With winter upon us it means cold and flu season is here. Children typically get nine to 12 infections per year and adults experience about seven per year. Aside from making you feel miserable, these infections are the leading cause of lost work and school days.
As a pharmacist I get a lot of questions about what people can do during the winter to stay healthy. We often hear the term immune booster, but can you really boost your immune system? It sounds enticing but what we really want to do is support our immune so that it can work properly. Our immune system is actually a complex network of organs and cells and many factors affect how it all works from the foods we eat (or don’t eat) to the amount of sleep we get to our stress levels.
Here are some strategies that can help bolster your defenses and cut your risk of getting sick.
1. Address your stress
Stress has far-reaching effects on our health and can impair immune function. Chronically high stress can raise cortisol levels, which lowers your lymphocyte count (a type of white blood cell that fights infection), triggers inflammation and increases your body’s production of free radicals.
Work on creating balance in your life and reclaim your Zen. I recommend trying Yoga, Pilates, and simple deep breathing exercises. Exercise, early in the day is also a great stress-reliever.
2. Get more sleep
Stress and lack of sleep often go hand in hand. When you’re stressed out, you’re not getting enough sleep and when you don’t sleep it affects your ability to deal with stress. Nearly three-quarters of North Americans have sleep problems! Ideally you should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Without that your body can’t function properly, which makes you more susceptible to getting sick. If you’re a troubled sleeper there are things you can do to help.
3. Immune supportive foods
- Sound machines produce calming sounds like rain or soft relaxing music that can help to mask disturbing background noise such as honking horns, sirens or barking dogs.
- Sleep support supplements such as Healthy Sleep contains ingredients (melatonin, L-theanine, Rhodiola and Skullcap) that help reduce stress and improve sleep.
- Chamomile tea has relaxing properties; try it in the evening but not too close to bed (liquids consumed late in the evening often mean nighttime trips to the bathroom).
- Sleep mask: having a dark room helps to optimize melatonin release – this is the hormone that regulates our sleep/wake cycles. Close your window drapes or blinds and consider using a sleep mask.
The right foods can fuel our bodies with essential nutrients that support our immune system. Consider including these foods in your diet:
- Portobello mushrooms are rich in vitamin D and compounds that help immune system. One cup of sliced Portobello mushrooms will give you about 400 IU of vitamin D. Fatty fish, liver and egg yolks also supply vitamin D. Other mushrooms like Shitake and Maitake contain polysaccharides, which activate your macrophages and help your body fight infection.
- Green Matcha tea contains polyphenols which boost the immune system
- Blueberries, raspberries and pomegranate are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants that support immune health.
- Beans, chickpeas and nuts are rich in zinc. Zinc is essential for immune health; a deficiency increases the risk of infection. Zinc is also found in seafood (especially oysters and crab).
Try to minimize sugar (soft drinks, sweets) as sugar can hamper the function of your immune system.
4. Supplemental support
Vitamin D is important to consider year round. Most North Americans are deficient in vitamin D. This essential vitamin plays a role in regulating the immune system. Research has found that a deficiency of vitamin D is associated with increased susceptibility to infections, such as influenza.
Vitamin C is essential for immune health. If you are not getting enough from diet a supplement can bridge that gap. Supplements may be particularly helpful for those under physical stress.
Echinacea: research on a specific type called Echinaforce found that it reduces the risk of getting a respiratory infection and shortens the severity and duration of symptoms if you do get sick. Consider taking this throughout cold and flu season.
Zinc lozenges can help shorten the duration and reduce the severity of your illness. Zinc can leave a metallic taste in your mouth so look for a lozenge that is cherry or lemon flavoured.
Keep in mind that while over the counter drugs can help with symptoms such as fever, pain, congestion and runny nose these products don’t shorten the duration of illness and are not preventative.
Keep the kids healthy
Since kids are more vulnerable to infections, consider some measures to support their immune health.
Sherry Torkos is a pharmacist and author of The Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Check out her website: www.sherrytorkos.com
- Multivitamin: important for kids who are picky eaters to ensure the child is getting all essential nutrients such as zinc, vitamin C, selenium, etc.
- Vitamin D: critical for immune system and overall health; very tough for kids to get enough from diet (mushrooms, liver, oysters typically not kid favorites). Consider drops or chewable tablets for kids.
- Echinacea – safe for children 2 and above; look for chewable tablets or liquid.
- Honey – helps with sore throat and cough; safe for kids over 1 year. It is much easier to get kids to take honey vs. yucky tasting cough syrups