It’s that time of year again when we start to see a lot of colds and flu going around. While no one knows exactly why colds and flu show up more frequently during the winter season, many factors contribute. The colder temperatures drive us indoors, windows are shut and the heat is turned on. The overly dry indoor air can be hard on the mucus membranes of the nose and throat causing micro-damage to tissues. The cold, dry outdoor air - although brisk and refreshing - can also irritate airway passages increasing susceptibility to viruses and bacteria. Heavy clothing covering our skin from the few hours of sunlight during short winter days increases the likelihood of a vitamin D deficiency, which diminishes immune response. On top of all that, new research indicates that viruses actually do better in winter. A recent study conducted by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York found that the influenza virus is more stable and able to stay in the air longer in the cold, dry air of winter months.
The good news is, you don’t have to sit back and wait to get sick. There are many things you can do to fight off illness, or drastically reduce your chances of getting sick. An optimally functioning immune system is more than able to protect you from the common cold, flu, strep, and a myriad of other virus or bacterial illnesses. In this article, we will take a brief look at how the immune system works, how lifestyle choices impact the immune system, as well as consider which foods, herbs and supplements can be used to strengthen immune function. So, if you’re ready to have a healthier, happier, more enjoyable winter season this year, read on!
What is the immune system and how does it work?
The immune system is one of the most complex systems in the body. It is comprised of a network of cells, tissues and organs, including the thymus gland, spleen, bone marrow and a vast network of lymph nodes all working together to protect your body against infectious organisms and invaders. White blood cells, produced by the immune system, circulate throughout the body via lymph and blood in search of potential threats, diseased cells and pathogens. There are different types of white blood cells, some that search and some that destroy. When “searching” white blood cells locate an invader, an immune response is triggered. Through a complex series of steps, the location and identity of the pathogen is communicated throughout the body, so “destroying” cells can be dispatched to deal with them. Another nice feature of the immune system is that once invaders are encountered, they are marked with a unique antigen so they will be recognized the next time they are encountered. This enables the immune system to customize antibodies for that particular pathogen! Complete with spies, mercenaries, and specialized weaponry, your immune system is your body’s internal defense system that patrols and protects you from disease-causing invaders at all times. Pretty cool, huh? So, how can you support this awesome defense system so that it is working at peak performance in your body this cold and flu season? Making informed lifestyle choices is a great place to start.
Daily Steps for Optimal Immune Function
When you understand how daily habits affect your immune function, such as what foods you eat, how much and how often you exercise, and the quality and quantity of your sleep, you can make informed choices. While this list is by no means comprehensive, here are a few key steps you can take to support your body’s immune function.
Wash your hands frequently
About 80% of infectious diseases are transmitted by touch. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the simple act of hand washing is the single most important means of preventing the spread of viral and bacterial infections! Use warm water and a good soap. You don’t have to use harsh antibacterial soaps with artificial ingredients to get the job done. Many healthy options are available today. My favorites are those that incorporate pure essential oils for their natural anti-bacterial, anti-microbial properties. The Willy Street Co-op stocks several luxurious, natural hand soaps and hand sanitizers for your convenience. Stop in to the Wellness department to check them out.
Reduce your sugar intake
Sugar is a known immune suppressant. Even a single serving of any type of sugar (including concentrated fruit juices) lowers immune function for several hours! So think twice before indulging in concentrated sweets. Try a piece of fresh fruit rather than a glass of fruit juice. Or substitute a low glycemic sweetener, such as raw coconut syrup or agave in recipes that call for sugar. Powdered stevia is another natural calorie-free sweetener you can use to sweeten things up. Your taste buds will adjust and your immune system will reward you.
Eat a nutritious diet
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, stated: “Let your food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food.” Even back in 360 BC, he realized that a nutritious diet was the foundation for health. What we eat is a highly personalized thing, but whether you are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, omnivorous or anything else in between, one thing is for sure: eating a diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruits is a good thing. Fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants and other essential nutrients, such as beta carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E to name a few. These antioxidants and others, such as zinc and selenium, protect and repair cells from damage caused by free radicals and help build a strong immune system. Colorful fruits and vegetables are extremely rich in antioxidants, especially those that are purple, blue, red, orange, and yellow. Here are just a few suggestionsto add to your winter shopping list for an added immune boost:
- Vegetables: alfalfa sprouts, asparagus, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, garlic, green peppers, kale, onion, pumpkin, squash, spinach, sweet potatos, turnips and collard greens.
- Fruits: apples, apricots (dried, unsulfured, or fresh/frozen), all types of berries, cantaloupe, kiwi, mango, nectarines, orange, papaya, peaches, pink grapefruit, prunes, red grapes, tangerines.
- TIP: Don’t overcook or boil these foods! High heat damages the nutrients and reduces their assimilation. To get the most benefit of their antioxidant power, consume these foods raw or lightly steamed.
- Zinc: found in oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, seafood, whole grains, fortified cereals, and dairy products.
- Selenium: abundant in Brazil nuts, tuna, beef, poultry and grain products.
- Protein: for optimal immune function, adequate high-quality protein should be consumed, as well as healthful fats (especially mono-unsaturated fats) such as those found in extra virgin olive oil, flax and chia seed, avocado, raw nuts and seeds. These foods assist in repairing tissue and strengthening the immune system.
While food is your best source of these and other vital nutrients, high quality vitamin supplements may be added to the diet if deficiencies are suspected. Willy Street Co-op offers multi-vitamin complexes, as well as individual antioxidant supplements. I recommend taking food-based supplements whenever available. Food-based vitamins are easily digested and assimilated by the body. Because they are food-based, they tend to contain vitamins and nutrients in the naturally occurring ratios found in food, rather than mega-dosing single nutrients.
Supplementing with probiotics is one of the most important things you can do to aid your immune system. Most people, including many physicians, do not realize that 80 percent of your immune system is located in your digestive system, making a healthy gut a major focal point if you want to maintain optimal health. Probiotics assist in digestion and keep disease-causing bacteria at bay in the gut. These “friendly” bacteria play a crucial role in the development and operation of the mucosal immune system in your digestive tract. They also aid in the production of antibodies to pathogens. Food sources of probiotics include yogurt, kefir, kimchee, kombucha and other fermented or cultured foods. Different strains of probiotics, such as lactobacillus, bifidobacterium, and sacchromyces, live in different parts of the digestive track and have specialized functions. For the best protection, I recommend using a probiotic with several different stains. Willy Street Co-op offers an assortment of probiotics for purchase in the Health and Wellness department.
Research has shown that regular exercise enhances immune function by increasing the numbers of white blood cells and stimulating killer T-cells to become more active and effective. If you can get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise several days of the week, your immune system will benefit greatly. But don’t overdo it. While a bit of exercise strengthens immune function, excessive exercise temporarily lowers immune function. Marathon runners and triathletes should take special care in winter months to keep their immune systems strong and healthy.
The body’s stress response is designed to help us survive short term, life-threatening situations. During the fight-or-flight response, adrenal hormones, such as cortisone, epinephrine and norepinephrine, are released providing a short burst of strength, courage and speed to escape the imminent threat. However, when stress is prolonged—as it commonly is in our fast-paced, demanding lives—these adrenal hormones will suppress the activity of the thymus gland and reduce white blood cells. This ultimately decreases immune function making us more susceptible to illness. A thorough handling of stress management is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article, but please do not let your stress levels go unchecked. Make it a priority to set time aside to relax. Read a book, meditate or just lay back and think happy, beautiful, inspiring thoughts. Moderate exercise is another great balancer to the stress response.
Avoid drafts and getting chilled
The exterior layer of the body—namely your skin—is the obvious first line of defense against invaders. Yet, few of us in the U.S. consider cold drafts a threat. In Europe, however, avoiding drafts is taken very seriously and is a considered a primary measure to stay well during the winter. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theorizes that when we are exposed to cold drafts, such as going between extreme temperatures unprotected, cold is given an opportunity to penetrate the vulnerable areas of the body, such as the back of the neck and the low back. Folks with a weakened immune system are especially vulnerable to an “invasion of cold.” Once the cold gets in, it impedes the healthy flow of energy in the body, thus further weakening the immune system. This can cause stiffness and poor circulation, and can open the door to opportunistic pathogens. Eliminate drafts in your home or office by blocking drafty windows, not sitting under blowing fans (even if it is hot air), and using a radiant heat source (rather than forced air) if at all possible. When going out in the cold, make sure no drafts can blow up under clothing. Wearing long underwear (silk is light enough to wear under professional clothing), and/or tucking in shirts, and wearing a scarf around the neck can accomplish this. Bundle up for wellness!
Get plenty of high-quality sleep
Lack of sleep negatively affects immune function. Without adequate rest, the body slows down its production of disease fighting white blood cells. Inadequate or poor quality sleep also reduces activity and effectiveness of white blood cells. In contrast, deep, restful sleep helps our bodies release a powerful immune-enhancing compound called interferon. Interferon was named such for its ability to “interfere” with viral replication in the body. For optimal immune function, it is crucial to get your ZZZZs! If you suffer from occasional sleeplessness, check out the several natural sleep aids Willy Street Co-op offers in our Wellness department to help calm nerves and help you relax for a peaceful night’s rest.
Avoiding toxins is a growing challenge in today’s chemical-laden world. Even if we are mindful of the products and foods we use, we are inundated with toxins from numerous passive sources: car exhaust, industrial cleaners, plastics, cosmetics, clothing, furniture, the list goes on and on and on... Toxins are everywhere in our environment! You can minimize the immune-suppressing action of toxins by eating a nutrient-rich, plant-based diet—organic of course! As previously discussed, foods rich in antioxidants help neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals in the body. If you eat animal products, choose organically grown meats and dairy products that are produced without antibiotics or other chemicals. Use natural alternatives to toxic products in your home and workplace. Whenever possible, avoid exposure to radiation, including x-rays, unless absolutely necessary, because radiation damage is cumulative. Toxic chemicals impair immune function and trigger the formation of cell-damaging free radicals.
Drink Green Tea
Green tea is well known for its excellent antioxidant properties, including a number of forms—polyphenols, catechins and flavonoids. Drinking a high quality, whole leaf green tea every day can help during a cold and is a good immune system booster during times of wellness. Recent studies have also shown that antioxidant chemicals in tea—produced from the aromatic plant Camelliasinensis—can help minimize the risk of developing stomach and other types of cancer. And one study showed that drinking one cup of tea a day could reduce heart attack risk by up to 50 percent! Drink up! If drinking tea is just not your thing, we have green tea capsules available at the Co-op foryour convenience.
Treat infections promptly
Lingering infections, such as respiratory or gum infections, tax the immune system and can significantly impair immunity. In the next section, I will talk about herbs that have been known to be quite effective as natural medicines to treat these types of infections. Reserve the use of antibiotics only for infections that cannot be successfully treated with herbs. Overuse of antibiotics eventually results in weakened immune function.
And Finally… Herbs to Boost Immunity
Next to a proper diet and healthy lifestyle choices, the most important thing anyone can do to strengthen their immune system is to take immune-stimulating herbs. This is especially important during cold and flu season because their strengthening properties can help you avoid getting sick—or at least reduce the length and severity of your next cold or flu. There are a wide variety of herbs that can be used to boost immune system health or treat specific problems. In consideration of space, I unfortunately must limit this discussion to my top 10 favorites. These are herbs I have had personal experience using. Each one has earned its place in my medicine cabinet by being effective. All of the herbs I discuss here are available in one form or another in the Wellness department at Willy Street Co-op. Since there are hundreds of other beautiful, beneficial herbs that may interest you, I have also included a resource section at the end of this article for additional reading.
Osha Root Tincture
Osha root has antiviral and antibacterial properties. When taken at the onset of cold or flu it may help reduce the length of time that symptoms are experienced. Although not strictly a true antihistamine, Osha root has a similar action when it comes to lessening symptoms of head colds and allergies. Osha root also has a unique numbing effect that can help soothe irritated tissues of a sore throat while killing off the offending bacteria or virus.
Eleuthero or Siberian Ginseng
Eleuthero is an immune stimulant that is especially useful for preventing infection during times of intense physical activity and prolonged periods of stress. It has been used to increase stamina and endurance in Soviet Olympic athletes. Eleuthero is an “adaptogen” (an agent that helps the body adapt to stress), which can help support adrenal gland function when the body is challenged by stress. Eleuthero also assists the liver in detoxification and stimulates the white blood cells.
This herb has been shown to very strongly stimulate the immune system, most especially through boosting antibody production. This is especially true for upper respiratory infections, and according to Prescription for Herbal Healing, by Phyllis A. Balch (Avery, 2002), “has shown some activity in preliminary trials against [several] viruses.”
Andrographis has been shown in studies to help reduce the symptoms and time of the common cold, and if taken before, might even prevent you from getting sick in the first place. Taken with Echinacea it may enhance its cold fighting abilities.
Archaeologists have found evidence that Native Americans may have used echinacea for more than 400 years to treat infections and wounds and as a general “cure-all.” It is thought that Echinacea increases the non-specific activity of the immune system by increasing white blood cells and spleen cells. Use for general immune system stimulation, during colds, flu, upper respiratory tract infections, or bladder infections.
For thousands of years, astragalus (Huang Qi) has been used in China to restore life force. As an immune system booster, it strengthens general vitality, improves digestion and builds up the body’s defense against viruses with its antiviral, antibacterial, and tonic properties. This herb is uniquely suited for those with autoimmune diseases because of its unique ability to boost one part of the immune system while suppressing others. Alternate the use of astragalus with another immune-boosting herb such as echinacea, so as not to build up a tolerance to its healing effects.
Grapefruit seed extract (GSE)
Pure GSE is a potent way to prevent and fight disease. It helps fight off the unfriendly bacteria that can weaken the immune system. It also helps to cleanse the colon so that the body’s detoxifying systems can work more effectively. GSE possesses antimicrobial properties, meaning it may prove effective in treating bacterial infections, yeast infections, fungal infections and some viruses. GSE has a potential side effect of impairing your body’s ability to absorb certain medications, thereby decreasing their effectiveness. Check with your doctor before taking GSE.
Propolis is a resinous substance collected by honeybees from tree buds, used to fill crevices and to seal and varnish honeycombs. The bees use it to help sterilize the hive and inhibit the spread of bacteria, viruses and fungi. Propolis has a long history of medicinal use, dating back to 350 B.C., the time of Aristotle. One of the most exciting recent findings on propolis is its efficacy in cancer prevention and treatment. Propolis has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and is very effective applied topically to cold sores and mouth abscesses. Propolis is a powerful ally against viral infection. It is available in capsules and tincture.
Olive Leaf Extract
My personal favorite… Olive leaf extract is relatively new on the scene in this country, yet this immune system booster has been used medicinally for centuries in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions, where olive trees grow in abundance. Aside from fighting the common cold and flu, this powerful little leaf can also help increase energy levels, lower blood pressure, stabilize blood sugar levels, and aid in fighting autoimmune disorders. Rich in disease-fighting phytochemicals, olive leaf is especially potent when used in combination with other antioxidants. Olive leaf stimulates action of white blood cells and is lethal to many viruses.
Shiitake mushrooms have been used in China for thousands of years to mobilize the immune system to fight off disease. An immune-stimulant, shiitake increases the activity of the human immune system against any invading organism. Antiviral, antitumor shiitake has been effectively used to treat viral infections, parasites, and cancer. One of its most important constituents, a beta-glucan called “lentinan,” has been shown to stimulate white blood cell numbers and activity.
Consult your physician
As always, please consult your physician before trying anything new.