Goosing Up Your Immune System
Sniffle, cough, honk! You certainly don’t need us telling you that cold and flu season has arrived; there’s evidence of it everywhere this time of year – red noses, scratchy coughs, empty desks in the workplace and classroom. Enough said.
Let’s face it – everybody gets sick sometimes and there’s no need to feel like a failure if you wind up in bed cuddling with your box of tissues. Sometimes a couple of days under the covers is exactly what the body needs to recover from life’s demands.
That said, there are oodles of simple, proactive steps we can take to strengthen our immune system, which plays a critical role in how susceptible we are to colds and how severe they might be if we do get one.
Aside from disinfecting every doorknob in sight, below are some precautionary measures we believe to be easy, effective, and safe.
And to clarify, this post isn’t about autoimmunity per se, although none of these suggestions are a bad idea if you do have an autoimmune condition. In fact, we talk about the vast majority of these strategies with our clients.
Say sayonara to sugar
Sugar weakens your immune system. Period. It also destroys collagen, making us look older faster, and it sends us on a blood sugar roller coaster ride that ultimately ends with a big fat sour mood, sleep disturbances, and compromised metabolism.
We all know sugar doesn’t serve our health, yet there’s something particularly alluring about sugar during the cold winter months (and the holidays, of course).
To satisfy that sweet tooth, include sweet vegetables like roasted beets or squash regularly into your meals, make homemade power balls using fresh dates or dried cherries, or brew some Good Earth Sweet and Spicy tea, all of which can go a long way toward knocking out that sweet craving.
And glutamine, the superhero amino acid gut healer that we’re always proselytizing about, is a powerful cravings-slayer. For a nagging craving, just a little on the tongue or gums will do the trick.
Go for garlic breath
Garlic is related to the onion (another valuable immune booster) and contains the active ingredient allicin, which fights infections and bacteria. Check this out: according to one study, British researchers gave 146 people either a placebo or a garlic extract for 12 weeks; the garlic takers were two-thirds less likely to catch a cold!
Garlic is an easy immune booster to embrace. If it doesn’t make its way to your cooked foods, simply buy garlic extract and take it regularly. If you do enjoy incorporating garlic into your dishes, add it at the end of cooking for the most immune-boosting impact. Better yet, set aside a couple fresh cloves, crush them slightly, then cut them into pieces small enough to swallow. Swallowing garlic bits, rather than chewing them, minimizes garlic breath.
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times – drink more water. It’s boring advice to hear, and (trust us) it’s boring advice to give. But perhaps you’ll find this interesting: according to Dr. Sorana Segal-Maurer, chief of the Dr. James J. Rahal Jr. Division of Infectious Disease at New York Hospital Queens, ”Dry and cold conditions (i.e. winter) are probably more high-risk situations (versus summer) for viruses because of dry mucosa.” The mucosa, she explains, is what lines your trachea, the back of your throat, and your sinuses. Viruses invade the mucosa and start growing, instigating colds. Keeping the mucosa hydrated is a key piece to warding off unwelcome viruses.
Staying adequately hydrated in the summer is easier for many people because we’re hot and sweaty and consequently, our body sends a clear signal for thirst. If you struggle staying hydrated in the winter because water is less appealing, find herbal teas you can enjoy warm, like Bengal Spice (cinnamon deliciousness!) or Throat Coat. Or try sipping hot water throughout the day, either plain or with a little freshly squeezed lemon in it.
Interestingly, many women begin to lose their thirst sensation during their pre-menopausal years, so it’s particularly important for those of us in our 40s to be mindful of staying hydrated.
Embrace the elderberry
Consuming elderberries to boost immunity is hardly a new concept, but it’s currently experiencing a revival among integrative health circles. Elderberries are loaded with antioxidants and vitamin C, making them an extremely effective immune-boosting tool.
The following persuasive quote comes from The Healthy Home Economist: “In one study, elderberry extract inhibited several strains of influenza and reduced symptoms. In another, elderberry syrup flavonoids were found effective against the H1N1 (swine flu) virus. In the most compelling study, a randomized trial of 60 patients aged 18-54 suffering from flu symptoms for 48 hours or less received 15 ml (3 teaspoons) of elderberry syrup or a placebo 4x per day for five days. Researchers observed that, ‘Symptoms were relieved on average 4 days earlier and use of rescue medication was significantly less in those receiving elderberry extract compared with a placebo.’”
I was lucky enough to get my hands on some elderberries in late summer, which I froze. They are quite tart, but I still enjoy them in my morning yogurt concoction. I also steep them in boiling water, which I then drink as a tea. Elderberry syrup is available at most health food stores, or you can follow this link to find a recipe for homemade elderberry syrup.
Outwit bad bugs with an army of good bugs
If you’ve been following our work at Healthful Elements for any length of time, you know we’re big fans of probiotics and probiotic-rich foods, like kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut. Even a tablespoon or two of these foods every day can do wonders for our health.
Most of our good bacteria live in our large intestine, and most of our immune system (70-80%, astonishingly) is found in our digestive tract; therefore, when we build a healthy population of bacteria in our digestive tract, we’re building robust immunity.
According to Dr. Mark Hyman, in an 80-day Swedish study of 181 factory employees, those who drank a daily supplement of Lactobacillus reuteri – a specific probiotic that appears to stimulate white blood cells – took 33% fewer sick days than those given a placebo. Any yogurt with a “Live and Active Cultures” seal contains some beneficial bugs, but Stonyfield Farm is the only U.S. brand that contains this specific strain.
While it’s pretty impressive that researchers were able to measure the impact that particular bacteria had on health, we believe it’s important to build a robust and diverse community of bacteria, so don’t get too focused on finding Lactobacillus reuteri. Just make sure that some sort of fermented food or broad spectrum probiotic supplement finds its way into your body every day, and trust that the impact these good guys will have on your health will be profound.
Comfort yourself with chicken soup
Just the thought of homemade chicken soup is healing, and for good reason. Researchers at the University of Nebraska have found that quality chicken soup blocks the migration of inflammatory white cells. Cold symptoms are a response to those cells’ accumulation in the bronchial tubes.
Additionally, the amino acid cysteine, released from chicken during cooking, helps calm coughing fits, and the soup’s salty broth keeps mucus thin (similar to how cough medicines work). At Healthful Elements, we’re always talking about how healing homemade broth is to the digestive tract, which, as mentioned above, is critical to a finely-tuned immune system. Any way you cut it, chicken soup is the healing tonic grandma made it out to be.
Boost your inner sunshine
There’s no no denying the piles and piles of research on vitamin D; having adequate vitamin D levels is unquestionably one of the most important things you can do to keep illness at bay and experience optimal health.
According to Dr. Mark Hyman, studies have shown that people with vitamin D deficiency are 11 times more likely to get a cold or flu, while supplementing with vitamin D can reduce colds and flu by 42%. That’s a powerful statistic!
While the conventional medical community is typically satisfied with vitamin D levels above 34 ng/ml, we suggest going for the gold standard: 50-80 ng/ml. Get your vitamin D level tested at your doctor’s office or independently through ZRT labs. If it’s low, supplements are quite effective at giving you a boost. Just make sure that when the warm weather rolls around again, you get your butt outside with some skin exposed (sans sunscreen) so you can soak up the sun’s goodness.
Remember how mom used to insist you wear that stiff snowsuit and scarf when you were little even though it made it virtually impossible to move and actually play in the snow? Mom was on to something. Recently, a licensed acupuncturist explained to me how Chinese Medicine considers cold weather itself to be a pathogen. To protect ourselves, we must dress appropriately so the pathogen can’t invade us.
Many of you reading this likely have a thyroid concern, which makes it doubly important to dress appropriately for the weather. Your thyroid plays a critical role in maintaining your body temperature. If you dart outside without enough layers, this can be stressful enough to send you into a hormonal tailspin, including moodiness and extreme fatigue. It’s well worth it to take a few extra minutes to dress appropriately.
A few more words of wisdom:
- Eating leafy green vegetables in the spring and summer months will scrape your intestinal tract clean, removing excess mucus and making it more difficult for unwelcome bacteria to cause illness.
- Spending time in the sun with skin exposed during the summer months will naturally boost our vitamin D levels come fall and winter (though it may still be necessary to supplement in the winter months), making us less vulnerable.
- Moving your body year-round helps the immune system hum along happily.
This post could go on and on. There are likely hundreds of ways to effectively boost your immune system, but we’ll leave you with the above suggestions and this final thought: it’s best to think about supporting your immune system year-round, not just when we bust out our winter jackets.
And if you do find yourself bedridden, here’s are some suggestions for beating the flu naturally.
As with everything we talk about at Healthful Elements, this is not a “one and done” project. Tending to your immune system is like tending to a child, tuning in to what she needs at this moment to grow and continue to be strong.