Guide to Winter Immunity

Fall and winter don’t have to be cold and flu season. Try these natural tips to improve your chances of fighting illness and staying healthy all year long.

  • Avoid illness, bolster immunity and enjoy the holiday season with these tips for enhanced winter well-being.
    Photo by iStock/Portra
  • Traditionally fermented foods are directly linked with our immunity, helping to maintain our microbiome.
    Photo by iStock/marekuliasz
  • Meditation, positive thinking and a strong social support group are three critical methods for managing stress.
    Photo by iStock/shironosov
  • There's something uniquely beneficial about spending time in a natural setting that positively effects our immunity.
    Photo by iStock/spyderskidoo
  • We all know the acclaimed benefits of chicken noodle soup as a healer, but what about this savory vegetable soup?
    Photo by iStock/ninikas

Late fall and early winter offer many wonderful things: The start of the holiday season, a time to slow down and get more rest, long cozy evenings spent around the fire. But as winter gets nearer, we also tend to notice a few undesirable side effects: namely, increased illnesses that can seem to spread like wildfire in our workplaces, community spaces and schools.

Although nearly all of us will catch a stray bug here and there, we can take many steps to bolster our immunity, thereby avoiding or significantly shortening the length of illnesses and enhancing our well-being throughout the season. What follows are some of our favorite ways to avoid illness, both preventive daily measures and emergency tactics for when that scratchy throat hits. Use these tips and enjoy a winter season with less illness and more contentment.

Eat for Wellness

One of the most important ways we support our immunity, year-round and against both acute illness and chronic disease, is with our diets. Eating a wide array of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, high-quality protein and healthy fats helps boost the health of every organ and bodily system, making us more resistant to stress and illness. While scientists are quick to point out that no one “immune-boosting” food is a silver bullet for illness avoidance, certain micronutrient deficiencies are linked with increased rates of infection, so making sure to take in plenty of vitamins and minerals through daily consumption of whole foods is critical to our health.

One specific food group that researchers are finding may be directly linked with our immunity is the family of foods containing beneficial bacteria. All types of traditionally fermented foods, including sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, fermented pickles, miso, tempeh, yogurt and natto, help maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in our bodies — together, these bacteria are known as our microbiome. While scientists are still learning all the mechanisms involved in our microbiome’s relationship with our health, the research is fairly solid to support a distinct connection between thriving gut bacteria and resistance to illness. To take advantage of the effects, try to eat a small amount of fermented foods every day, and include a variety of probiotic-rich foods to build the most diverse population of healthy bacteria in your own body. (Check out the book The Cultured Cook by frequent Mother Earth Living contributor Michelle Schoffro Cook for a huge array of fermented food recipes.)

Manage Stress, Manage Illness

Managing stress is key to managing illness. In fact, according to Psychology Today, some experts claim stress is responsible for as much as 90 percent of all illness and disease, including everything from colds and flus to cancer and heart disease. This is because stress triggers chemical reactions that flood the body with the hormone cortisol, decreasing white blood cells and Natural Killer (NK) cells and increasing rates of infection. The effects of stress are cumulative, so learning to manage stress daily is critical for avoiding the many serious health problems it can cause. Some of the best techniques for managing stress include daily meditation, positive thinking and developing a network of solid social support. A strong network of social support may, in fact, help boost immune function all on its own. Studies find strong social support to improve immunity and lower rates of morbidity and mortality across a number of diseases.

Sleep for Health

Getting enough sleep is fundamentally linked with healthy immune function. A significant body of research shows that immune function is closely tied to our 24-hour circadian clock, and that disruption of this cycle weakens the immune system. While much of the research on sleep and immunity focuses on extreme sleep deprivation (for example, in one recent study, staying awake for more than 24 hours straight), other research confirms that even modest sleep loss can reduce NK activity and cellular immune response. Many people find that in winter their bodies require more sleep than in summer — longer nights may trigger the desire for more sleep. Whenever possible, yield to these desires and allow yourself to sleep longer during the coldest parts of the year. It may be key to avoiding illness. If you have trouble sleeping, experts recommend a few initial steps: Go to bed and wake up at the same time daily; practice meditation or breathing exercises before bed; stay away from screens and blue light within an hour or two of bedtime; and avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening. You may also find the routine of a nightly cup of chamomile tea — a mild sedative — or golden milk to be a calming pre-bed ritual. For more information on getting a good night’s sleep, visit here.

11/2/2017 2:00:39 PM

Great article! Though, as an herbalist I would like to point out a few very dangerous side effects with using Astralagus incorrectly. Astralagus contains formononetin which can actually promote cancer cell proliferation. It should be charred or honey fried if used in individuals with cancer. Secondly, using Astralagus when a pathogen is present will prevent the body’s ability to push it out. In Chinese Medicine this knowledge is fundamental to using it correctly. If chills or fever are present, DO NOT USE ASTRALAGUS. Use during an acute invasion will create an entirely different and more pervasive set of unwanted symptoms.

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