Cold and flu season is truly upon us, and keeping our immune system functioning optimally is essential for remaining healthy during the winter months. While the occasional sniffle here and there is quite normal, we should be recovering from this fairly quickly and without serious symptoms. Recurrent infections and illnesses that linger for weeks are signs that your immune system needs additional support. Here are 5 key ways to ensure your immune system is supported and to prevent winter illness from taking hold.
Zinc is a super important mineral for immunity. Not only does it serve as a cofactor for immune dependent reactions within the body, but zinc also acts as an antioxidant, protecting us from free radicals and inflammation. The best food sources for zinc are meat, eggs and seafood as they contain high levels of the mineral as well as the amino acids cysteine and methione, which improve zinc absorption. Vegetable sources of zinc include pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. While obtaining nutrients through the diet is preferred, a supplement is often required to improve lowered immune function.
The magic of mushrooms
A number of mushrooms have been shown to have beneficial effects on the immune system. Poria cocos, traditionally used in Chinese and Japanese medicine, has demonstrated immunomodulatory effects in a number of studies. Lentinula edodes, commonly known as shiitake, has been shown to have antibacterial, antiviral, antimicrobial and anti-tumour effects in numerous studies. Shiitake mushrooms are a delicious and healthy addition to the diet.
Stress is a natural part of life, and may be acute or chronic, physical or emotional. Stress triggers a hormonal cascade within our bodies and the release of adrenaline or cortisol. These hormones prepare us for our “fight or flight” response and are a result of our evolution when we had to run away from our predators! The problem is, these days stressors are all around us, and when stress is prolonged, the body is constantly in “fight or flight” mode. A number of animal and human studies have shown that stress can alter immune function, demonstrated by poor response to vaccines, impaired wound healing, increased development of viral and bacterial infections, and alterations in autoimmune disease. Meditation and exercise are excellent stress management techniques. As naturopaths, we have a variety of wonderful adaptogenic herbs that help us better deal with stress. A qualified practitioner is best suited to discuss your individual needs.
Getting adequate sleep each night is essential in keeping our bodies and minds healthy. A lot of our body’s healing and detoxification takes place while we are sleeping. Studies have shown that just ten days of sleep restriction to 4 hours a night resulted in heightened levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation. Practice proper sleep hygiene by reserving the bedroom for sleep and intimacy only, avoiding technology in the hour before bed, and ensuring the bedroom is dark and quiet. Aim for an optimal 8 hours of sleep each night.
Herbs that lend a helping hand
Echinacea is a well-known herb for the immune system. Clinical studies support the use of echinacea in treating the common cold, sore throat, influenza and sinusitis. It has also demonstrated antiviral activity against HSV-1, the cold sore virus.
A lesser-known herb that is great for preventing illness is astragalus. This herb not only enhances immune function, but is also an adaptogen, helping us to better deal with stress. Studies have shown astragalus to increase levels of IgA in nasal secretions, thereby supporting our mucosal immunity.
Incorporating the above suggestions into your life can help you to be better prepared for the onslaught of the winter nasties. For the best treatment plan that is tailored to your specific health requirements, see a qualified health practitioner who can guide you in your journey to optimal health.
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by Taryn Blight
Clinical Naturopath @ Doctor Earth Wellness Clinic