Are you ready to be healthy this winter? Sore throats, nasal congestion, and coughs can be concerns for both children and adults this time of the year.
Drier air from the cold weather and more time indoors are two potential factors that may contribute to the increased spread of germs, leading to more common colds during the winter months. Additional considerations such as increased stress levels, as well as poor eating and lifestyle habits, can dampen our immune response and increase our chances of illness.
It’s important to know there are effective strategies to support our bodies during the common cold and stay healthy this season.
Follow a balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids
A healthy, balanced diet that provides a steady intake of nutrients is one important step towards a healthy immune system. High intake of sugar and processed foods can weaken the immune function and deplete important nutrients.
Fill your daily diet with real foods including in-season fruits and vegetables, non-refined grains, and healthy fats and proteins such as lean meats, fish, nuts, and seeds. Don’t forget to eat plenty of specific foods that have antimicrobial and immune-supporting properties, such as garlic, ginger, oats, and mushrooms.
Medicinal mushrooms are rich in protein, fibre, beta-glucans, vitamin C, B vitamins, calcium, and other minerals. Reishi, shiitake, and maitake are the most potent and notable for their ability to modulate the immune system.
Shiitake mushrooms can support a healthy immune system, improve the immunity of the gut, and decrease inflammation in the body. These mushrooms also have antimicrobial properties that can benefit a weakened immune system.
Staying well-hydrated helps eliminate germs and keeps your body systems working in tip-top shape. Drink water, diluted fruit juices, broths, and herbal teas to stay hydrated and reduce nasal and chest congestion. If possible, limit beverages that may be dehydrating such as coffee and alcohol.
Get lots of rest
Did you know sleep influences immune function and having less than 7 hours of sleep can increase your risk of a cold by 3-fold?[5,6] In a study of 164 healthy adults aged 18−55 years, participants getting fewer than six hours of sleep a night were at an increased risk of developing a cold compared to those getting seven hours or more of sleep.
High stress levels can negatively impact sleep, while stress hormones can directly inhibit the immune system and increase your exposure to illness. Incorporating stress-reducing activities such as an exercise program, meditation, journaling, deep breathing, or any activity that you enjoy may help reduce stress and promote sleep.
Keep your adrenals in check
A healthy immune system is directly related to healthy adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands produce hormones that can impact your immune system, specifically cortisol. It is important to maintain balanced cortisol levels, not too high or too low, to support a healthy immune system.
To support your adrenal glands, eat a balanced diet to maintain a healthy body and keep blood sugar levels in check. Choose lean protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates.
Follow the new Canada’s Food Guide to take a step in the right direction by balancing your plate and increasing your vegetable intake. Incorporating foods that are rich in vitamin C, B vitamins, and magnesium will also help support healthy adrenal glands.
To balance your hormones, a great food rich in healthy fats is avocado. Avocados contain essential amino acids, antioxidants, and some healthy fats to help balance hormone production. To attend to your adrenals, try eating 1 serving (½ cup) of this fruit per day.
When you eat sugar, it can negatively affect the functioning of your body’s immune cells. Sugar can dampen your body’s immune cell response to bacteria, and this effect can last several hours after consumption. Researchers in the 1970s came to this conclusion after observing subjects’ blood before and after consuming a large dose of sugar.
They placed the blood in a petri dish and then inoculated it with bacteria. Upon microscopic inspection, researchers found that following a large dose of sugar, white blood cells called neutrophils were much less effective at destroying the bacteria.
If your sweet tooth is yearning for a treat, fruits such as kiwi, apples, and oranges are great options. They also contain high levels of vitamin C, which further support your immune system.
Clear your lungs with ginger
According to Ayurvedic medicine, ginger warms the body and helps break down the accumulation of toxins in the organs, particularly in the lungs and sinuses. It has traditionally been used to suppress coughs and to relieve bronchitis and the common cold.
Exercise and stress relief
Regular, moderate exercise, such as a daily 30-minute walk, can benefit your immune system’s ability to fight infection. Physical activity is believed to support a healthy immune system in a few possible ways.
It may help clear bacteria from the lungs and airways; increase the circulation of white blood cells in the body; inhibit bacterial growth due to an increase in body temperature; or slow the release of stress hormones in the body.
Exercise is beneficial, but do not overdo it. If you currently exercise regularly, continue to do so. If you are new to regular exercise or do not exercise at all, it is not ideal to begin during times of weakened immunity.
Stress is a normal part of daily life. However, when your body’s stress response is constant, the fight-or-flight reaction goes into overdrive, causing an increased exposure of cortisol and other stress hormones on the body.
Immune cells lose the ability to respond normally, causing an increase in inflammation in the body. Chronic stress can lead to an increased susceptibility to illnesses related to a weakened immune system.
Some ways to reduce stress levels include deep breathing, and light exercises such as walking or stretching.
Nutrients to the rescue!
A variety of key natural health products support the immune system and help fight infections. Learn more about these products to determine if they are suitable for you.
Vitamin C and zinc
Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the duration of common cold symptoms,  while zinc is essential for the cells of the immune system. These nutrients support immunity through antimicrobial and natural killer cell activities and lymphocyte production.
A large number of randomized controlled intervention trials have shown that adequate intake of vitamin C and zinc improve symptoms and shorten the duration of respiratory tract infections, including the common cold.
The recommended amount of vitamin C for preventing the common cold is 600−1000 mg daily, whereas 1000−3000 mg daily is required for the treatment of the common cold. Adequate levels of zinc range from 15−25 mg daily.
It is believed that the increased incidence of the common cold and pneumonia during winter is partly due to decreased exposure to sunlight, which can lead to lower levels of vitamin D. Increasing evidence indicates that vitamin D3 provides protective effects during an infection.
Vitamin D3 has been shown to support the immune system and disease-fighting cells, such as macrophages and T cells. How much vitamin D do you need to take?
Speak to your health care practitioner about testing your vitamin D levels to find out if you are in need of this important nutrient.
Although probiotics provide numerous health benefits, they can also play an important role in supporting various aspects of the immune system. In addition, probiotics reduce the side effects associated with antibiotics, such as diarrhea.
For general good health, it is recommended to take 6−10 billion colony forming units (cfus) each day. For specific, but minor health problems, a dose of around 20−30 billion cfus daily is often suggested.
Echinacea is a well-known herbal medicine used to relieve symptoms and shorten the duration of upper respiratory tract infections. The immune-modulating and virus-fighting abilities of echinacea are due to the synergistic activity of active ingredients such as alkylamides, polysaccharides, and cichoric acid.[14,15]
Now are you ready to be healthy this winter? Balanced eating, stress management, and proper nutrient intake are key factors to maintaining a healthy immune system. Do not forget to rest and stay home when unwell, wash your hands, drink lots of water, and incorporate regular physical activity.
Stephanie Rubino ND
Dr. Stephanie Rubino, ND is a licensed naturopathic doctor who completed her professional training at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. Her vision is to help others reach optimal health.