As the temperatures outside plunge, it seems that coughs and sniffles become an inevitable part of the cold weather season. We are confined indoors with decreased exposure to sunshine, munching on sugary treats and comfort foods (thanks to the holidays!) and our bodies seem less able to fend off all those bugs. In my kids’ school, there is a revolving door of sick kids with strep, ear infections, colds and stomach bugs. But not all kids get sick, even if they are stuck in the same classroom and exposed to the same germs. It’s not just good genes that keep them healthy. Lifestyle factors like good diet can keep our immunes system strong enough to defend against bacteria and infections before you even have a symptom.
There are powerful tools that we should all have in our wellness arsenal to build a strong and healthy immune system. Here are my top 5:
1. Start thinking of food as medicine.
It is not a surprise that a healthy diet is the cornerstone of a strong immune system. It all starts with what we put in our bodies since food is our primary defense against illness. But how do you define healthy? To me, a healthy diet is mostly a plant-based lifestyle, rich in fruit and vegetables – especially dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes. Lots of people eating the Standard American Diet are deficient in micronutrients, substances that your body needs in small amounts but are very important for good health (think zinc, selenium, magnesium, vitamin C and K etc). A well planned out plant-based diet will ensure you get all the nutrients you need, keep inflammation at bay and protect you not only from colds and flu but also from chronic diseases that plague our society.
Does plant based mean vegan? Absolutely not. Eggs, wild fish and pastured chicken (from clean sources) are great sources of protein. I recommend eating protein (plant or animal) with every meal to help you feel full and heal and repair your body. Just remember to eat meat as a side, the size of your palm, not as the main event.
2. Nurture your microbiome.
We have trillions of healthy bacteria living in our digestive tract that perform countless functions in our body. From helping us digest our food, defending against pathogens to affecting our mood, they are incredibly important influencers of our health. This invisible ecosystem of bacteria living inside you is called a human microbiome and numbers anywhere from 30-100 trillion microorganisms (weighing about 3 pounds!). You could say we are more bacteria than human!
Since 60-70% of our immune system sits in our digestive system, feeding your microbiome is one of the most important things you could do to build great health. Unfortunately, bad diets, antibiotics, stress and environmental toxins can throw this delicate ecosystem out of balance, encouraging bad bacteria to grow and lowering our immunity. Probiotics are extremely helpful in replenishing us with healthy bacteria and bringing us back to equilibrium. Find a strong probiotic (at least 50 billion CFUs) with multiple strands and incorporate taking it into your daily routine. I like to buy a (refrigerated) powder and add it to my smoothies.
3. Supplement wisely.
Certain supplements and herbs can be extremely beneficial to both preventing and treating colds and flu.
Vitamin D, actually a hormone, is a wonderful miracle worker and sadly many of us are deficient. Since sunlight exposure in not enough in the winter, supplement daily and consume oily fish, grass-fed butter and eggs.
Zinc is a mineral essential for the immune system to work properly. If you don’t get enough from your food (shellfish, pumpkin seeds, lentils) or have been getting sick a lot, take a supplement to boost your immunity.
Essential fatty acids Fish oil is a superb anti-inflammatory and important for mood and brain development. Eat low mercury fish (sardines, salmon) twice a week or supplement with cod liver oil (ex. Nordic Naturals, Carlson).
Elderberries have been used for many centuries as a natural antiviral remedy to treat cold and flu symptoms. Studies also show that they can shorten flu duration by up to three days, alleviating allergies and boost immunity. Gaia makes a great tasting syrup that goes well in your or your kid’s smoothie.
4. Get enough quality sleep.
Like a healthy diet, sleep is one of those no-brainer health boosting strategies that most of us conveniently ignore. But there is no way around it. On average, human beings need 7 hours of sleep for our bodies to rejuvenate and function optimally. There is a strong link between lack of sleep and an impaired immune system, making you more likely to get sick during periods of sleep deprivation. So make it your personal challenge to hit the sack on time and then watch your focus, mood and immunity skyrocket.
5. Get a handle on stress and anxiety.
It’s not easy to stay calm in our overscheduled and overconnected world. Stress releases cortisol, which in turn suppresses your immune system and makes us more susceptible to catching whatever is going around. Studies show that exercise can alleviate stress and anxiety. So can focusing on the present moment. My favorite way to handle the crazies in my head is finding 10 quiet minutes to focus on my breath. There are countless books and resources out there, but lately I’ve been using the Insight Timer app. It’s a tool that has hundreds of guided meditations from practitioners around the world that will lull you to calmness or sleep, whatever you desire.
Need a practical boost right now? My Super Immunity Elixir is a smoothie I drink in the mornings when I feel rundown and needs a little boost. This smoothie is full of superfoods: Vitamin C rich fruits like lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit, anti-inflammatory herbs like ginger and turmeric, and detoxifying vegetables like kale. This stuff will make you feel revived and able to defend against any nasty bugs that come your way.
To your health!
- 1.5 cups water or coconut water
- 1 orange peeled
- 1 grapefruit peeled
- 1/2 lemon
- 1/2 lime
- 1 inch piece fresh ginger
- 1 small piece fresh turmeric or 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 frozen banana, kale, parsley optional
Blend all ingredients in a powerful blender and drink immediately.