When cold and flu season rears its ugly head, your focus turns to your immune system. How can you ward off those nasty viral infections that can make your life miserable for a few days or longer? You can do the obvious things, like avoid people who are sick and wash your hands frequently, but your best defense against infectious diseases is a healthy immune system. What can you do to support the health of the army of cells that protect you against unwanted invaders?
Eat a Nutrient-Rich Diet For A Healthy Immune System
Are you eating an immune-friendly diet? It goes without saying that if you’re deficient in nutrients, your immune system won’t function optimally. Antioxidants vitamins, particularly vitamin C, play a critical role in immune system function, as do minerals, especially iron and zinc. One of the most important immune system modulators is vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D helps keep your immune system balanced, active enough to fight off invaders, yet without causing ongoing inflammation and tissue destruction. Unfortunately, you get less exposure to sunlight during the winter. That’s why it’s a good idea to monitor your vitamin D level via a blood test and take a supplement when necessary.
To support immune health, add more fruits, vegetables, and antioxidant-rich spices to your diet. Although there’s little evidence that a single food boosts immune health, white tea and green tea have antibacterial and antiviral properties. Sipping these teas in the winter not only helps you stay hydrated but may offer extra protection against the latest viruses passing around.
Make Friends with Friendly Bacteria
Probiotics are emerging as key players in gut AND immune health. That’s not surprising since 70% of your immune cells lie in your gut. When you seed your gut with healthy, probiotic bacteria and prebiotics to support their growth, you create conditions that are inhospitable to viruses and pathogenic bacteria. You might choose to use a probiotic supplement but you don’t know if you’re getting what’s on the bottle. The bacteria inside the capsule may no longer be viable.
A better option? Get probiotic bacteria from fermented foods! Yogurt is only one option. How about kefir, tempeh, miso, or fermented vegetables? You can even make your own fermented vegetables at home using instructions available online. When you eat fermented vegetables, you get a variety of gut-friendly bacteria along with the fiber, vitamins, and minerals inherent to the vegetable itself. Some studies show phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables help optimize immune function.
Sugar is empty calories with no nutritional value, but it’s also harmful to your immune system. Research shows that sugar reduces the activity of immune cells called neutrophils that engulf viruses and other pathogens. A study showed consuming the amount of sugar (about 8 tablespoons) in 2.5 cans of soda suppresses the ability of white blood cells to wipe out pathogens by a whopping 40% – and the effect can last for hours. Yes, sugar is hard to avoid, but you can greatly reduce the sugar content of your diet by eating whole foods and avoiding all packaged products and bottled/canned beverages.
Make Sleep a Priority
Even a single night of inadequate or poor quality sleep can stall your immune system. Studies also show that lack of sleep reduces the activity of T-cells, cells that fight off viruses, among other activities. Studies even show that the response to vaccines, like the flu vaccine, is lower when you skimp on sleep. It’s easy to push sleep aside, especially when you’re busy, but it’s even more important when you’re spending more time indoors and are exposed to people coughing and sneezing.
Move Your Body!
Exercise does a laundry list of good things for your body and it can even help your body fight off infection, as long as you do it in moderation. According to MedLine Plus, exercise may protect against infection in several ways:
· By activating white blood cells that fight viruses and bacteria
· By raising body temperature, which makes an environment less hospitable to bacteria and viruses
· By reducing release of stress hormones that suppress immunity
· By helping clear bacteria and viruses from the airways during rapid breathing.
· By reducing the body’s stress response
The key is to exercise in moderation and not to overtrain. Long periods of endurance training are linked with immune suppression. For example, marathon runners are at high risk of developing colds a week or so after the race. Some research suggests that vitamin C helps prevent this undesirable side effect. Stress your body through exercise but give it enough time to recover. That’s key to keeping your immune system healthy.
You know stress had to be on the list somewhere. Chronic stress ramps up production of cortisol, the stress hormone that can wreak havoc with immune function. Your immune system has two main components: the cellular immune system and the humoral immune system. Acute or short-term stress doesn’t seem to impact the humoral component of the immune system, but if stress is continuous, it suppresses both components of your immune system.
Some studies show that stress suppresses the immune response to vaccines and that greater levels of psychological stress increase the risk of catching the common cold. So, to avoid the sniffles and sneezes this cold and flu season, go into winter with a stress management strategy. Meditation and yoga can reduce the stress response and give your immune system the best chance of protecting you against viruses. Also, don’t forget about laughter. It’s good medicine! According to the Mayo Clinic, positive thoughts and laughter boost the release of neuropeptides that fight stress.
The Bottom Line
Now you have six strategies to optimize your immune system this winter. Take advantage of them and still healthy year-round.
Trends Immunol. 2003; 24(11):579-580.
WebMD. “Can Better Sleep Mean Catching Fewer Colds?”
Pseudoneuroendocrinology. July 2015Volume 57, Pages 134–143
Medline Plus. “Exercise and Immunity”
Nutraingredients-USA. “Vitamin C May Protect Marathon Runners Against Colds, but What about the Rest of Us?”
Psychol Bull. 2004 Jul; 130(4): 601–630. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601.
Harvard Health Publications. “Yoga for anxiety and depression”
Am J Clin Nutr November 1973. Vol. 26 no. 11 1180-1184.
Ask Dr. Sears. “Harmful Effects of Excess Sugar”
Mayo Clinic. “Stress Management”
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