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12 (surprising) Top Tips to get your immune system winter ready

Ilona Madden - RightFood4U - Nutrition Programmes - Bray Wicklow Dublin

Written by Ilona Madden

November 2, 2022

updated 26 Nov 2021

I guess we are all aware of the fact that we are more susceptible to picking up various bugs (viruses and bacteria) during the winter months which can really put us out of action and can prevent us from doing the things we love doing.

At the very latest, when Covid hit, most people would have started paying more attention to their immune systems.

We probably have all by now heard about the importance of taking Vitamin C when we have a cold, and possibly about zinc and selenium, but there is so much more to know about what we can do to support our immune system.

In this article, I will share my top 12 tips and I’m sure there are some that you might find surprising!

And I will explain why they work and how to best put them into practice.

  1. Vitamin C
  2. Minerals such as zinc and selenium
  3. Elderberries, seaberries and other plants
  4. Vitamin D and sunshine
  5. Gut health
  6. Cold water and exposure to cold temperatures
  7. Nasal cleansing
  8. Reducing toxic load – detoxification
  9. Mushrooms / Beta-glucans
  10. Movement
  11. Relaxation and sleep
  12. Acts of kindness
You can go straight to each of the individual topics or you can read a little bit more about how the immune systems actually work.

Our immune systems are like a little army. The cells, hormones, and messengers that are involved in keeping us healthy are attacking, killing, creating new recruits, creating specialised forces, removing collateral damage and dead “soldiers” and they are restoring peace.

We have an innate immune system that we can call the first responders and we have an adapted immune system that we can call the specialised forces. The first responders can react very quickly but react against everything they see as an invader. These are mainly cells that kill viruses, bacteria, and other “invaders”. The specialised forces create those cells that react only to specific “intrusion”, such as antibodies.

There are lots and lots of different types of cells and messengers involved in the whole process and I won’t go into all the detail. However, what is important to understand is that in the process of “killing”, there will be some damage done, and therefore it is necessary to restore and clean up afterward.

Part of the immune system is also removing toxins and “debris” that happened in the whole process. Part of it is called “inflammation”. We all understand what inflammation is when we have a wound that gets red and swells up and then builds a layer over it and eventually heals. Similar processes happen when we injure ourselves, we can see the redness and swelling, we can feel the pain – and then eventually this all calms down again.

However, inflammation can also happen inside our bodies where we don’t actually see it. And that is the dangerous one. We now know that inflammation plays a role in all modern diseases such as cancers, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases.

Autoimmune conditions are a particularly tricky one to understand. In a well-trained army, the soldiers are working together and know who the enemy is, and know not to attack each other. And in the same way, our immune systems should know what is our body. In an auto-immune condition though, that is exactly what is happening. The immune system does not recognise anymore what is self and what is the enemy.

Our immune systems are also involved in fighting against cancer cells, and a healthy, well-functioning immune system, will recognise cancer cells and should gobble them up. But when cancer develops, it’s either that the immune system doesn’t recognise the rogue cells or else it is too busy fighting somewhere else.

There is still so much that we need to learn about both those diseases and the involvement of our immune systems, but for this article, I would just like to focus on winter colds and flus.

However, it is important to understand, that if there is chronic inflammation going on in your body (and carrying excess weight alone is already keeping your body “inflamed”), your immune system is under more pressure. It will most likely deal with an acute infection and injury first – as this is about survival, but this means it will struggle with the underlying inflammation.

Just think that there is only a limited supply of soldiers unless you recruit more and give them better equipment.

And this is exactly what we’re trying to achieve by implementing some of the suggestions below.

  1. Vitamin C

We all know that we should be taking more vitamin C during the winter to prevent colds and flus.

What is important though is that we keep our vitamin C levels up high on an ongoing basis, rather than just taking a few vitamin C tablets when we are actually already sick. While this still gives some benefits, it is important to understand that when our body is saturated with vitamin C at the time the virus actually “invades” the body, your body will be better equipped with the tools to kill it, i.e. your “army” has the guns already in their hands when the enemy enters, rather than having to find the guns.

The recommendation is to take up to 1000mg of vitamin C but in smaller doses throughout the day as it cannot be stored. This high dose is very hard to obtain through natural foods alone, but of course, it is preferred to get as much in through food.

As it is a water-soluble vitamin, it will be excreted should you take too much, i.e. if your body is saturated with it. In some cases, too much vitamin C can lead to diarrhea which would be a sign that you are taking enough. So, simply reduce the dose.

  1. Zinc, Selenium, and other minerals

Minerals play a role in the creation of the cells that are involved in the immune response.

Similar to vitamin C, ideally, the necessary minerals are already in the body when the “invasion” happens in order to secure a quick response. But it is also important to understand that these are being used up. Similar to the ammunition that is being used up in the fighting. Basically, when fighting an infection, your body will need extra supplies, i.e. just continuing to eat a balanced diet might not give you the necessary extra supplies.

The anti-viral properties of zinc are well-researched and these two articles explain the mechanisms for those interested in the science behind it. Zinc works on several different levels.

It is also a well-known fact that many people are deficient in zinc through diet only.

Foods that are really high in zinc are oysters, but you will get good amounts of zinc from wholegrains, lentils and beans, nuts and seeds, and a lot of vegetables.

Potential role of zinc supplementation in prophylaxis and treatment of COVID-19 – PubMed (nih.gov)

The Role of Zinc in Antiviral Immunity – PubMed (nih.gov)

Selenium

Similar to zinc, many people today are deficient of selenium as the amount of selenium in our soils have been depleted. Therefore, most people do not have sufficient amounts of selenium to start with. Selenium has not only anti-viral properties, it also plays an important role in stopping inflammation and in auto-immune conditions. Selenium also plays a role in detoxification, to use the army analogy again: in cleaning up the damage.

This is a very comprehensive study on Selenium and it’s mechanism

The Role of Selenium in Inflammation and Immunity: From Molecular Mechanisms to Therapeutic Opportunities – PMC (nih.gov)

Brazil nuts are high in Selenium but again it depends on where they’re from and how they are harvested and it is hard to quantify exactly how much you are getting when eating them. You will get good amounts though through other nuts and seeds, beans, lentils and vegetables. Be careful with supplementation though as you could get too much, and it’s also important to look at the quality of the supplement.

The supplement that I recommend is Zinc & Selenium combination by PharmaNord, which are to pharmaceutical standard and well-researched, but are also in safe doses. You can get this in most pharmacies, but you can also order online and with ILONA15, you will receive a 15% discount.

BioActive Selenium & Zinc Supports immune system & metabolism (pharmanord.ie)

Selenium and Zinc are the two minerals most associated with immune health, but as our bodies and indeed our immune system are so complex, it is important to get all the other minerals and nutrients into you as well for the optimally functioning army.

That is the reason, why I can’t over-emphasis the fact that when it comes to food, it is important to look at the nutrients you are getting into your body and not your calories. Make everything you eat about being nutritious!

If you are eating a lot of empty calories with no nutritional value to fill you up, it is a bit like just adding random people to your army rather than trained soldiers.

  1. Elderberries, Seaberries and other super-foods

If you are a regular follower of my newsletter and blogs, you might have seen me collecting Elderberries and making a beautiful winter tonic, based on the recipe of Fiona Staunton.

Elderberry Tonic (fionasfoodforlife.ie)

Elderberry works to strengthen our immune system and help us fight infections.  However, evidence suggests that black elderberry can boost our immune system in three ways:

Elderberries can increase and regulate cytokines in our immune systems. Cytokines are a group of proteins secreted by cells of the immune system that act as chemical messengers.

Antioxidants in black elderberry help fend off pathogens and allergens.

Black elderberry displays anti-viral propties. Experiments have suggested that chemical compounds in elderberries can block infection by directly inhibiting viral infection. Laboratory studies have demonstrated that elderberry can inhibit both the influenza virus A, B, and the herpes simplex virus. How does elderberry boost our immune system? – The Wild Elderberry

The ginger and honey in the recipe add further immune-boosting properties.

Apart from Elderberries, we can forage loads of natural immune-boosting plants, and interestingly, all of those come in season just in time before the winter months: Seaberries, rosehips, sloe berries, to name just a few. It wouldn’t be in the scope of this article to go into foraging and foraging recipes, but if this is something you are interested in, follow someone like Wild Food Events

I would just like to mention a particular herb that is often sold as an immune-booster: Echinacea drops.

As I mentioned above, sometimes, the immune system can go into over-drive and start attacking itself. There seems to be some evidence suggesting that taking Echinacea can boost your immune system so much that especially in auto-immune conditions, it could get too much of a boost and give people a flare-up. Given that many people don’t know whether they have an auto-immune condition, I would recommend checking with your health care provider or in the health food store, whether it’s safe for you to take it. (n.b. one of the most common ones is Hashimoto, where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. Many people might be aware of having an underactive thyroid but have never been tested for the auto-immune condition).

  1. Vitamin D and sunshine

I can’t imagine anyone not having heard about the importance of Vitamin D on the immune system and our bones. It is now advertised everywhere as an added benefit whether that’s in milk, cereals, yoghurts, juices, etc. And it is totally undisputed that it is a vital vitamin (actually, it is a hormone!), as it not only helps fight infections, but it also plays a vital role in preventing auto-immunity and even diabetes. It is a bit like Vitamin D can play the role of orchestrating the immune system, i.e. keeping the soldiers fighting only what needs to be fought.

Vitamin is also a fat-soluble vitamin and without it, you cannot absorb other vital vitamins such as A, E, and K which all play their own roles in the immune system as anti-oxidants.

Just again, a little warning: As vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin it cannot be excreted when too much is taken and this can cause issues for the kidneys and liver. It is very rare in Ireland that people have too high vitamin D, but if you are supplementing too much, you could be at risk of getting too much. I would therefore highly recommend testing your Vitamin D levels. You can ask your GP, but some might not want to test for it. If this is the case, I can arrange a private test for you.

Being outside in the sunshine in the winter as much as possible is of course another perfect option. The mere fact of being outdoors in sunlight is also a boost to your immune system.

Some people think that being outside in sunlight will be sufficient to get enough Vitamin D, but there are some people who have a genetic variant that prevents the conversion of sunlight into vitamin D and no matter how long these people are out in the sunlight, they won’t get enough. Again, a vitamin D level test can point you in the right direction. Or you could do a nutrigenomics DNA test with me.

  1. Gut health

Most of our immune system is in the gut because our gut is really the most intimate connection of the inside of our body with the outside world. Therefore we have a very strong army already in our stomachs – stomach acid. Imagine an army that uses acid as their defence weapon? Anything that comes in that shouldn’t be there, just gets dissolved in acid. That’s what stomach acid is supposed to do, apart from breaking food down into smaller parts. A lot of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens get killed by the strong stomach acid. That is – if you have strong stomach acid. A lot of people are taking anti-acids or don’t have sufficient stomach acid due to age or lack of zinc. This means they are more prone that bacteria, viruses and pathogens are not getting killed.

It is also more likely that food isn’t broken down properly and will then cause issues further down in the gut. Maybe, it gets stuck in the small intestine and starts to ferment there (SIBO). This can cause inflammation and takes the soldiers away from fighting elsewhere. Or it causes issues in the gut lining, where it lets substances through that shouldn’t actually get into the bloodstream, and the immune system soldiers then perceive these items as foreigners and want to attack them.

Obviously, if you have been prescribed anti-acid medication, you need to continue this medication and discuss it with your GP. But there are things you can do to support digestion in conjunction with this medication.

Again, the gut is such a complex system but plays such a vital part in our overall well-being and health – and the immune system in particular.

If you eat a diet packed with vegetables, you are keeping your gut healthy. If you add fermented foods, you add even more beneficial bacteria that can crowd out the “bad guys”. A good probiotic can further help this process. There are many great probiotics out there now, just ask your healthcare provider or in your health food store. At the moment, one of my favourite products is from Activated probiotics: Pure and Natural Supplies. Biome Daily 30’s

  1. Cold water and exposure to cold

This seems sometimes counter-intuitive, as we’ve been told to wrap up warm to prevent getting a cold when we were young. But our bodies are funny in the way that often we need to stress them to become stronger. And exposure to cold water and cold air, actually makes our immune system stronger. Sea swimming is still very popular as people have recognised the benefits, but it might not be for everyone, especially the choppy waves can be more frequent in the winter months and are dangerous!

So there is always the cold shower or cold bath at home! A brief cold shower all over your body after your warm shower is an ideal way to boost your immune system and get your energy levels up for the day.

Also, do go out into the cold: breathing in cold air does help the immune system as well. And being a little bit cold, won’t do you any damage. One of the reasons our immune systems have lost a lot of their capacity is, because we are often too comfortable in our warm homes.

However, do not get into the cold, when you already have a cold, that is really counterproductive.

  1. Nasal cleansing

Since having to wear masks, we all know that viruses can enter our bodies through the nose. The nose is also part of our immune system, as it can already prevent viruses and bacteria from entering the body. Nasal cleansing with sea salt or specific products can therefore provide some protection during the flu season.

Your health store will offer many products for nasal cleansing, nasal rinse, sinus rinse, and nasal irrigation. Find something that you feel comfortable with and regard it as brushing your teeth and cleansing out debris.

  1. Reducing toxic load and detoxification

Detox has become a bit  of a buzz word with often negative connotations – implying a fad diet and giving up everything. But it does have a place in supporting your immune system. Detoxification is an integral part of your immune system, it is the cleaning up after the fight or staying clean in the first place to prevent further damage.

Of course, the bigger the mess, the harder the cleaning up work that needs to be done.

Step number 1 should therefore be: do anything you can to avoid the mess in the first place.

Especially, coming up to the winter season, I highly recommend avoiding the “junk” foods that cause inflammation and oxidation in your system and are putting your immune system under pressure. That is, of course, all your highly processed and refined foods and especially fats, but it can also be your skin care products and other toxic exposure you might be under.

Step 2 should be to give your body plenty of nutrients to support your body’s natural detoxification, and these are found mainly in your variety of vegetables and some fruit. You can also look into specific herbs such as dandelion, nettles, burdock, milk thistle, and specific liver detox supplements with a combination of these herbs.

  1. Medicinal mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms such as reishi have been found to have plenty of compounds that support a healthy immune system. Many immune-supporting supplements now have substances called beta-glucans added, which are derived from mushrooms. We are only rediscovering the huge health benefits of medicinal mushrooms in recent years and I find it absolutely fascinating what these can do.

This would be a good one to take on a daily basis: Pure and Natural Supplies. Bio-Defense 60’s

  1. Movement

Most of us could move more, but we often only associate movement with building muscle and using up calories. But movement is also important for a healthy immune system, as it helps move lymph liquid through and out of the body. Unlike, our blood which is pumped around the body by the heart, lymph does not have the “engine” and can only be moved by movement.  Lymph may pick up bacteria and transport them to lymph nodes, where the bacteria are destroyed.

Apart from this, being outdoors in the fresh air, will bring oxygen to your body and this can also support the immune system.

  1. Relaxation

As if we didn’t all know that stress is bad for our health. And mainly, what we are saying with this is that high cortisol levels have a negative effect on our immune system. It suppresses immune functions on all levels. Therefore, it is important to avoid stress where possible and to reduce cortisol through relaxation techniques. There are plenty of relaxation techniques you can use available through Apps and YouTube and in books. You can also read my tips in a previous blog: Self-care is the opposite to selfish! – RightFood4U

If you have trouble sleeping, doing some relaxation exercises throughout the day to bring down that cortisol can be very helpful. It is important to slow down from about 3 hours before going to bed, to stop eating, to stop using computer or phone screens, and to avoid any heavy discussions or rows. Being in bed early means following the circadian rhythm. Often, if we go past our usual bedtime, we can experience a “second wind” which rises cortisol levels again.

During sleep, our immune system is actually very active in cleaning up old debris in a process called autophagy. And the longer and deeper you can sleep, the stronger your immune system will be. One of the reasons, we do feel so tired when we actually are already sick, is that sleep is a great healer. So, why not use the healing properties as prevention already?

  1. Random acts of kindness
“Every act of kindness on your part is a boost to your own immune system.” – Marianne Williamson

This might be the one that surprises you the most. How can being kind to others benefit your immune system you might ask?

Scientists have actually found out that when we do something for others, it makes us feel good too, and that this sense of good feeling actually reduces our cortisol levels and stimulates some “Happy Hormones” in our brains. A lot of people feel “selfish” when looking after themselves and taking time out. But actually looking after others, volunteering for your club or organisation, and being part of a wider community are all activities that are associated with happier, healthier, and longer lives.

 

I hope you have found some of these tips helpful. Obviously, all topics are just scratching the surface. If you like to find out more about what you can do to live a longer, happier and healthier life, please feel free to contact me or book a Health Review call with me. Looking forward to hearing from you.

 

 

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