Immune Support Tips from Your Functional Medicine Doctor
ByMackenzie Prentice, DNP, APNP •August 26, 2022
Cold weather doesn’t have to mean getting sick. On a daily basis, we are exposed to microbes that may cause us to become ill. Fortunately, our body’s immune system is smart enough to recognize these foreign intruders and creates antibodies to protect us against future exposure. Our body works overtime during the colder months when bacteria and viruses are at their peak. Here are my top 5 tips so you can avoid illness this winter and enjoy more meaningful moments with you friends and family.
Make homemade SOUP!
Nutrition plays one of the largest roles in ensuring bodies can fight off infection when we are exposed to germs. Making soup is an easy way to use nutrient-dense foods to ensure our immune system is working properly. Here are a few ingredients to include in your next homemade soup:
Bone broth contains easy-to-absorb nutrients that can reduce inflammation and heal the gut lining. This is important, as 80% of the immune system is found in our gut. Use the broth as your soup base or warm up a cup to drink on its own.
Leafy Green Vegetables
Greens such as kale or spinach are high in vitamin A. Vitamin A is an excellent way to optimize the function of your immune cells, which include neutrophils, natural killer cells, and monocytes. These can easily be added into any soup recipe, whether the recipe calls for it or not.
Herbs such as parsley, thyme, or cilantro are great to support our body’s natural detoxification process. It should be noted that detoxification is important to eliminate toxins, like viruses, from the body. Try adding in an extra handful or two into your next soup.
The next time you make chicken noodle soup, try swapping out the noodles for a legume, such as lentils. Legumes are rich in zinc. In addition zinc is an important nutrient for immune cell production. Studies also show that adequate amounts of zinc in the diet can shorten the duration of viral infections.
Brave the outdoors
Braving the great outdoors can have a positive impact on our immunity. It is all about perspective: “there is no such thing as bad weather, just wrong attire”.
Vitamin D Levels
Even in the winer, exposure to sunlight is vital for our vitamin D status. Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for optimizing immunity. If you are unsure of your current vitamin D levels, ask your provider to order this test. Optimal vitamin D levels are between 60-80.
Sunlight and Circadian Rhythm
Fresh air and sunlight can regulate your circadian rhythm to help you sleep better and have more energy during the day. For example to optimize the outdoor benefits for your circadian rhythm, step outside for at least 10 minutes, first thing in the morning.
Try a New Cold Weather Activity
Movement and exercise have many benefits related to optimizing the immune system. Studies show moderate-intensity exercise increases the circulation of immune cells in the body and also reduce inflammation. Take advantage of cold weather activities such as sledding, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing to break a sweat and enjoy the outdoors.
Take advantage of the shorter days and curl up in bed a little earlier this winter. Sleep deprivation weakens the body’s ability to produce protective immune cells needed to fight off infection. Also adequate sleep is when your body functions best; aim for 8-9 hours of sleep and even more if you are sick. Sleep is also a time when the body repairs any damage that occurred throughout the day. Here are a few tips on sleep hygiene:
Melatonin has antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties, which are helpful in fighting infection, ridding the body of toxins, and also boosting the immune response. It is commonly known that melatonin also assists with sleep. Consider taking 2-5 mg about an hour before bedtime.
Research shows meditation can physiologically relax the body and place it in an optimal peaceful state for sleep. Research suggests that those who have a consistent meditation practice fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. For this reason, try a short 5- 10 minute meditation or deep breathing exercise the next time you climb into bed.
Finally magnesium is a nutrient involved in many important processes in the body. One function involves regulation of the neurotransmitters, or chemical messages, needed for sleep. Add in some magnesium glycinate powder into a non-caffeinated, herbal tea 30-60 minutes before bed.
Focus on Mental Health
Cold weather and shorter days can contribute to lifestyle habits that make us more prone to seasonal affective disorder, or depression. Poor mental health is linked to more inflammation, which impacts how the body responds to fighting off infection. Instead of scrolling endlessly on social media or spending hours in front of the TV, try one of the following to boost your mood and energy:
Phototherapy can counteract the decreased amount of light exposure in the cold weather months. In face the research shows light therapy improves the serotonin pathways in the brain, which is a component of mood regulation. Find a light box with a light intensity of at 10,000 lux. Aim for 30 minutes of light exposure a day, preferably before 10:00am.
Limit Alcohol Consumption
Alcohol is a depressant that can disrupt the chemical balances in the brain. This imbalance can negatively impact thoughts, emotions and actions. Also Alcohol consumption can also impact sleep and reduce immunity. Swap out that next glass of wine for warm cup of herbal tea.
Finding ways to be grateful has been linked to a release of dopamine and serotonin, while reducing cortisol levels. These changes in neurotransmitter levels are important for positive mental health. Start your day by thinking of three items, people or experiences you are grateful for.
Fight the Virus
In some cases, viral illness cannot be avoided. When you feel a cold coming on, try the following recommendations to assist in symptom relief and fight the infection.
Raw, Local Honey
Honey is incredible for soothing a sore throat AND boosting the immune system to fight off infection. It has natural anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antioxidant properties. Mix 1-2 teaspoons in warm water or tea. Honey is sugar, so use in moderation.
Take a steamy shower and add a few drops of an essential oil, such as eucalyptus, to the corner of your shower. Eucalyptus oil has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. Therefore the combination of the steam and the eucalyptus can open up the sinuses and reduce coughing.
Finally, hydration is important, always. Our bodies are more at risk for dehydration during illness, especially if the infection is causing abdominal symptoms. Adding in electrolytes to your water can help to prevent dehydration and ensure proper body function. Be sure to look for a good electrolyte powder with little to no added sugar.
To sum it up, I hope these tips encourage to you make a new healthy habit addition to your winter routine. Keeping the immune system in optimal shape during cold and flu season doesn’t have to be challenging, but it does take some intention and planning.
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Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioners with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.