As the seasons change and cold weather approaches, we enter one of the most challenging times of year for our bodies and immune systems: Cold and flu season. This time of year, it seems like everyone around us is falling victim to runny noses, coughs, fevers, and any number of other symptoms being passed around. Fortunately, however, there is plenty we can do to protect ourselves from succumbing to the onslaught of bacteria and viruses that run rampant during the fall and winter.
Building our immune fortress can be broken down into four integral factions that all determine our resilience: Diet, Lifestyle, Nutritional Supplements, and Herbs. The diet, lifestyle, and nutritional supplements are part of a concept known as “partnering” with the herbs; they greatly enhance herbal medicine’s effectiveness to support our wellness than the herbs alone. Each one of these pieces is just as important as the other; one can take as much echinacea as they want, but if they are not getting enough sleep and eating a poor diet, that echinacea won’t do nearly as much good as it would if they partnering with the herbs by getting at least seven hours of sleep and eating nutrient-dense foods. There are many useful strategies for how we can effectively partner with our herbal medicines and stay as healthy as possible during this immune-challenging season.
One dietary approach to staying well during this time of year is to eat seasonally. Foods that appear during the fall and winter months, such as squash and sweet potato, contain rich antioxidants and other nutrients that keep our immune system happy and healthy. Additionally, eating cooked foods helps keep the body strong because they take less energy to break down and digest, and therefore offer us more protection against what in Chinese medicine are known as the “external pernicious forces” of the winter, such as cold and wind (or in our case, pathogens). Raw foods, such as salads, which historically were unavailable this time, are energetically colder and don’t supply our bodies with the deep nutrition we need to stay healthy this time of year.
Some excellent nourishing and building foods for this time of year are whole grains such as quinoa, wild rice, steel cut oats and amaranth, legumes, squashes, sweet potatoes, free range animal protein, and eggs. Routinely making your own vegetable, chicken, or bone broth to use as a base for soups, stews and immune-enhancing broths is an excellent dietary support for cold weather health.
The most important dietary recommendation to keep your immune system strong, however, is to eliminate all refined sugar from your diet. This may seem difficult to imagine, however this one dietary step will have the most profound impact on keeping your immune system intact. Sugar is a highly inflammatory substance in the body that will weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to pathogens such as the flu virus. Eating too much sugar also depletes your body of several key vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, leaving your nervous system depleted and you feeling fatigued, depressed, and more susceptible to pathogenic attack. In Ayurvedic medicine, sugar is considered to be Kapha-building – meaning it will promote not just the appearance of excess weight, but the formation of mucus in the respiratory tract and digestive system as well. Great substitutions for sugar are stevia, maple syrup, coconut sugar, or local honey (honey even has its own immune-boosting benefits as well).
It’s easy to feel the pace of life starting to slow down as the cold season approaches. In Chinese medicine, winter is a metaphor for stillness and reflection, prompting a period of less energy expenditure and more time for rest and healing. Just like the animals that hibernate during the winter, we are not meant to push ourselves with the same energy and vibrancy as during the spring and summer months.
As much as humans are mentally living in a modern world, our bodies are still profoundly primordial; we are genetically programmed to slow down, conserve resources and slow our metabolic rate during the cold months. If we try to push ourselves too much during this time, it’s as if we are asking our bodies to write an energy check we don’t have the bank account to support. This over-expenditure of energy can then lead to depletion, exhaustion, and enhanced susceptibility to illness.
This does not mean that we have to become sedentary during the winter, but we do benefit from sleeping more—following the patterns of the sun, with longer nights and shorter days—and changing our exercise routines from high-intensity to more restorative.
Lastly, and possibly the most difficult: Work on reducing your stress. Living in a state of chronic stress results in an increased release of cortisol, a steroid hormone with known immunosuppressant effects. Deep breathing actually helps switch your body from sympathetic mode, or the fight/flight response, to parasympathetic mode, or rest/digest. A helpful practice for reducing work-related stress is repeating a mantra that helps to remind one to slow down and multi-task more effectively; anytime you feel overwhelmed, tell yourself, “Remember to breath; you have all the time you need.”
Beyond the practice of taking a multivitamin—which is supremely important for overall health—there are several key nutrients that play important roles in strengthening and supporting the immune system.
Zinc: Zinc is crucial for building and maintaining immune function; it is necessary for the process of building and maintaining the cells responsible for non-specific immunity—such as neutrophils and natural killer cells—that are your first line defense against invading pathogens. Dietary sources of zinc include egg yolks, fish, kelp, mushrooms, whole grains, burdock, and fennel. Most people, however, don’t get enough dietary zinc, so supplementing with the New Chapter Zinc Food Complex will give your immune system the support it needs.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is an antioxidant that is responsible for at least 300 metabolic functions in the body, including the production of anti-stress hormones and interferon, a key immune hormone. C vitamin also binds to endotoxins in the gut to remove pathogens from the body more quickly and effectively. Most importantly, however, is that vitamin C cannot by synthesized by the body and therefore must be obtained from dietary sources. Food sources include berries, citrus fruit, green vegetables (asparagus, avocados, beet greens, dandelion greens), onions, rosehips, nettles, oatstraw, and pine needles. If you feel especially worn down, or know something is circulating around the office, try supplementing with New Chapter’s C Food Complex to give your immune system an extra boost.
Herbal medicines are particularly useful allies during cold and flu season. When we take certain herbs, in addition to maintaining our good dietary and lifestyle practices, it’s like providing the body with a state-of-the-art security system designed to keep out invading bacteria and viruses.
Astragalus: This herb is an immunopotentiator, meaning it enables our immune system to work more effectively. Astragalus is of particular benefit to individuals who are especially susceptible to respiratory infections during the fall and winter months. Begin taking astragalus one to two months before the usual onset of your symptoms for added protection of the respiratory system. Oregon’s Wild Harvest makes an excellent astragalus capsule.
Reishi Mushroom: Reishi mushroom is a powerful immune builder; this mushroom contains beta glucans that stimulate our deep level and surface level immune system, including activating our macrophage and phagocytic activity. On top of all this incredible immune activity, reishi is also considered an adaptogen, which means it helps mediate the stress response so that we are less susceptible to the damaging effects of stress in the body. If you do happen to fall victim to the flu, you can also use reishi to help rebuild and convalesce after the illness passes. Herbalist & Alchemist makes a wonderful reishi tincture that delivers all those immune building beta glucans right into your bloodstream.
Elderberry: Elderberry is arguably the most useful ally during flu season. Numerous studies have shown that the anti-viral activity of elderberry is more effective against a wider variety of the flu virus strains than even the flu vaccine. The best part about elderberry is that it tastes absolutely delicious as a syrup, making it a favorite remedy for children. Gaia Herbs makes a delicious elderberry syrup.
Echinacea: Echinacea can be used as both a preventative and an acute treatment during the cold and flu season. As a preventative, the Echinacea/Goldenseal/Propolis Throat Spray by Gaia Herbs, should be used several times throughout the day. Both echinacea, goldenseal, and propolis stimulate lymphocyte activity right below the mucosal membrane, especially in the throat. The throat is one of the first line defense systems that protects the respiratory tract from invading pathogens. If you do feel a cold coming on, the best way to take echinacea is 2-3 mls (or two to three full dropper squirts) of Gaia Echinacea Supreme every three waking hours until the symptoms subside.
Integrating these four approaches (diet, lifestyle, supplements, and herbs) will give you an incredibly strong foundation to withstand the immune challenges of the cold and flu season. Self-care is the most important, and often most challenging to practice, aspect of staying well. Use these tools to care for yourself and your family by building your own medicine cabinet to keep your immune systems happy and healthy.
Written By Betsy Miller, MS, CNS, LDN
Clinical Herbalist, Nutritionist and Health Coach at A Balanced Life Wellness
Betsy's practice focuses on integrating herbal medicines, nutritional counseling, and lifestyle coaching, that helps her clients move towards a new and positive state of well-being.Contact Betsy