It’s no fun being sick. We’ve all experienced the nasty symptoms that can accompany a cold or flu and know how difficult it can be to carry out our day to day functions. Reoccurring and enduring illness can also impact our ability to care for our loved ones and manage our work responsibilities.
By building a strong immune system, we put ourselves in the best position to stay well during flu season and lessen the frequency and duration of illness when it does set in.
Beyond exercising appropriate personal hygiene (our first defense against colds and flu), here are some of my favorite strategies for staying healthy through the long winter months.
Proper sleep is not only necessary for restoration, learning consolidation, memory and hormone regulation, it may also be critical for protecting against infection.
Lack of sleep has been shown to disrupt immune function and increase levels of proteins in the body associated with inflammation. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine revealed that people who sleep less than seven hours a night are three times more likely to get a cold than those who sleep eight hours or more hours. Scientists suspect that lack of sleep reduces the body’s immune defenses making us more vulnerable to illness.
2. Vitamin D
It is believed that vitamin D increases the body’s production of proteins that destroy viruses helping to support the immune system. While research is ongoing, studies have linked a shortage of vitamin D to a number of diseases including cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, heart disease and influenza. Vitamin D is also essential for absorbing calcium.
Very few foods contain vitamin D naturally; our best source of this mighty nutrient comes from the sun. During the non-summer months, when the northern latitude sun is not sufficiently strong, supplementation becomes necessary for most individuals. The amount of supplementation required will vary depending on a number of factors, including: age, weight, skin color, geographic location, the amount of time spent outdoors and one’s general state of health. People over the age of 50 and those with dark-colored skin may require more vitamin D to achieve desired levels.
With these variables in mind, many experts recommend that adults take at least 1000 IU of vitamin D daily during the non-summer months to maintain adequate stores but be sure to speak with your health care practitioner regarding appropriate supplementation in your individual case (and those of your children) and keep in mind that your vitamin D levels can be easily tested through bloodwork upon request.
Studies reveal that good bacteria can enhance the immune system helping to both prevent and reduce symptoms of flu and cold.
Daily intake of fermented milk products such as unsweetened yogurt and kefir may be helpful but for a more potent concentration during flu season, a daily probiotic capsule containing acidophilus and bifidus may be even better for both adults and children.
A study published in Pediatrics found that healthy children, aged 3 to 5, who took a probiotic supplement during the fall and winter suffered significantly less fever, nasal congestion, cough occurrences/duration and missed fewer days of school. This same study also found that probiotic supplements reduced antibiotic use in these same children.
Children’s products are available on the market and the doses are generally one quarter to one half that of adults but be sure to discuss appropriate dosses with your pharmacist or health care practitioner. Probiotic powder can be mixed with water or added to a delicious fruit smoothie to make it easier for children to consume.
4. Antioxidants (A, C, E, Selenium & Zinc + Phytonutrients)
While there is no one food or nutrient that can guarantee health, fruits and vegetables are the main source of disease fighting antioxidants in our diet which researchers tell us offer a protective effect against various types of illness.
When we eat a whole foods diet that includes a spectrum of colourful produce, we avail ourselves of the broadest range of nutrients possible – this includes not only the classic class of antioxidants (vitamins A, C, E and the minerals selenium and zinc) but also other classes of plant compounds globally referred to as phytonutrients that behave like disease fighting antioxidants in the body. The beautiful and rich pigmented colors we see in produce come from their phytonutrient content – they help support our immune system and protect us against various forms of illness and environmental harm. Since different colors produce unique phytonutrients, incorporating a variety of fruits and vegetables from the different color groups into the diet is key.
While vitamins A, C and E are found in abundance in produce, the minerals zinc and selenium – also powerful antioxidants and immune supporters, can be found in other foods. Brazil nuts are one of the best dietary sources of selenium and you can also find this trace mineral in fish and seafood. Zinc, also essential for the proper functioning of the immune system, can be found in meat, seafood, whole grains and enriched cereals.
Raw garlic – crushed or minced – is another immune fighter that is well worth working in to the diet.
5. Fluid (& Chicken Soup!)
Consuming a variety of fluids can help prevent dehydration, alleviate nasal congestion and promote soothing and comfort. Fluids can also help keep the lining of the upper respiratory track moist which can ease sore throat symptoms. Consider warm beverages such as lemon water with honey, herbal teas and broths.
And the popular chicken soup myth? It turns out Grandma may have been right all along. According to researchers at the University of Nebraska, there is scientific validity to the age-old notion that chicken soup helps relieve cold and flu symptoms. A homemade chicken soup consisting of: chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery and parsley, was shown to dampen the activity of white blood cells that trigger inflammation. Chicken soup may also speed up the movement of mucus helping to relieve congestion and limiting the amount of time viruses are in contact with the nose lining.
6. Vitamin C
While it may not prevent onset, vitamin C has been shown to reduce the duration of cold symptoms across various populations. Vitamin C is also important during times of physical and emotional stress to support our adrenal glands ~ the glands that are responsible for releasing stress hormones.
This is a good time to stock up on vitamin C rich foods including: red bell pepper, broccoli, kiwi, strawberries and citrus.
The information in this post is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician or other health care professional directly before beginning or changing a course of health treatment.