By Barbara Hartmann-Downie MSc, RHN
When the weather changes and school and work stresses increase in the fall, our immune system and energy levels suffer. This leads to more frequent colds and flu, with the associated low mood and lack of physical and mental energy. Getting sick is never fun, no matter what your age is!
However, there are natural ways to fight illness and keep your and your children’s immune systems strong during the fall and winter cold and flu season. This can be done by following some basic lifestyle and dietary guidelines to improve the body’s defences along with the strategic use of supplements and/or herbal remedies.
The Immune System
Your body’s immune system can become depleted by a variety of stressors. These include poor diet, eating too much sugar and/or fatty foods, food sensitivities, and physical and mental stress. A lack of beneficial probiotic bacteria in your gut, and insufficient vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, C, D, zinc and selenium, can also contribute to reduced immune function. When the immune system becomes weakened it becomes more susceptible to invading viruses and bacteria. This helps explain why some people stay healthy throughout the year, while others seem to catch each and every cold or flu going around.
Increased exposure to germs after the kids return to school is to be expected. But you and your family don’t have to suffer in vain. Here are some things you can do to help build your child’s and your own immune system naturally so it can fight off those nasty fall bugs.
Adopt Healthy-Living Strategies
Your first line of defence is to choose a healthy lifestyle for yourself and your family. Following general good-health guidelines is the single best step you can take toward keeping yourself healthy and free from infectious disease. Every part of your body, including your immune system, functions better when protected from environmental assaults when bolstered by healthy-living strategies such as these:
- Sleep - Set yourself a healthy bedtime. Lack of sleep will depress the immune system, making kids (and grown-ups!) more susceptible to colds as well as making them grumpy!
- Drink plenty of water - Helps flush toxins from the body.
Avoid stimulants - Energy drinks, excessively caffeinated sodas, and nicotine all interfere with sleep and can lead to rebound fatigue once their effect wears off.
- Exercise regularly - Releases naturally occurring stress-reducing hormones.
- Spend time outdoors - Fill your lungs with fresh air while fortifying your stores of Vitamin D from sunshine.
Diet and Nutrition
Good nutrition is the backbone of a healthy immune system. People, and children in particular, that eat unhealthy diets are far more likely to get sick and tend to stay sick longer than those who eat a diet of unprocessed, real food. The first and most important step is to eliminate processed foods from your family's diet. Processed foods are foods that are significantly processed and contain artificial colours, flavours, trans-fats, sweeteners and preservatives – potentially harmful chemicals and additives which offer no real nutritional value. Dairy products should be consumed in moderation, as these may promote excess mucus formation. Curbing the intake of sugary foods such as soft drinks, candies, and desserts is beneficial. Excess sugar in the diet weakens the immune system while encouraging the development of diseases such as diabetes and obesity which are both becoming more common than ever, especially in younger people.
Eating wholesome nutrient-rich foods will ensure that you are getting all the building blocks that are essential to build and maintain a healthy immune system.
Here are some immune-boosting foods to keep your whole family healthy:
- Eat multiple servings of colourful fruits and vegetables high in vitamins C, A, and phytonutrients. Try berries, citrus fruits, kiwi, apples, papaya, pink grapefruit, blueberries and red grapes. Choose more leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and cauliflower), peppers, sweet potatoes and squashes. Aim for three to four servings of fruits and four or more servings of vegetables each day!
- Have protein with each meal. Proteins are the building blocks of the body, including your immune and detoxification systems. Organic, clean and lean animal protein as well as plant-based (legumes, nuts/seeds) proteins should be a part of each meal and snack.
- Add garlic, onions, ginger, chilli peppers, hot peppers and lots of spices (oregano, turmeric) to your meals! Add these to your soups and vegetable dishes, as well as bean dips and sauces. Garlic and onions offer wide-spectrum antimicrobial properties. Chili peppers and hot peppers act as mucolytics, which help break down and excrete the mucous that accumulates in the sinuses and breathing passages, helping to improve breathing and reduce sinus infection and irritation.
- Try to integrate fermented foods like yogurt, keifer, kombucha, and fermented vegetables. These all contain the good bacteria your digestive system needs to maintain optimal gut health.
- Eat foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in flax seed oil and fatty fish (e.g. salmon, tuna, and mackerel). Omega-3’s increase the activity of the white blood cells that eat bad bacteria. Our grandmothers knew this fact years ago in the pre-antibiotic era when they prescribed that awful tasting cod liver oil!
Increases in antibiotic resistance and the risk of side effects from medications have led parents to explore more natural ways to boost their and their kids’ immune systems. Here are some of the natural approaches that have been getting attention lately:
- Vitamin D: Here on the BC Coast we are particularly lacking in this vitamin due to low levels of sunlight throughout the winter months. Sunlight is necessary for Vitamin D to be produced by the body. To address this deficiency, Vitamin D3 (the active form) should be taken as a dietary supplement as it is necessary for proper immune function.
- Buffered Vitamin C: Reduces inflammation and fights and prevents infection.
- Zinc: Stimulates immune function and prevents infections.
- Multivitamin with Minerals: A quality multivitamin with minerals is also a great way to give your body a boost. Make sure your supplement contains Vitamins A, C, and B, along with immune boosting minerals such as zinc and selenium. These nutrients support the production and function of white blood cells which attack microbes.
- Probiotics: Improve digestive function, the center of good immunity. A probiotic is necessary to replenish and support the “good” bacteria that protect the mucous membranes of your mouth, nose, throat, tonsils and gastrointestinal tract from entering viruses and bacteria.
- Omega-3′s (found in fish oil, krill oil, and hemp oil): Establish healthy cell membranes which prevent inflammation, resist toxins and attack by pathogens.
Natural Anti-Viral/Anti-Bacterial Herbal Remedies
Herbal remedies can strengthen the body’s defences and can be used strategically to keep the immune system primed and functioning optimally. The most important herbs are those that support the immune and lymphatic systems. (Note: Patients with autoimmune disease should not take these.)
Many herbs have broad-spectrum antimicrobial properties, or immune-enhancing effects. Herbal preparations contain different immune boosters such as Astragalus, Echinacea, Oil of Oregano, Sambucus (elderberry), Solidago (goldenseal), green tea extract, various immune-enhancing mushrooms, and Beta-1,3 glucan, an extract derived from the larch tree. These preparations are well tolerated by children, and are beneficial for those who get sick often and /or have other immune related conditions such as allergies and asthma.
On the whole, your immune system does a remarkable job of defending you against disease-causing microorganism. Children have less resistance to many viruses and bacteria because their immune systems are still developing and don’t yet have the same experience as an adult immune system,
Keep in mind that the occasional cold and flu is GOOD for you and for your child. Minor bouts of illness allow the immune system to grow stronger over time, allowing the body to fight bigger and meaner pathogens and keep you healthy and feeling great!
There are many products available to help boost your immune system. It is important to choose the appropriate ones for your personal situation and physical condition. If you’re not sure what’s right for you, ask your health care professional for advice.
Barbara Hartmann-Downie MSc. is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist with 16 years of experience in the health field, specializing in nutrition and weight loss. Barbara is a “whole food” nutritionist with an orientation towards holistic and complementary medicine. She is available for nutritional and supplemental consults on Tuesdays at Hollyburn Pharmacy in West Vancouver and on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at Kerrisdale Pharmacy in Vancouver.