Guide to Winter Immunity
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.
Exercise for Immunity
The best way to use exercise to maximize immune response is to engage in daily moderate exercise, research suggests. Moderate exercise enhances the activity of our NK cells, which recognize cells infected with a virus and try to eliminate them. However, highly intense exercise — such as marathon running — may actually depress the immune system, making us two to six times more likely to get sick immediately after the long workout. This is because prolonged exercise can suppress TH1 — our first-line defense against illness. Experts recommend regular, moderate exercise to boost immunity, including 30-minute walks, biking a few times a week, exercising at the gym every other day or playing sports. Yoga may also benefit immunity. Although some of this effect is attributable to its influence on stress response, some of it may also be physical. Yoga stimulates the digestive, circulatory, nervous and endocrine systems, all of which may make our bodies able to more quickly respond to threats.
Enjoy the Outdoors
Preliminary research suggests that spending time outdoors, particularly in forest settings, may stimulate the production of anti-cancer proteins and offer a general boost to the immune system, although researchers don’t have a clear explanation as to the mechanisms behind these actions. In one study conducted by Japanese immunologist Qing Li, hiking twice a day for three days increased participants’ white blood cells by 40 percent, and they remained elevated by 15 percent a month later. These results weren’t found after urban walking, suggesting something uniquely beneficial about spending time in a natural setting. In our next issue, we’ll cover the health benefits of spending time outdoors in the winter in greater depth.
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Immune-Boosting Tea Tonic
For a simple immune-boosting tea, try this tasty recipe.
• 3 tablespoons dried, shredded astragalus root
• 2 teaspoons chopped fresh gingerroot
• 2 teaspoons fennel seeds, crushed
• 3 cups water
1. In a covered pot, simmer astragalus, ginger and fennel in water for 15 minutes.
2. Remove from heat and let steep, covered, for an additional 15 minutes.
3. Strain, sweeten if desired, and drink 2 cups daily. Makes about 2 cups.
Immune-Building Herbal Tonic Soup
Savory vegetable soup is a traditional way of incorporating astragalus, garlic and medicinal mushrooms into your diet.
• 1 ounce dried astragalus root slices
• 1/2-inch piece fresh gingerroot, slivered
• 1/4 cup brown basmati rice
• 8 cups vegetable or chicken stock
• 1/2 cup onion, chopped
• 1 cup winter squash, chopped
• 1 cup shiitake and/or maitake mushrooms, sliced
• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 1 cup corn, fresh or frozen
• 2 tablespoons light miso, or to taste
• 8 medium cloves garlic, minced
• 1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
1. Simmer astragalus, ginger, rice and stock in a heavy covered pot for 1 hour.
2. Sauté onion, squash and mushrooms in olive oil for 5 minutes, or until vegetables soften.
3. Add sautéed vegetable mixture to the soup pot, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add corn; simmer an additional 10 minutes. Remove astragalus.
4. Dilute miso in a small amount of broth and add to soup. Thin soup with additional broth if desired and add more miso to taste.
5. Add garlic and parsley, let stand for 5 minutes and serve. Serves 8 to 10.
— Laurel Vukovic
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