It happens every year. The weather gets colder. The holidays come. We spend more time going out, eating poorly, drinking alcohol, and sleeping less. Our healthy habits fall by the wayside. And then, we get sick. From a holistic health perspective, its not at all surprising. Of course if we don't rest, eat crappy, and drink a lot, we get sick. When we aren't supporting our bodies and especially our immune system, it just can't do its job effectively. Being mindful about our diet and lifestyle choices can greatly improve your immune system, lessening the amount and severity of illness in your life.
With so many people getting sick this winter, I wanted to share some simple preventative strategies for supporting immunity on a daily basis. If you do find yourself getting sick, amp up the suggestions on the list. There are also a number of herbs and supplements that can help shorten the duration and severity of your cold or flu, feel free to contact me for more information on those infection fighting super boosters too!
INCREASE YOUR NUTRIENT DENSE FOODS
To be completely frank, if you're eating the standard American diet, you are not getting enough nutrients. Sadly, most people have depleted nutrient reserves, showing test results with lower than optimal amounts of numerous vitamins and minerals. The most important nutrients for immune support are vitamins A, C, E and the minerals zinc and selenium. Eating foods with these vitamins and minerals every day will support not only your immune system, but also your skin, heart and overall well being. Here's how to do it:
- Eat colorful plant foods. Eating a variety of colors also means you're getting a variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (compounds that act as antioxidants to protect our cells) to keep the body healthy. Focus on eating fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices every day. Challenge yourself to get as many colors as you can on your plate in each meal from real, whole foods.
- Vitamin C protects against free radical damage and is well documented in its protection against the common cold. Broccoli, papaya, kiwi, bell peppers and strawberries are all extremely high in Vitamin C. Vitamin C is not stored in the body, so it is important to replenish it through the diet on a daily basis.
- Carotenes, the form of Vitamin A found in plants like sweet potatoes, carrots, kale and spinach, play an important role in protecting against unwanted pathogens. Animal sources of vitamin A are referred to as retinoids, and include eggs, yogurt and salmon.
- Despite Vitamin E being a potent antioxidant, most of the population fails to meet even the minimum recommended amount. Actually a name for 8 different nutrients, sources of vitamin E include almonds, avocado, sunflower seeds, spinach and swiss chard.
- Sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, sardines, crimini mushrooms, asparagus and organic tofu. We don't require a lot of selenium (RDA is 55 mcg for adults), so you don't need eat a large amount of these foods if they are in your diet regularly.
- Foods high in zinc include pumpkin and sesame seeds, lentils, shitake mushrooms and spinach. Zinc is hugely important for a healthy immune system, as well as hundreds of other actions in the body, and can be helpful to take as a supplement if you do feel a cold coming on.
- Immunity booster super foods: Some foods just pack a big healthy punch in a small package. These include lemons, ginger, turmeric & garlic. Sure its great to take these as an immunity shot from your favorite juice bar when you feel a cold coming on, but having them in your diet on a regular basis is even better. They provide antioxidants, fight inflammation, are antibacterial, anti-fungal, and have powerful immune boosting properties. Make a fresh lemon ginger tea, add some turmeric to your tomato sauce, eggs, and curries, and add an extra clove of garlic to your salad dressing, pesto or sauteed veggies.
- Essential fatty acids: Healthy fats like omega 3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation is the body's defense system response to a perceived harmful stimulus. In small doses, it is necessary and helpful. But chronic inflammation can contribute to disease, and can sometimes be misdirected. Foods like flax, hemp & chia seeds, walnuts, sustainable cold water fish like salmon or sardines, or spirulina are important sources of omega 3's.
Without enough water, the body struggles to continually flush out toxins, making it harder to fight infections. When we don't drink enough water we often feel tired and headachy, which might affect our sleep or desire to exercise, two things that on their own also impact our immunity. Most people don't drink enough water, and really notice an improvement in how they feel when the drink adequate amounts. It's usually the first recommendation I make to clients, and luckily its simple, easy and free. In fact, take a second right now to get a glass of water!
- Drink at least half your weight in oz. of water every day, plus an extra glass for every half hour of exercise, or in warm weather.
- Adding lemon to the water helps absorption and adds extra vitamin C.
- Drinks with caffeine and alcohol dehydrate the body, so avoid those if possible, and if you do have either one, compensate by matching it with an extra glass of water.
- Other recommended beverages include herbal and green tea, fresh fruit and vegetable juices, and broths.
KEEP YOUR GUT HEALTHY
Did you know that an estimated 70 % of your immune system lies in your gut? Think about all the foreign matter (food) your digestive system has to sort through every day, determining what is nourishment for your cells, and what is an antigen (a foreign substance that triggers an immune reaction) like bacteria or viruses. Simply put, if our digestive system is weak or out of balance, our immune system is compromised.
- Eating fermented foods provides your gut with healthy bacteria, necessary for immune function, digestion, vitamin synthesis and so many other essential processes in the body. When the "good" bacteria in our gut are reduced, the "bad" bacteria can overgrow, leading to infection, skin disorders, headaches and even depression. Boost the healthy bacteria with foods like whole fat, unsweetened yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha (watch the serving size and amount of sugar - see below) miso and tempeh. If you can't eat these foods regularly, it may be worth taking a probiotic supplement to correct any imbalances.
- Enhance your digestion: Too much or too little stomach acid, altered pH and intestinal permeability can all compromise digestion and absorption of nutrients. The use of medications, alcohol, stress and even age can all hinder digestive health, and therefore affect your immune system. If you experience bloating, indigestion, stomach aches, or numerous food intolerances, I recommend speaking to a health practitioner. If you suspect your digestion is not as efficient as it could be, shoot me a message and I'd be happy to make some specific suggestions.
AVOID DEPLETING FOODS
- Sugar: In addition to the roller coaster ride sugar takes with our energy levels, excess amounts of sugar can inhibit the immune system. It takes nutrient reserves from the body to metabolize sugar, yet provides zero nutrients back to you. Even if you don't think you eat a lot of sweets, consider all the hidden sugar and refined flour hidden in your food. If you eat bread, pasta, crackers, baked goods, pre-made sauces and condiments, commercial yogurt, sports drinks or bottled juices regularly, chances are you're consuming unhealthy amounts of sugar. Start taking a look at your labels and skip anything that has more than 10 grams of sugar per serving.
- Any food you're allergic or sensitive to: Very few people have really severe allergic reactions to food, such as hives or finding it difficult to breathe. Usually the reactions are much more mild and subtle, but are still triggering an inflammatory response. For example if you get heartburn when you eat pizza, or a stomach ache after eating dairy, I highly recommend avoiding those foods. Even though you may think of these minor symptoms just as an inconvenience, they are signs that your body is not able to digest, metabolize and assimilate that food, which leads to inflammation, an immune system defense. Ignoring those signs only continues to tie up your immune system, taking it away from its real job of keeping actual germs at bay.
- Sleep more: Second to our diet, sleep probably has the biggest effect on our immune system. People who do not get enough quality sleep are more likely to get sick, and may have more trouble recovering from sickness. Most adults should aim for 7-8 hours a night.
- Stress less: Stress increases cortisol, which suppresses the immune system. Try to schedule in stress reduction techniques into your day, such as meditation, yoga, walking outside, or even a bubble bath. A massage is not only a great way to increase relaxation, but also stimulates the lymph system, an important part of our immunity! Be conscious of your thoughts, and do your best to take deep breaths when you start to feel overwhelmed.
- Exercise (moderately): Most of us know that one of the benefits of exercise is a that its good for the immune system. But overdoing the workouts can actually have the opposite effect, stressing out your body and decreasing your immunity. Moderate exercise on a regular basis is the best for your immune system, bonus points if its outside and if you actually enjoy it!
- Sunlight: Many people don't produce enough Vitamin D. This nutrient is really more like a hormone, our body produces it with the help of sunlight, and can modulate our immune system. Try to get outside and get some direct sunlight on your skin (without sunscreen) for about 15 minutes a day.
Sometimes despite our best efforts, we still get sick. It's just a part of life. If you've done all you can, take it as a cue to bundle up, relax in bed with a cup of tea, binge watch trashy TV and chill out. Give yourself a break from your endless to-do list, and take a few days off to give your body the rest it needs.
If you feel like you catch every cold that goes around, or you tend to get sick more often than others, there might be something more serious going on. For chronic infections I recommend seeing your doctor for testing, and learning more about how modifying your diet may be able to improve your health long term. I'm here to help if you want to chat, I always offer a free phone consultation to talk about how I can best support your health!
Here's to your health!