Preparing Your Immunity for Winter
The chill in the air, the extra blankets on the bed, the knitwear coming out of storage... winter is well and truly around the corner!
But how prepared are you for the season and everything that it brings - from the higher susceptibility to colds and flus to the decrease in sunlight and its impact on the quality of your sleep?
Here are a few simple things you can implement in your daily life to prepare your immunity for winter.
Food is the best form of medicine, and eating seasonally further supports this. Fruits, vegetables and herbs naturally grown in the cooler months are actually bursting with immune-supporting benefits! Sweet potatoes, citrus, garlic, onions and broccoli are a great source of vitamin C, which we know is crucial for helping the body produce antibodies to fight pathogens.
Brassicas such as cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage and broccoli are rich in sulphur compounds that support liver detoxification, hormonal clearance and gut health.
Mushrooms of both the garden variety (cremini mushrooms) and of the medicinal variety (reishi, shiitake, cordyceps) are also known for their immune-balancing effects, as a source of antioxidants and vitamins including vitamin D.
Throw in the Spices
Apart from fruits and vegetables, adding spices into your cooking is a great (and super tasty) way of supporting your immune system.
Ginger, for example, has anti-inflammatory properties. By stimulating respiratory cells to secrete an anti-viral protein, this wonderful spice can prevent certain viruses from attaching to the upper respiratory tract and causing infections. It can also help to clear up congestion by inhibiting the production of mucus.
A close relative of ginger, turmeric is another spice that is known for its immune-modulating benefits. Having been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine to treat various ailments, it contains curcumin which has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Hot tip? Research has found that the absorption of curcumin is boosted by the black pepper, so make sure you're taking them together!
Another great spice for winter is no other than cinnamon, which contains cinnamaldehyde, the active, infection-fighting component of cinnamon. This is what helps to relieve symptoms of respiratory tract infections.
Boost the Nutrients
Vitamin D plays a key role in our overall immune health. It has the ability to modulate how our body responds to illness, controlling infections and reducing inflammation. Research has found that those with vitamin D deficiency have an increased susceptibility to infection, as well as prolonged illness, but with the reduced amount of sunlight during winter, getting vitamin D from sunshine becomes a little more difficult. So load up on fatty fish like wild-caught salmon and mackerel, and invest in a supplement that contains high quality of vitamin D.
Similarly, vitamin C helps to keep the immune system balanced by stimulating the production of white blood cells which are crucial for fighting off infections, and zinc helps to eliminate pathogens and supports the growth and normal functioning of immune cells. Cruciferous vegetables and many types of berries are rich dietary sources of vitamin C, while oysters, spinach and mushrooms are great sources of zinc.
Turn to Immune-Modulating Herbs
Speak to any naturopath about immune health and they will go straight to herbal medicine! There is an amazing array of herbs to support all areas of immune health, from building up your overall resistance, to relieving a sore throat and soothing a wet or dry cough.
One of our favourite herbs for immunity is Astragalus membranaceus; Astragalus is a herb commonly used in Chinese herbal medicine and Western herbal medicine not only for its immune-supporting properties, but also for its role as an adaptogen and general tonic.
Often, a suppressed immune system is the result of prolonged stress. In times of stress, our bodies naturally produces cortisol (aka the stress hormone), which is fine (and necessary) in small amounts and for short periods of time. However when stress is long-lasting, the excess cortisol places a strain on our immune cells, making us more susceptible to illness and can result in lingering colds that struggle to resolve. Astragalus amazingly supports both aspects of immunity: as an adaptogen, it works on how our body deals with stress and cortisol production, and as an immuno-modulator, working to balance overall immunity.
As mentioned above, the long-term presence of cortisol in the body dampens the immune system. Cortisol prevents the production of inflammatory mediators like white blood cells, disabling the body from fighting off diseases and infections easily. So needless to say, one of the best ways to prevent falling ill is to ensure that cortisol is only produced in healthy amounts - by reducing our stress levels.
While there are so many ways one can reduce stress, one of the most effective ways is a meditation practice. Meditation triggers the body's relaxation response as the act of sitting and breathing with awareness slows down our heart rate and breathing as well as reduces blood pressure.
A study showed that a regular meditation practice over 8 weeks changed the brain in significant ways, including shrinking the amygdala, which is the part of the brain associated with anxiety, fear and stress. The shrinking of the amygdala correlated with a reduction in stress levels.
If you're new to meditation, there's absolutely no need to jump straight into an hour-long session. Start slowly with free apps like Calm and Headspace that have guided meditations you can follow. But personally, we've had great results with Ziva Meditation.
Get Enough Quality Sleep
Sleep, beauty sleep. This is when the body repairs itself and produces cytokines, which target infection and inflammation during an immune response. Sleep also strengthens immune memory, reinforcing the immune system's ability to recognise antigens.
But if you're the kind of person sleep just doesn't seem to like very much... what can you do to ensure best possible sleep?
Let's start with what happens at the beginning of the day. Draw the blinds when you get out of bed and get as much sunlight as possible into your eyes. Maybe rug up and go for a walk outside - and don't wear your sunnies! This is key for regulating your melatonin levels and keeping a healthy circadian rhythm.
We now also know we need to "earn our sleep" - which means being physically tired enough for the body to want sleep. Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day - even if its a brisk walk around the neighbourhood with your dog.
Last but definitely not least, sleep and wind-down habits are crucial for good sleep. If turning off your screens at least an hour before bed is not possible, buy yourself a pair of blue light blocking glasses so you don't get the emission of blue light messing with your circadian rhythm. Dim the lights in the house after dinnertime, and try to keep your bedroom as dark as possible once you're in bed.
Ora's Immunity Soup
- 1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
- 1L of chicken bone broth
- 1 brown onion, finely chopped
- 1 whole garlic bulb, crushed
- 1-2 carrots, chopped
- 1-2 celery stalks, chopped
- 1-3 teaspoons fresh grated ginger
- 1-3 teaspoons fresh grated turmeric or turmeric powder
- 5 sprigs of fresh thyme
- salt and pepper to season
Organic chicken breast
- Other herbs and spices of your liking
- Add the extra virgin olive oil into a pot, and add the onions. Cook the onions until fragrant, about 3 minutes.
- Add the carrots and celery (and mushrooms if using). Cook for 3-4 minutes, until just about softened.
- Add the chicken broth, garlic bulb, ginger, turmeric, thyme and any other ingredients you want to add.
- Simmer on a low heat for 20-30 minutes (or if adding chicken, until chicken is cooked through).
- Place into your favourite bowl and sip slow.
WORDS: Alyce Cimino | BHs Naturopathy