With the cold weather upon us it is important to make sure that your immune system is ready for the viral assault it may be forced to deal with over the coming months. It can be hard avoiding a cold or flu when everyone else around you is sick. But if you follow my tips now you should be able to strengthen your immune system so it has the power to fight off all those nasty bugs.
Sun exposure and Vitamin D
Now I know it’s cold and some days it seems like the sun has disappeared, but you should try to get out in the sun every day. We need at least 20 minutes of sun on bare skin to ensure we have sufficient levels of the essential nutrient Vitamin D. One of the many uses of vitamin D in the body is boosting the immune system, with research showing Vitamin D deficiency may be a major cause of the flu virus. With this in mind it is easy to see how ‘flu season’ seems to occur during the colder months when sun exposure is limited. When those warming rays hit our skin, our body converts a derivative of cholesterol into Vitamin D3 which is then absorbed and used. Here is a great article that explains how to maximise your Vitamin D intake while minimising dangerous sun exposure risks.
Now as with all nutrients it is important to always get it from its most natural source, in this case the sun. But in winter this can be difficult. Supplementing with Vitamin D is a good idea, as long as you are getting a high quality product. Some forms of vitamin D are not easily converted and absorbed by the body, and have been shown to actually suppress the immune system (you can read the article here). This is why it is always important to consult a professional when choosing supplements, as they are not created equally.
Vitamins A, C, E and Zinc
Most people know Vitamin C is good for the immune system and have probably made a few honey and lemon drinks when they have a cold. But why wait until you have a cold to dose yourself up? Prevention is the key to fighting any illness including the common cold and these nutrients are key.
Vitamin A helps maintain the structural and functional integrity of the mucosal lining of the respiratory tract which acts as a barrier against infections. It is also needed for the function of several types of immune cells which play a role in fighting infections.
Vitamin C stimulates the production of a number of immune cells including neutrophils which attack foreign bacteria and viruses. Just two kiwi fruit provide over 3 times the minimum daily intake of vitamin C, meaning your neutrophils will be ready to go, and viruses a will barely stand a chance.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant which protects the cell membrane from damage. The immune cells are included in this protection which enable them to function as effectively as possible. Deficiency has been shown to impair the cell response, therefore impairing the immune system.
Zinc is also essential for the function and development of cells within the immune system. Zinc deficiency is very common and is associated with an increased susceptibility to a variety of infections.
Each of these nutrients are found abundantly in food. If a balanced diet is not maintained supplementation may be necessary. Again caution needs to be taken when choosing supplements and the dose required. Vitamin A in particular can be toxic if taken in high doses so a practitioner should be consulted.
For more information on each of these nutrients and others required by the immune system check out the Linus Pauling website here.
There is no doubt that we are full of dread when we think of getting outside in our active wear in the cooler months. It’s too cold in the morning and it gets dark too early, but that doesn’t mean that we can put it off. Our lymphatic system has a close relationship to the immune system and needs the power of exercise to function properly. These systems work together to help fight and remove disease causing pathogens from the body. The lymphatic system circulates around the body and requires the contraction of muscles to do so. This contraction acts like a pump and can help speed up the removal of pathogens which are carried in the lymph, helping you get better quicker. By keeping active you are making sure your lymphatic system is clean and flowing efficiently.
Diet and hydration
Winter is often the time when healthy eating can fall by the wayside. The temptation to use food as a warm comforter is all too real. When you combine an unsupportive diet with the other issues mentioned here you are not giving your immune system the tools and armour to fight and defend for you.
Eat warm, seasonal, nutrient dense meals that nourish the body. Load up on veggies in season as they specifically contain all the nutrients needed to support the immune system for this time of year. Don’t be scared of fats found in nuts and seeds, coconut oil, avocado and eggs. They have had a bad rap for a long time, but the science is starting to show that this message is wrong. Fat increases body temperature and is essential for the absorption of Vitamins A, D and E, three of your key immune boosting nutrients. Instead of reaching for a sweet biscuit or decadent hot saucy pudding, keep your refined carbohydrates down by opting for sweet treats like a baked apple, poached pears or a medjool date stuffed with almond butter. Refined carbs are what causes the weight gain over winter, not fat.
Staying hydrated is also important and sometimes hard in winter. With regular exposure to heat and our bodies working hard to keep us warm we lose and use a lot of water. The lymphatic system can be severely affected if the body is dehydrated and cannot function optimally without water, leaving us vulnerable to pathogens. Your daily fluid intake can include water, herbal teas or clear soups and broths. Coffee and black tea should not be considered part of your required daily intake as both have diuretic properties and caffeine which contributes to dehydration.
We all experience stress from time to time. But when it becomes chronic in nature it can have a serious impact on your health. During stressful periods our body releases a number of hormones which are a signal to the body to prepare to deal with what lies ahead. This triggers a number of responses in the body like increased heart rate, butterflies in the stomach or heart palpitations. At the same time a number of systems in the body slow down because they are not needed to deal with the stress. One of those systems is the immune system. So can you imagine if you are stressed for a long period of time, your immune system is going to be slowed for a long time too, leaving you vulnerable.
Dealing with stress does not need to be all about meditation and yoga, although there is plenty of evidence to suggest it is beneficial. You just need to make time for yourself and allow your mind to relax. Just a few deep breaths tells your body that everything is ok and the whole stress response begins to soften.
The immune system is a part of the body that really only gets thought of when we are sick. But our immune system is vital for our survival and needs to be supported so it can defend us. By following these simple steps you are not only protecting yourself from the cold or flu but from a whole range of illnesses from gastro to even cancer. Always remember that preventative action is better than any required reaction and will keep you healthier in the long run.