How to Keep Your Family Healthy During Cold and Flu Season: Naturopathic Perspectives
As the temperatures drop and the days get shorter, viruses tend to start making their way around as well. This is especially true if you have kids in daycare or school, or if you work in an office surrounded by coworkers. The viruses that cause colds and the flu can be spread easily by coughing and sneezing.
While there is no way to guarantee you won’t get sick this winter, there are things you can do to reduce the severity of your sickness. Wash your hands well and often to help minimize the spread of germs. If you are exposed to germs, which you inevitably will be at some point, a healthy immune system will ensure that your body is not completely overwhelmed and can fight off the infection. Keeping your immune system in excellent shape is the best way to prevent infections from knocking you down this year and keeping you in bed for days or even weeks.
Here are a few easy ways to help your immune system get the support that it needs during the cold-and-flu season.
Stock Up on Your Vitamins
Vitamins C and D and zinc are three of the most important nutrients for our immune system to function optimally. Insufficient vitamin intake can cause you to become deficient and will lower your body’s defense against toxins and invading pathogens.
Vitamin C is a micronutrient that reacts powerfully in our body. One of the roles that vitamin C plays in the body is to support the epithelial barrier, the outer layer of our skin and organs, to prevent pathogens from invading the body. It accumulates in our phagocytic cells, which are the cells that protect the body by eating and essentially destroying foreign molecules that are in our body. Vitamin C helps our phagocytic cells destroy invading pathogens more efficiently so that the microbes are killed and removed quicker. Vitamin C deficiency has been correlated with a weaker immune system that is more susceptible to infections and disease. Supplementing with vitamin C for optimal levels in the body can prophylactically prevent infection, and if infection or disease does occur, higher doses of vitamin C can help speed up the recovery process.
The vitamin D receptor is found on our immune cells in our body. Deficiency in vitamin D has been shown to make the body more susceptible to infection. There have been studies showing that people with vitamin D deficiency are more likely to self-report suffering from an upper respiratory effect, and miss more days of work during the recovery process. This vitamin inhibits B-cell proliferation and differentiation, and plays a role in T-cell maturation. B and T cells make up our adaptive immune response and are in charge of making antibodies to fight off infection. Having the support of vitamin D allows our adaptive immune response to be even stronger and function more efficiently.
Zinc plays an important role in the optimal development and function of neutrophils and natural T killer cells, both of which fight off viruses. Zinc is also an antioxidant and helps support healthy cell membranes. When you become deficient in zinc, your immune system defenses are down and your body is more susceptible to viruses and illness.
While vitamins C and D and zinc aren’t the only ones that play a role in immune support, they are some of the most effective. Be sure you are getting adequate levels of these nutrients, and if you feel like you may be coming down with something, ask your health-care practitioner about dosing them higher to treat your acute sickness.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is our body’s best opportunity to rest and recharge. Inadequate sleep lowers your immune function, and this in turn makes it easier for you to catch a cold or the flu, and chances are the virus will hit you harder than your well-rested counterparts. Nighttime sleep has been shown to enhance the body’s production of the immune cells that fight off infection. When your body doesn’t have a chance to reset at night, your immune system is also not able to recharge and produce the immune components necessary to keep your body healthy.
Try to aim for eight consecutive hours of quality sleep each night. Minimize electronics in the evening, dim the lights, and sip on a soothing cup of chamomile tea before bed to help you unwind and get ready for your slumber. If you are starting to feel like you’re coming down with something, don’t hesitate to load up on the ZZZs. Take a short afternoon nap if you have the opportunity, or go to bed an hour earlier. Skip your morning workout and get some extra sleep if you feel like you need it, with no guilt. Sleep is vital, so don’t skimp on the snoozing.
Your kidneys are essentially the glorified trashmen of the body. The role of the kidneys includes aiding in the elimination of waste and toxins that would otherwise begin to cause damage if they accumulated in the body. When damage is done anywhere in the body, all of our energy goes into healing that damage. This, in turn, leaves us susceptible to infections and illness, because our body doesn’t have the necessary energy stores to fight off immune-system invaders. Water is necessary for proper kidney function and for flushing out toxins as required. Staying hydrated helps prevent toxins from building up and, in turn, allows our body to have the energy needed to support our immune system.
Aim for a minimum of half your body weight in ounces of water per day (e.g. a 180 lb person needs at least 90 oz of water). If you are very active and losing fluids through sweating, you will need even more water to best support your body. If you don’t enjoy plain water, add fruits to enhance the taste. Slice up some lemons, cucumbers, and strawberries to have on hand so you can quickly add a few slices to your water in the morning.
Elderberry is a fantastically effective herb in the winter months for aiding your immune system to function optimally, and for good reason. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s a sweet berry that comes from the Sambucus plant. The berries and flowers are used for medicinal purposes. Thanks to the bioflavonoids in this plant it is antiviral, and it’s also rich in vitamins A, C, and B6, as well as in potassium. If taken before getting sick, it can significantly reduce the severity and duration of symptoms.
Elderberry syrup can be ingested on its own, or you can add it to foods and use it as a sweetener instead of honey or sugar. Try adding it to your morning bowl of oats, a warm mug of herbal tea, or on top of a scoop of vanilla ice cream for a yummy dessert.
Eat Real Food
This means food that doesn’t come from a box or a jar. Fruits, veggies, legumes, and meat are packed with the vitamins and nutrients that we need in order to feel good. Those immune-boosting vitamins that were mentioned above can easily be found in foods. Make sure you are incorporating plenty of fresh fruits and veggies into your daily diet. If you are going to buy prepackaged food, keep it to a minimum.
Garlic is a powerful antiviral and antibacterial herb that can help boost your immune system so you don’t get sick. Fresh herbs are best and this herb is so easy to use fresh and incorporate into your meals. Chop up a few cloves and add it to your stir fry or your veggie scramble for a great immune boost. You can also make an immune boosting drink called an oxymel. It’s a warm beverage made from apple cider vinegar, honey, and garlic. Prepare a batch of it and store it in the fridge to drink over a few days. You can also get creative and add herbs to your oxymel to increase it’s immune boosting properties. To make your oxymel simply combine 1 cup apple cider vinegar, 1 cup water, ½ cup honey, 2 cloves of freshly minced garlic, and the juice of one lemon. Heat on the stove at a simmer for ten minutes and enjoy.
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Mallory Murray, ND
She utilizes the most noninvasive treatments possible while helping achieve the most optimal state of health. Focusing on nutrition, lifestyle changes, and botanical supplements, she treats the whole family.