It is always good to live a healthy lifestyle. But as the days get shorter and the temperature drops, making choices that support a robust immune system is imperative.
Many people believe that by taking immune-supporting herbs, they cover their bases. But in reality, what keeps your immune system in optimal function is not what you take but what you do.
The list of lifestyle choices that can keep you well in the winter will not come as a surprise, but it is a good reminder.
Eating a nutrient-dense diet is very important in the winter as in any other season. A couple of micronutrients are essential for a robust immune system:
Zinc is critical for keeping the integrity of the physical barrier part of the immune system (skin, connective tissue, and mucus). Zinc is also essential for developing innate immune cells such as neutrophils and natural killer cells.
Zinc is found in oysters, meats, legumes, and seeds, including pumpkin, squash, and sesame seeds.
Vitamin A plays a critical part in the formation of mucus, which is part of the physical barrier that prevents pathogens from entering the body.
Vitamin A increases immune function by stimulating the maturation of the adaptive immune system cells. Think about the adaptive immune system as the SEAL of the immune system. Highly trained and specialized immune cells.
Foods that are high in vitamin A are fruits and vegetables that are yellow, orange, and red (peppers, carrots, apricots, sweet potatoes)
Vitamin C stimulates the formation of antibodies and the production, function, and movement of white blood cells.
Although it might not keep you from catching a cold, vitamin C might shorten the duration of the common cold symptoms.
Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, and grapes.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant that protects the integrity of the cell membrane from free radicals. Vitamin E increases the production of innate immune cells. By doing so, it increases the body’s resistance to infectious diseases.
Vitamin E is found in vegetable oils such as olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, and seeds.
Adequate levels of selenium are important for initiating immunity, but they are also involved in regulating excessive immune responses and chronic inflammation.
Two brazil nuts can provide your daily dosage of selenium. Selenium is also found in seafood and organ meats.
Eating a wide variety of foods will keep your immune system “happy.” Unfortunately, there are no cutting corners. Supplements are not absorbed in the body in the same way as minerals and vitamins that come in the context of food.
The immune system is dependent on water for two reasons:
The mucus that is the immune system’s first line of defense (with the skin) is made out of water and salts. Without enough hydration, the mucus dries, loses its sticky consistency, and cannot trap pathogens.
The immune system is highly dependent on nutrients and oxygen transported by the blood. Immune cells, too, are transported in the body by the blood. The blood is mainly water. Therefore, when you are dehydrated, you compromise your blood transportation function.
Did you know that while you are asleep, your immune system rev up the production of adaptive immune cells? Studies showed that people who do not get enough sleep are more prone to colds and flu. The recovery period of people who do not get 7-9 hours of undisturbed sleep at night is prolonged.
In the winter it is important to create time for rest on top of your nightly sleeping time. The body needs to produce more energy to keep you warm. In many traditions around the world, winter was time of slowing down, reflecting, and creating intentions for the year to come.
Exposure to the sun is the only way for your body to synthesize vitamin D. People with lower vitamin D are more likely to get a cold. Vitamin D was also found to reduce the severity of the symptoms and the duration of colds.
During the last two years, I talked to everyone willing to hear me about the importance of vitamin D to immunity. I recommend everybody supplement with vitamin D.
But as always, the body is much more complex than we think. A recent study found that high vitamin D in the blood due to supplementation was not associated with reduced chances of “catching” COVID or colds.
There is much more to exposure to all the spectrum of sunlight than just the synthesis of vitamin D.
Exercise can improve your immune function in three ways:
- Exercise stimulates blood flow, thus increasing the circulation of immune cells.
- Exercise is associated with good sleep.
- Exercise decreases stress.
The feelings of stress and social isolation are some of the biggest immune “downers” out there.
When you are under stress, the body allocates all its resources to survival. Blood carrying nutrients and oxygen is directed to the senses so you can be more alert and the muscles so you can either fight or flight.
Blood flow to the digestion, elimination, reproductive system, and immune system is reduced. After all, who cares if you have flu when the saber tooth cat is chasing you?
A study found that psychological stress increases the susceptibility of the body to develop colds and infectious diseases.
[Our bodies] are not distinct from the bodies of plants and animals, with which we are involved in the cycles of feeding and the intricate companionships of ecological systems and of the spirit. They are not distinct from the Earth, the sun and moon, and the other heavenly bodies. It is therefore absurd to approach the subject of health piecemeal with a departmentalized band of specialists. A medical doctor uninterested in nutrition, agriculture, and the wholesomeness of mind and spirit is as absurd as a farmer who is uninterested in health. Our fragmentation of this subject cannot be our cure, because it is our disease.
~Wendell Berry, Unsettling of America
Like all beings on the Earth, life full of purpose and meaning is essential for a robust immune system.
When it comes to well-being, we now know that a sense of community and caring for other beings, be it humans, animals, or plants, is a great immune booster associated with longevity.