Cabin fever sets in for many at the end of the long winter. We’re ready for warmer weather, fresher air, brighter mornings and longer evenings. And we’re definitely ready for the end of cold and flu season, which has been particularly difficult for many this year. It raises the question: how can we ensure that our immune systems are still up to the task of protecting us as winter slowly wanes?
The truth is that many of us don’t think much about our immune systems until they’re compromised. We may be lax about how to support our immunity until we wake up one morning with sinus congestion, a deep cough, or a high fever and fatigue.
Here are some tips from local experts to boost the immune system—not just at the end of winter, but throughout the year.
Experts agree that the foundation of a healthy immune system is a healthy lifestyle.
“The body has a perfectly working immune system that will take care of you if you take care of it,” says Glen Colello, co-owner of Catch a Healthy Habit Café in Fairfield. “When we burn the candle at both ends, drink alcohol, have too much daily stress, or eat food that doesn’t support the immune system, eventually your immune system won’t be able to keep you healthy.”
If our lives are characterized by stress, lack of sleep, an unhealthy or inconsistent diet, and no down time, our immune systems will suffer. Making key lifestyle changes can reap huge benefits.
Sleep is critical to the body’s ability to fight infection. In the “Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold” study conducted in 2015, subjects who had slept less than six hours a night the previous week were four times more likely to catch a cold when exposed to germs as compared to those getting more than seven hours of sleep. To boost immunity, try setting a bedtime alarm to ensure that you have enough time to get seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
“You are what you eat,” as the old adage goes. And the immune system is as strong or as weak as the food on our plates at every meal. A diet rich in antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables gives our bodies the tools they need to fight infection.
Likewise, minimizing our intake of added sugar can boost immune system function. “Studies have shown that eating a sugary snack or meal can depress the immune system for several hours, making us more vulnerable to getting the flu,” says Anna Perelli, a certified holistic health counselor at the Centre for Natural Healing in Norwalk. “Avoiding excess sugar can keep the immune system working at the level needed to fend off viral infections.”
The negative effects of stress on the immune system are well-documented. Unfortunately, stress is something that all of us face at one point or another; it can be acute, such as a death in the family or a serious illness, or chronic, which can include a high-stress job with constant emergencies. It is how we manage the stress we encounter that matters. Using healthy mechanisms to cope is crucial; these can include practicing yoga, learning meditation, connecting with friends, engaging in religious activities, and getting help from a mental health professional. Conversely, drinking too much; overeating sugary, processed foods; and binge-watching television are likely to compound our stress and compromise our immunity even more.
Once we’ve laid the foundation for a healthy lifestyle, we can turn to our toolbox of natural remedies to support our immune systems further to prevent colds and flu.
Many fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices have been proven to contain compounds that boost the immune system, and fight viruses and bacteria that cause colds and flu.
To amp up an already healthy diet, Colello serves his customers loaded ginger shots to boost immunity. The shots contain pressed gingerroot, turmeric, black pepper, cayenne pepper and lemon juice. He himself takes one every day, along with a daily glass of green juice. The cafe’s popular Tara’s Juice is a blend of kale, cucumber, celery, lemon, ginger, romaine and green apple. “It’s loaded with antioxidants and nutrients to help you fight off colds,” says Colello.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recommends herbal mushrooms for a variety of health benefits, including prevention of many illnesses. Catch a Healthy Habit Café brews up “magic mushroom” elixirs. One of its popular concoctions blends reishi and shaga mushrooms with almond milk, cinnamon, mesquite powder, dates, cacao powder and coconut oil to create a thick chocolaty smoothie.
Elderberries are finally getting the mainstream credit they deserve as immune-boosting powerhouses. Taken preventatively, elderberries have been proven to prevent infection; taken after infection, this powerhouse berry prevents the spread of a virus through the respiratory tract. Elderberry syrups are available over the counter at health food stores and at area apothecaries, such as the Centre for Natural Healing or Twin Star Herbal Apothecary in New Milford. It’s also easy to make syrup at home, simmering the dried berries with ginger and cinnamon sticks to make an extract and mixing it with honey. Dried elderberries can also be steeped to make a tea. Experts recommend consuming elderberry regularly to prevent colds, and increasing the dosage at the first sign of illness.
Clinical studies have shown that several essential oils contain antiviral and antibacterial properties, in addition to their ability to calm or energize. A quality immunity blend of essential oils can ward off colds and flus. The Centre for Natural Healing mixes a Thieves Immune Blend, which combines the antimicrobial properties of clove, lemon, eucalyptus, cinnamon, rosemary and tangerine. Perelli recommends rubbing a few drops on the soles of the feet for daily protection.
Oregano oil is another potent antiviral. It can be taken internally, rubbed on the skin or added to a diffuser. Peppermint and frankincense can also boost immune function, says Colello. Mix a few drops of each in the palms with a little olive oil and inhale deeply several times.
Vitamins and Nutritionals/Supplements
Zinc deficiency is linked to severe immune dysfunction. Our bodies use zinc to create T cells—which ward off infection—and to neutralize free radicals. Aside from vitamin C, it is one of the most important supplements to add to an immune-boosting regimen. Be sure to choose a formula with no additives or fillers. Pure Encapsulations and Garden of Life both make a high-quality zinc supplements. Perelli recommends a base dose (the level found in a multivitamin); take a higher dose at the onset of cold or flu systems.
Perelli highly recommends the Natura Health Products’s Throat and Gland Spray. Two to three sprays morning and night will work for cold and flu prevention. Dosage can be increased at the first sign of feeling rundown or unwell.
Glutathione is an important antioxidant that can prevent cell damage and therefore increase immune function. “It’s really the #1 antioxidant,” says Dr. Mark Joachim, a chiropractor and functional medical practitioner in Norwalk. “And because of high stress levels, our bodies don’t produce enough of it.”
Glutathione has proven effective when administered to cancer patients intravenously; other research questions whether it’s effective taken as a supplement by mouth. Joachim notes that NAC (N-acetylcysteine), a precursor to glutathione, can boost the body’s production of glutathione.
Chiropractic care has been shown to stimulate the immune system, says Joachim. Weekly adjustments are best for keeping the nervous system functioning optimally to support immunity.
When We Do Get Sick
When we do get sick, it can be frustrating to be told by a medical doctor that the only recourse is fluids, rest and time. Those things are certainly important, but what else can we do to boost our immune response and shorten our recovery time?
At the first sign of an illness—whether it is a tickle in the throat, sinus congestion or generally feeling run down—try adding one or more of these products to your current immune boosting protocol.
- Silvercillin: Try taking a teaspoon a day at the first sign of illness, says Perelli. Composed of pure silver complexed with purified water, this spray is a broad-spectrum antimicrobial that can prevent viral replication.
- Flew Away: Perelli also recommends Natural Health Products’ Flew Away capsules to boost immune response to a bacteria or virus. It contains elderberry and propolis—both antiviral herbs—and is great to take after being in a crowded place or when first feeling run down.
- Vitamin C to saturation: Vitamin C is truly one of the foundational building blocks for a strong immune system. When the immune system is fighting a pathogen, high doses of vitamin C can strengthen the immune system. Drawing on the work of Linus Pauling, Joachim recommends taking vitamin C “to saturation” during an illness. At the first sign of a cold or flu, take one dose of vitamin C (around 500 mg). The next day, take the same dose at the same time. Later in the day, add a second dose of 500 mg. Keep adding doses of vitamin C until you begin experiencing gastrointestinal discomfort, which indicates that the body has reached saturation. Once that discomfort is experienced, drop one dose and maintain that dosage until the cold or flu has passed. (Note that because vitamin C is water soluble, it can’t be overdosed.)
Several environmental factors can impact our immune function as well. Colello noted that flu “mania” happens mainly in the wintertime, which is when we spend most of our time indoors. Indoor air quality can have a negative effect on our immunity. Be sure to get outside for at least 20-30 minutes a day for a brisk walk. Take deep breaths of fresh air and soak up what little winter sunlight is available.
Likewise, be sure to get ductwork cleaned once a year, says Joachim. For those who are particularly sensitive to air quality—such as people with asthma or those who have more respiratory symptoms when they’re sick—consider purchasing a high-quality indoor air filter. At the very least, open the windows for a little while each day to let the air circulate.
Get into the habit of handwashing upon returning home. Frequently disinfect common surfaces—including cellphones, door knobs and the TV remote—with a natural solution of one-part distilled water and one-part white vinegar. Adding a few drops of essential oils can sweeten the scent.
Implementing just a few of these practices for yourself and your family members will help your household welcome the spring feeling strong and healthy.