We are well into the winter season, nights are darker and the hours of sunlight seem to be so brief. The stress of cold and lack of sunlight can impact our immune health and those pesky coughs and colds are making themselves heard.
There are many different things that you can do to help support your immune system through winter, some are well known whereas others may be a little surprising. Did you know that Stress and the Digestive system are kings when it comes to immune health?
- Up to 80% of our immune system is found within the digestive system and is made up of good microbes (bugs) and immune cells. If our gut doesn’t function well, then our immune system function will be compromised.
- Good digestion starts in the mouth. This is often overlooked but we now know that poor oral health negatively impacts digestive health, immune function and is linked to some diseases such as cardiovascular disease.
Here are a few key tips for digestive health:
- Eat Fibre: Fibre from fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are a great source of food for the good bugs in our gut. By looking after these little creatures, we are looking after our immune health
- Eat Fermented Foods: Fermented foods are excellent for our digestive system and immune health, they taste great and are easy to make. If you’re not that keen or are time-poor then most supermarkets are starting to stock some fermented foods such as sauerkraut; kefir and kimchi. You use these delicious foods like condiments, adding a little to each meal. I love using sauerkraut in my salads.
- Reduce Stress (see below)
- Reduce Refined Sugars: Sugar feeds the ‘bad’ bacteria in our guts. By reducing our sugar intake we promote the health of our good bacteria and immune system more generally. Don’t forget that refined carbohydrates in the form of white pasta, bread, and rice are classed as sugars and have the same impact as eating sugar in sweet goods. See our blog post on sugar and sugar cravings if you want more guidance around this.
- Chew Properly and sit down to eat with minimum distractions. This ensures food is properly digested and we can get maximum nutrition from our meals.
Reduce your stress where possible. Not surprisingly, chronic stress is one of the main drivers of poor immune function. The problem nowadays is that we are under so many different types of physical and emotional stresses (and not all of them are perceived stresses) that we end being in a state of hypervigilance, fight or flight if you like. Our bodies become stuck in this state, and what is classed as ‘non-essential’ functions are switched off, these non-essential functions are:
- Immune function
- Kidneys/Urinary tract
This has such a profound impact on our health. So, a lot of my treatment for the immune system focuses on removing the stresses that can be removed and making ourselves as resilient as we can be to deal with the stress that can’t be removed.
Eat a balanced diet with a variety of fruits/vegetables. Our body requires good fats, carbohydrates, and protein to function well. It also requires all of our micronutrients to function optimally, some of the key nutrients for a healthy immune system are Vitamin C, D, A, Selenium, Zinc, Iron. Most of these we should get from our diet. However, if we have poor digestive function, suffer from a chronic illness or eat a diet high in refined carbohydrates and low in plant-based foods then chances are we are not meeting our recommended daily requirements. I recommend using whole food supplements that are easily absorbed and utilised by the body.
Last but by no means least, let’s not forget about the herbs that can be so useful in helping to support our immune function. Many herbs have a positive impact on this area, these are some of my favourite herbs for optimising general immune health which can be used regularly:
- Medicinal mushrooms
- Honey (I know it’s not a herb but I love using a small amount of raw local honey daily throughout winter)
I always recommend speaking to your healthcare practitioner and herbalist before making any changes to your lifestyle.