxidants to keep your immune system healthy. The antioxidants are vitamins A, C, E, and minerals zinc and selenium. Eat plenty of leafy greens, root veggies like sweet potatoes and winter squash, seasonal fruit, and grass fed beef/lamb, and that’s a good start. There is some evidence that garlic works to boost immunity too. Also, good old fashioned broth helps boost immunity. Studies have shown that chicken broth really does fight infection. There’s limited sunlight during the winter, so our bodies won’t produce as much D. Aside from a supplement, eat more salmon, sardines, eggs, and shrimp.
7) Easy: Wash hands. Drill this habit into your kids, too.
What to do if you feel you’re coming down with something?
- immediately make a batch of chicken broth and drink 8-10 oz 3 times daily. If you are too tired to make it, buy a chicken stock or chicken veggie soup from Whole Foods, which has a pretty good quality stock. DO NOT drink the chicken broth from the box or can. Not even close to the real thing.
- start taking colloidal silver, up to 500ppm if you can find it. Take a teaspoon every hour on the hour all day for 2-3 days. Kids can take this too. It’s a very potent anti-bacterial & anti-viral and it works.
- Get the immune boosting tonic I mentioned above with astragalus, echinacea, elderberry, and/or medicinal mushrooms like shiitake, reishi, cordyceps. All safe for kids, too.
- Get lots of sleep, as much as possible.
- Take 1500 mg of vitamin C in divided doses (500 mg at a time). Don’t chug orange juice–it’s mostly sugar!
- Drink lots of teas–herbal like chamomile or licorice root to soothe a sore throat, or there are certain herbal tea blends (Traditional Medicinals makes several therapeutic teas) to soothe congestion or help you sleep. Raw honey can be very soothing on a sore throat and has anti-bacterial properties too.
- This throat spray is excellent for sore throats associated with sickness. In fact it’s an excellent winter immune tonic. I have used it for the past 2 seasons to prevent illness when traveling, when I feel a throat tickle, or to boost my immune system when others around me are sick. And I haven’t been sick in years! (knock on wood)
Click here for my immune boosting soup. Make a batch as soon as you feel run down!
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.