Our immune system consists of a network of cells, proteins, lymphoid tissue and organs all busy working together to protect us against infection from the microbial pathogens we face on a daily basis. Our ability to resist and recover from disease depends on how well our immune system is functioning and with winter here, what we do now can help set us up for a healthier and hopefully cold & flu free season.
As a strong immune system is your best defense against disease, here are my top tips to help you boost your immune system now in readiness for the cooler months.
1. Manage Stress
Stress is a normal part of everyday life and is difficult to avoid, however, to prevent ill health, it is essential that you manage your stress. Chronic stress depresses immune system function, increases our susceptibility to disease and can lead to serious illness if left unmanaged.
Don’t overdo it, learn to say no, listen to your body and, most importantly, schedule relaxation time and social activities into your day or week. Studies suggest yoga reverses the negative impacts of stress on the immune system by increasing bacteria-fighting proteins and natural killer cells.
Whether its yoga, walking, surfing, listening to music, meditating, affirmations, counseling, journaling or painting, it’s important that you find a way to manage your stress.
If you are finding it difficult to cope with stress, there are many herbal medicines naturopaths use to enhance nervous system and adrenal gland function to improve your stress response so speak to a practitioner for additional support.
As the days get cooler it can be difficult to find the motivation to exercise. We all know the benefits of exercise to our physical and emotional health. Moderate exercise enhances immune function and may help reduce the incidence of infections possibly via helping to flush out toxins, expel mucous, improve bowel function and enhance circulation.
Whilst it can be difficult to head out into the cold, if you can manage a brisk walk in the fresh air, research suggests green exercise, as it is known, offers additional benefits to our physical and mental well-being.Alternatively, move your practice inside and opt for a guided yoga, Pilates or dance class either at home or in the gym.
Aim for at least 30 minutes a day on most days of moderate-intensity activity which causes a slight but noticeable increase in your breathing and heart rate.
3. Personal Hygiene Practices
Prevent infection and/or re-infection of yourself and others by practicing appropriate hygiene.
Older adults, young children, pregnant women and those with conditions that reduce immune function including Type 1 & Type 2 diabetes, kidney or liver disease, cancer or stomach issues need to take extra care.
- Always cover your mouth with your arm, elbow or sleeve when coughing or sneezing to reduce the spread of germs through air droplets.
- Don’t share personal items including towels, razors, toothbrushes, handkerchiefs or drink bottles.
- Ensure effective hand washing with soap and warm water for at least 15 seconds (which is about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday”) and follow the World Health Organisation Guidelines for proper hand washing etiquette http://www.hha.org.au/UserFiles/file/Posters/How_To_HandWash_Poster_100102.pdf
- Follow correct handling at all stages of food preparation and storage to reduce the risk of infection. Keep food preparation areas clean. Separate raw meat, seafood & eggs from fresh food and use separate chopping boards, crockery and utensils. Cook food to proper temperatures and serve it hot. Chill food quickly, refrigerating leftovers within 2 hours of cooking.
4. Warm Nourishing Foods & Spices
A well-known quote from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine, is “Let food be your medicine & medicine be your food.”
It is important to really consider what we put into our bodies. It is always preferable to eat a whole food diet free of unprocessed foods and high in fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables. Specifically, focus on eating the following to support your immune system and wellbeing:
- Foods high in antioxidants including Vitamins A, C E & Zinc will strengthen your immune system so include orange, red and yellow coloured fruits and vegetables in every meal. Adding fresh or frozen berries to oats is a great way to start to a chilly morning.
- Eat warming foods, herbs and spices. Replace raw foods and salads with warm cooked foods that are cooked for longer and at lower temperatures using methods like roasting, stewing, braising, poaching, simmering and slow cooking. Include more root vegetables (sweet potato, carrots, pumpkin, parsnips, turnips, onions and beetroot) as well as spinach, quinoa, amaranth, wild rice and legumes.
- Add the following fresh, raw herbs to your meals, teas and broths for an added immune boost:
- Garlic for its strong antiviral & antibiotic properties. Ensure you consume it fresh, raw and crushed.
- Ginger is useful as a strong antiinflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant agent.
- Turmeric has antioxidant, antiinflammatory and immune stimulating properties.
- Reduce mucous forming foods including meat, dairy, wheat and sugar. Sugar is a known immune-suppressant with studies demonstrating it reduces the ability of white blood cells to function properly.
- Drink 8 glasses (240mL) filtered water or herbal teas daily. Hot fluids can also help thin mucous secretions.
- Consume local, raw, pure honey that has not been heat treated. The propolis found in natural honey is used in the prevention of respiratory infections.
- A lovely way to warm the body, relax the mind and promote restful sleep is making a simple cup of chai tea. Add cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg & black pepper to water, bring to the boil and strain. Add honey, fresh grated ginger and dairy-free milk of your choice to serve.
5. Immune Boosters
To give your immune system that extra kick, nutritional supplements can help but should only be taken on advice and supervision of a qualified health practitioner.
- Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and immune enhancer.
- Olive leaf extract has potent antioxidant, antimicrobial & antiviral properties.
- Zinc is involved in many immunological functions including normal development and function of immune cells.
- Vitamin D enhances our immune system’s response to both bacterial and viral agents.
The gut plays a huge role in immune system regulation. In fact, the intestinal tract is the largest immune organ in the body containing around 80% of all anti-body producing cells, so it makes sense to look after it. Bacteria are vital for shaping the immune response and probiotics are live microorganisms that improve the immune system and prevent pathogens from colonising in the gut.
It’s important to understand that different probiotic strains are indicated for different conditions. For example evidence suggests lactobacilli & bifidobacteria strains are particularly beneficial in modulating the immune response in the gut with various studies demonstrating decreased rates of infection and illness severity in both adults and children taking these strains.
In Western herbal medicine there are several herbs that naturopaths use to improve immune system function. Given possible interactions with pharmaceutical medications and safety considerations, herbs must only be taken under the direct advice and care of a qualified naturopath or herbalist. Here are a couple you may have heard of:
- Astragalus membranaceus enhances antibody responses and is often prescribed throughout Autumn as a preventative to strengthen the immune response.
- Echinacea spp. has demonstrated use in prevention as well as treatment of the common cold with one study demonstrating prophylactic use resulted in a 65% reduction in natural cold incidence.
6. Listen to your body
If you do get sick promptly address any imbalances with correct nutritional & lifestyle practices.
Avoid toxins such as caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, chemicals and sugar.
Most importantly though, symptoms are a sign of something not working efficiently, your body is trying to tell you to slow down, so listen and rest. Allowing your body to rest, recover and heal itself naturally with the support of natural foods and medicines is essential. If your symptoms persist or worsen contact a professional health practitioner for added support.
Always consult a qualified naturopath before taking any herbal or nutritional medication.
If you are interested in finding out more about this or any other aspect of natural health and wellness, contact our degree-qualified naturopath Sharon Pittorino today on 5956 7886.
Braun, L & Cohen, M 2010, Herbs and Natural Supplements: An Evidence Based Guide, Third, Elsevier Australia, Chatswood.
Gladwell, VF, Brown, DK, Wood, C, Sandercock, GR & Barton, JL 2013, ‘The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all.’, Extreme physiology & medicine, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 1–7.
Gleeson, M 2000, ‘Overview: Exercise immunology’, Immunology and Cell Biology, vol. 78, no. 5, pp. 483–484.
Hawrelak, J 2013, ‘Choosing the right strain for specific therapeutic applications’, Illuminate Natural Medicine, pp.2-27
Hechtman, L 2012, Clinical Naturopathic Medicine, Revised, Elsevier Australia, Chatswood.
Provino, R 2010, ‘The role of adaptogens in stress management’, National Herbalists Association of Australia, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 41–50, viewed 26 April 2014.
Ross, A & Thomas, S 2010, ‘The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies’, Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 3–12.
Shah, SA, Sander, S, White, CM, Rinaldi, M & Coleman, CI 2007, ‘Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis.’, Lancet Infectious Diseases, vol. 7, pp. 473–80.
Vighi, G, Marcucci, F, Sensi, L, Di Cara, G & Frati, F 2008, ‘Allergy and the gastrointestinal system’, Clinical and Experimental Immunology, vol. 153, no. SUPPL. 1, pp. 3–6.
Wang, Y 2009, ‘Prebiotics: Present and future in food science and technology’, Food Research International, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 8–12.
World Health Organisation, ‘How to handwash’, 2009