It’s that time again…cold and flu season! While these ailments are often considered an unavoidable part of cooler weather, there are many small changes you can make in your nutrition and lifestyle choices to strengthen your immune system, prevent the onset of these common illnesses, and improve your overall health.
Nutrient-dense, whole food diet – A nutrition plan that truly supports your health is two-fold: it includes a wide-variety of fresh, whole foods from both plant and animal sources, and minimizes or excludes processed and refined products with preservatives and artificial additives. Fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, and fish provide your body with immune-supporting nutrients, like Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin A, and selenium. Additionally, this type of diet, when enjoyed with natural oils like cold-pressed olive, coconut, and avocado oils and natural animal fats, gives the appropriate building blocks for cell membranes. Strong cells are more resistant to viral infections.
On the other hand, a diet high in processed foods not only lacks essential nutrients, but depletes the body of stored nutrients. These foods, often found in boxes and bags in the center aisles of the grocery store, usually are full of heat-processed fats. These fats are also used to make cell membranes, but the resulting cells are weaker, and less able to resist disease.
Taking a multi-vitamin just isn’t enough. Real, whole foods supply vitamins as well as their cofactors, which are additional nutrients the body requires to actually use the vitamins. To maximize the immune-boosting properties of your diet, opt for more simply prepared meals made up of freshly made salads, broth soups, a variety of vegetables (raw, steamed, and roasted), fresh fruits, and responsible animal products.
Find allergens – Could hidden food allergies or sensitivities be sacrificing your health? Absolutely. Chronic inflammation from food irritants can be very “distracting” for the immune system. When the immune system considers a certain food to be a foreign invader, especially if it is something ingested day after day, it has fewer resources available to address a sudden viral infection, allowing it to spread.
The most simple way to identify possible allergens and sensitivities is to take the Big 8 (the most common allergens: wheat, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts) out of your diet for two weeks. Fill the void with extra fruits and veggies. After two weeks, try one of the foods every three days, and monitor how you feel. If you experienced improved health and wellbeing without the foods, and notice a decline when a certain food in reintroduced, it is safe to assume that is a problem food for you.
Reduce toxins – Another source of immune system distraction is excess toxins. This is an extremely wide-reaching category, but may include excess alcohol or tobacco use, air pollution, steroids and drugs, heavy metals, environmental chemicals, and toxic cleaning products or personal care items. Lowering your exposure or replacing just a few of these sources can have a profound effect on your health.
Try replacing one or two of your personal care products with natural alternatives, or reducing or quitting your alcohol or tobacco use.
Get more sleep – We all know we should sleep more, but are you actually doing it? Too little sleep and poor quality sleep both impair the immune system and its ability to keep you healthy. Try to block out an 8-9 hour period in your schedule to actually be in bed. That way, you’ll have a better chance of actually being asleep for long enough each night. Getting to bed before 10 is also helpful. People often get a “second wind” at 11, which makes it that much harder to get enough sleep.
If you’re getting to bed on time, but finding it hard to go to sleep or stay asleep, there are several things you can try. Avoid screens, including phones, for an hour or two before bed. Create a soothing bed-time ritual, like a warm bath, some hot herbal tea, or quiet reading time (from a real book!). You can also try Natural Calm, a magnesium supplement that mixes into warm water and is available in several stevia-sweetened flavors. Most Americans are magnesium deficient, and the extra boost before bed promotes stress-releasing processes in the body.
Destress – Are you someone who gets sick whenever you go on vacation? This isn’t due to bad luck, it’s due to the immune-suppressing qualities of high stress levels. Viral infections can exist in your body without producing the expected symptoms because the body is prioritizing dealing with the daily stress, and designating that infection as a secondary concern. When you are able to relax on vacation, the immune system is finally able to take care of the infection. Remember, a runny nose, sinus and chest congestion, coughing and sneezing are not what the virus is doing to you, they are your immune system’s actions to rid your body of the virus.
Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do about stress in your life. Take some time for yourself to relax by getting regular massages, taking a yoga class, getting in some exercise or just going for regular walks outside. You can also take a hard look at your schedule. Is it too full? Figure out a few things you can let go or delegate to someone else. Speak up for yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Also keep in mind that stress is just a matter of perception. Few of the stresses in day-to-day living are a matter of life or death. When stress begins to take over, step back, take a deep breath, and find the most optimistic point of view. And remember, it is essential to maintain your sense of humor!
By improving your overall health through a nutritious diet, a lower toxin load, good sleep and lower stress, your immune system can help you sail from fall all the way to spring without depleting your sick days.