8 Easy Strategies to Arm Your Immune System This Winter
As we head into winter once more, cold and flu viruses begin to circulate more widely. Whether we’re fighting off Covid-19 or a common cold, a strong immune system is our most important first line of defense. These are some of the most powerful strategies you can use to prepare your immune system for winter:
1) Supplement with Vitamin D:
Many of us are walking around with suboptimal levels of the Sunshine Vitamin, which sink even lower as we cover up against the cold. The winter drop in vitamin D levels may be a driver of increased infection rates over the cold season. Vitamin D affects more than just immune health – mood, bone and muscle health, digestion and inflammation are all tied to optimal vitamin D levels. Importantly, good levels of vitamin D inhibit the potentially fatal runaway immune response known as a cytokine storm, a serious complication associated with Covid-19 infection. Patients with optimal vitamin D levels suffer fewer respiratory infections and fare better against Covid-19 infection than those with lower levels.
2) Vitamin C:
Deficiency in this vitamin once killed half of the sailors that set out to sea - more than the storms, shipwrecks, battles and other diseases they faced combined. The importance of vitamin C to human health can't be overstated, but it can be misunderstood. While it has only a limited role in preventing infection, vitamin C is extremely important for reducing the duration and severity of illness, and speeding up recovery. A large part of Vitamin C's role in immunity stems from its crucial role in maintaining the health of our connective tissues. Our mucous membranes are our first and arguably most important barriers to infection. Healthy levels of vitamin C keep those barriers strong, and fight wrinkles at the same time. Vitamin C is also crucial to the movement of immune cells to the site of infection, and its antioxidant activity helps to limit the damage that infections cause to other tissues by soaking up free-radicals. Vitamin C also facilitates the absorption of iron, which itself is essential for a healthy immune response.
Fresh plant foods are the best source of vitamin C, but it is destroyed by cooking. In winter, its harder to get enough fresh, raw plant foods to keep your levels optimal. Supplements can help fill this gap, but not all Vitamin C supplements are created equal. Studies show that most supplemental vitamin C is only well absorbed at low doses. The higher the dose, the more you waste. At doses over 1g per day, only about half the dose is taken up, and what remains in your intestines can cause unpleasant bowel upsets. There is some evidence that vitamin C complexed in food-form to other bioflavanoids my offer superior absorption and benefits to synthetic vitamin C. Alternatively, liposomal vitamin C supplements offer high absorption rates with no digestive upset.
3) Cod Liver oil:
Granny’s favourite home remedy actually works. Vitamin A is an essential immune nutrient, but we get much of our supply in the form of its pre-cursor beta carotene. The body can convert beta-carotene to active Vitamin A as it needs it if we're eating a healthy amount of fresh, colourful fruit and vegetables. In winter, when fresh produce can be harder to come by, our intakes of beta carotene can drop. Cod liver oil provides a dose of preformed vitamin A, as well as a small dose of vitamin D and a good helping of inflammation regulating essential fatty acids. Much research now speak to the health benefits of supplementing with cod liver oil, especially over winter.*
4) Nuts and seeds:
Unless you have a nut allergy, there can be huge benefits to snacking on raw nuts and seeds every day. Not only are they rich in essential fatty acids, fibre and protein, they also contain a healthy dose of essential minerals such as zinc and selenium. Both are crucial to an effective immune response, and are safest taken in food form. Almonds, brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds are especially rich sources of minerals, but don't overdo them. Just a handful of nuts per day is enough. Mineral supplements can be important when correcting deficiencies or providing targeted treatments, but they should be taken with the guidance of a health practitioner to avoid causing mineral imbalances.
In our demanding, high speed lives, many of us have allowed ourselves to believe the fallacy that we can get by with just a few hours sleep a night. You may feel fine, but your immune system takes a beating if you don't get enough sleep.
Sleep is of crucial importance to healthy immune function, and too little predisposes you to runaway inflammation and infection. Sleep deprivation can even reduce the effectiveness of vaccinations. While 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night may not stop your from getting an infection, less than that will make you a free-target for passing germs. Insufficient sleep also predisposes you to depression, anxiety and brain fog. If you suffer from insomnia or disturbed sleep, seek the assistance of a healthcare practitioner. A few extra hours per night can revolutionize your health.
6) Exercise: Studies have shown that daily exercise dramatically boosts immunity. Anything from a stiff walk to a solid gym session will do the trick, as long as you get your blood pumping and your lungs puffing, but there is a caveat. Too much exercise may have the opposite effect, and actually temporarily suppress immunity.
How much is too much? If you push yourself to the point of pain on a regular basis, you are probably pushing too hard. Alternate between cardio, strength, and gentle regenerative exercise like yoga, pilates or walking to maintain a healthy balance. Most importantly, DON’T exercise with flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, body aches, tight chest or congestion. Exercising with a developing viral infection can cause long term damage to your health, and potentially lead to more severe infections or even death. 7) Hydration:
A growing body of evidence suggests that drinking too little may hang your immune system out to dry. Your saliva is full of defensive enzymes that help dismantle invading pathogens on entry, but if you’re dehydrated, there may not be enough of them to do the job. Staying hydrated also makes sure your brain stays on top form, your eyes stay sparkly and your digestive system keeps moving, so its worth keeping count of your daily water intake. 6 to 8 glasses of water should be enough to keep you lubricated on a normal day, but you’ll need to increase your intake after strenuous exercise.
Unfortunately, sugary drinks have the opposite effect. Not only does the dose of sugar dehydrate you and cancel the benefit of the water portion of your drink, it also promotes inflammation, insulin resistance, weight gain and over time, chronic disease. Our bodies were built to drink water. Juices, soft drinks, coffee, tea and alcohol should be reserved as occasional treats, not treated as staples.
8) Immune boosting herbs:
Taking a daily dose of immune boosting herbs such as Echinacea, Andrographis, Astragalus or Sambuccus nigra may help you fight off a viral infection, but these herbs should only be used with the supervision of a trained health practitioner, especially if you suffer from an autoimmune condition.
There is a vast hidden world of bacteria and viruses out there. Your immune system is the most powerful defense you have against them. If you are pro-active about these 8 strategies, you will be well-armed to go out and face that world without fear. *Not recommended if pregnant or on anticoagulant medication.