With the arrival of fall comes colder weather, and along with it, the start of cold and flu season. As a new mom, I’m not only worried about my health, but that of my daughter’s too. While you can’t always avoid getting sick, there are measures you can take to help strengthen your immune system and prepare to fight illness. And as you can probably guess, a lot of it revolves around diet.
- Stay hydrated – with the dry winter air – both inside and out - it can be hard to get enough fluids. Staying hydrated supports all your body’s systems, including the immune system. Opt for warm beverages, like herbal tea or hot lemon water, to take off the winter chill or soothe a scratchy throat. Soups are also a great way to get extra fluids, plus they’re packed with healing minerals and vitamins.
- Get enough vitamin D – as our exposure to sunlight decreases during winter months, so does our production of vitamin D. Studies show adequate levels of this vitamin are essential to optimal immune function. While a quick trip to the beach can help increase your stores of vitamin D, so can the right foods. Foods high in vitamin D include dairy, egg yolks, fatty fish, cod liver oil, and mushrooms. Since vitamin D is primarily found in animal products, it can be hard for vegans to obtain enough from diet, so supplementation is a smart choice year-round. But even during winter, I encourage everyone to supplement with vitamin D because it is extremely difficult to get enough from diet alone. Supplementation should be the D3 (cholecalciferol) form. It’s a good idea to get your levels tested yearly to make sure you’re on track.
- Eat colorful fruits and vegetables – these foods are full of immune-supporting nutrients like vitamin C, A, E, plus antioxidants. Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, meaning that it is easily destroyed by heat, so just be sure to eat a raw serving daily. Frozen can be just as nutritious as fresh, so blend up a smoothie for an antioxidant boost. And eat a range of colors to get a broad spectrum of nutrients. Good options are leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, frozen berries (since it’s hard to find fresh varieties in winter), squash, sweet potatoes, and bell peppers.
- Embrace garlic, onions, ginger and spices – these aromatics not only add great flavor to your foods, they also provide a host of health benefits. Garlic, onions and ginger have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, and herbs and spices are concentrated sources of minerals.
- Avoid sugar – sugar, as well as refined carbs that quickly turn into glucose in the body, can suppress your immune system hours after being ingested. Interestingly, a study also showed that the non-caloric sweetener sucralose (found in Splenda) can also suppress immune function. If you need something sweet, opt for a little raw honey (which has antioxidants and antimicrobials), natural sweeteners like stevia or monkfruit, or some dark chocolate which contains zinc, selenium and other antioxidants.
- Get physical – light to moderate exercise has been shown to stimulate the immune system, so stay active! Getting outside during winter isn’t always easy, but bundling up and doing activities you enjoy makes it easier to get over that hurdle. That being said, strenuous exercise – like endurance training for an event – can wear you and your immune system down, so if you’re feeling ill, don’t push it.
- Support detoxification – our bodies detoxify every day and this process is essential to our well-being. The main organ of detoxification is the liver, but the process also involves the lymph, lungs, colon, kidneys and skin. Detoxification and immune system function go hand in hand: what supports one, supports the other. You can read more about the detox process on my other blog post, but just know that by supporting detoxification, you are supporting immune function. Eat lots of cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, cabbage, etc.), foods high in selenium (Brazil nuts and fish) and whole protein sources (whether plant or animal based), plus all those fresh fruits and veggies.
- Embrace sleep and reduce stress – sufficient sleep and stress reduction are both critical to our health. Sleep gives our bodies a chance to restore and heal; without adequate sleep, optimal immune function is nearly impossible. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night and get into a good nighttime routine that encourages relaxation. Sleep and relaxation/stress reduction go hand in hand. Stress reduction is a big component of health that many people overlook, and it directly affects the immune system (as well as weight management!). Chronic stress can suppress the immune system and make you more susceptible to illness. Even 10 minutes of relaxation techniques like deep breathing, stretching or meditation can engage the parasympathetic nervous system to reduce stress hormones. Download a free app, like Escapes, if you want some guided relaxation exercises.
So, implement these steps to be proactive about supporting your immune system during cold and flu season! And for more targeted approaches, such as a detoxification program, set up an appointment with me.