First off, I want to start out by saying that Fall is absolutely my favorite time of year! Not that it really matters in regards to this post, but I thought you might like to know J I love the crispness in the air and the break from the exhausting heats of summer. While spring and summer are energetic times for exploration, fun and travel, I equally love the winding down of fall and inward reflection that winter brings. However, the downside of this wonderful season is the increase in colds and flus that rear their ugly heads during the colder months.
There are varying opinions on why this happens and research proposes several different theories for the almost unavoidable flus which circulate during school season. Some people think that immunity goes down during the fall and winter months because we spend less time outside and therefore get less immune-boosting Vitamin D. Some believe it has to do with higher sugar intake or the dry air from heating systems. All of these theories have great science backing them up, and each are probably contributing factors, but regardless of the reasons, the fact remains that most people tend to get sicker during fall and winter months.
So what to do about this conundrum?
Well first, it’s important to understand what immunity is on a broad scale so we then know how to support it in the best way possible. Overall, the reason you feel symptoms of illness is because of the processes going on in your body that are working to kill off harmful bacteria and viruses. You have amazing cells built specifically for the job, but unfortunately, their work (which includes killing off harmful invaders) can leave you with some pretty nasty side effects: Think runny noses, fevers, chills and aches.
Often, I hear people bragging about the fact that they haven’t been sick in years. While I’m happy they aren’t suffering, as a Nutritional Therapist, that statement actually raises some red flags for me. A well functioning immune system is one that can work to rid the body of infections before they take up permanent and chronic residence in the cells. While it doesn’t feel good to go through this process, it does signal that your body is doing its job protecting you. Now, to be clear, I’m not referring to illnesses that last weeks to even months, or lingering coughs that won’t clear up. But getting the sniffles for a day or two here and there is a good sign that your immunity is alive and well.
Repeated or long-lasting sickness is a different animal and definitely a sign that those immune cells could use some support or reinforcements. If we are constantly bombarding our bodies with invaders, (in the form of toxins, food sensitivities, chemicals and other environmental pathogens), it will have a hard time mustering up the strength to fight off an actual bacteria or virus when it reaches our bloodstream. So, boosting immunity is both a game of removing stressors and strengthening weaknesses.
70-80% of the immune system is actually found in the gut and if you stop to think about it, you’ll recognize that your digestive system is actually the barrier between the outside world and the inside of your body. Everything you ingest, knowingly or not, makes its way through your digestive tract to the small intestine where your gut lining decides whether or not it will absorb that substance into your body or reject it. This is called selective permeability. However, food intolerances, antibiotic use, chronic stress, chemical exposures, environmental toxins and other factors all contribute to something called hyper-permeability, or leaky gut. What this means is that your gut lining becomes somewhat leaky and loses its ability to filter between substances it needs and ones it doesn’t. This triggers your immune system to be on alert almost all the time, instead of just when pathogenic bacteria and viruses are able to sneak in on occasion. So, supporting the gut lining and healing any “leakiness” becomes paramount when also working to support the immune system.
In no special order, here are 10 ways you can help your body stay healthy this fall and winter season:
1. Sleep – hacking your sleep can be one of the absolute best ways to combat illness in the colder months. Sleep is the time when our bodies repair from damages done during the day. Shorter days traditionally meant more sleep when we needed it most. But now, with artificial lighting and screen time in the mix, we are still pulling long days during the times when our bodies need extra repair. Start by dimming lights in the evening, minimizing screen time at night and giving yourself permission to have earlier bed times and relaxing evenings.
2. Remove food intolerances – Eating a food over and over again that your body is not keen on is highly stressful to an already heighted immune system. If you’re not sure whether or not you have sensitivities going on, try eliminating the most common culprits for a while to see how you do. The most common include: grains/gluten, dairy, soy, corn, nuts and eggs. I recommend that my clients remove them (either all together or one at a time) for at least 30 days before reintroducing them.
3. Reduce emotional stress levels – Emotional and mental stress play a huge role in gut health. Mental stress raises the hormone in your body known as cortisol, which has several roles in the body. Unfortunately, overly high levels of cortisol have a thinning-out effect on mucosal linings in the body, including your gut. Overtime, this wears down the lining and leads to the leakiness discussed above. Acute stress is not as damaging, but the chronic, long-term stressors most of us feel daily play a big role in this pattern. Find stress-reducing techniques that work for you and try to incorporate a weekly or daily practice. Meditation, walking, therapy, yoga, reading and breathing exercises are all good options for physically reducing stress in the body.
4. Add in gut healing foods – There are certain foods you can eat that act as healers to the lining of your gut. Some of them contain collagen, the main connective protein found in your gut, and some are healing because of vitamins, minerals and other anti-inflammatory compounds. Some of my favorites include: bone broth, cabbage juice, sautéed cabbage, apple cider vinegar, pineapple, ginger, beets, lemon water, butter from grass-fed cows, raw dairy (if tolerated) and healthy oils like avocado, olive or coconut.
5. Add in gut healing nutrients – Sometimes, if significant damage has occurred, food might not completely cover the healing needed. In this case, adding in some quality supplements can be helpful to expedite the process. Some great ones include: Collagen peptides, cod liver oil, digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid. Collage and cod liver oil help to repair the gut lining and enzymes and hydrochloric acid help the breakdown of your food so that when it reaches the gut, it doesn’t irritate it any more.
6. Take a quality probiotic supplement – Assuming you aren’t suffering from a bacterial overgrowth or dysbiosis, adding in a quality probiotic can drastically improve immune function. The microbes in our gut are essentially the choirmasters of the body. They dictate thousands of functions in the body and play a huge role in determining gene expression as well. Technically speaking, there are way more microbial genes in our body than actual human genes, so it would make sense to support these beneficial organisms. Adding in regular doses helps them to colonize, or take permanent residence, in our guts, essentially crowding out other harmful or pathogenic microbes.
7. Herbals – If you happen to get sick, there are certain herbal compounds which act as support to your immune cells, helping to fight off infection. Some of the most anti-viral and anti-bacterial ones are: Elderberry, Echinacea, Ginger, Oregano, Calendula, and Astragalus. Always check for contraindications or allergies when starting a new herbal remedy and if you begin to feel worse, or get any new symptoms, it’s a good idea to stop use and check with a doctor before continuing.
8. Up your dose of Vitamin C – Vitamin C, as most of know, plays a large role in immunity and general health. Vitamin C is used by the cells of your immune system to carry out their attacks on pathogenic microbes. By upping the amount of Vitamin C available to them, you essentially make it easier for them to complete their tasks which results in less time spent feeling sick. Using a minimum of 2000 mg/day of vitamin C can be extremely helpful when already sick or as an immune boost during colder months and stressful periods.
9. Add lots of healthy fats to your diet – Healthy fatty acids play a huge role in the inflammatory process in the body. While inflammation has gotten a bad rap over the last couple years, it is actually an integral part of the healing process. Inflammation is sent to an area of the body when that area is in need of repair. You can think of the heat, swelling and irritation as signals that call in the ANTI-inflammatory crew to help repair the damage. Without fats, we are unable to form the inflammatory hormones called prostaglandins which take care of both inflaming and un-inflaming our body during illness. Good sources of fats include: fish, seafood, coconut oil, avocados and oil, olives and oil, grass-fed meats, eggs, pastured meats, liver, nuts and seeds, palm, butter and ghee, tallow and lard.
10. Gentle movement – Your immune system is moved through the body by the lymphatic system, similar to how blood is moved through the body by your bloodstream. Unfortunately, the lymph system doesn’t have a heart which mechanically pumps it through the body and instead relies on the contracting of your muscles to pump it through. This means that gentle, non-stressful movement can be one of the best ways to circulate immune-boosting T and B cells through the body. Walking, running, bouncing on a trampoline, jumping up and down, stretching, yoga, pilates, tai chi, qui gong, and hiking are all great ways to stimulate this movement. If you’re already sick, stick to extremely easy exercises so as not to stress your already tired body even more.
Until next time,