WINTER IMMUNITY: TWO PERSPECTIVES
1. Foundational Support for Your Immune System
Being sick is a bummer. Most people see sickness as a nuisance that keeps us from doing the things we want to be doing. However, our bodies always have a reason for why we feel the way we do. The discomfort that you feel when you’re sick, that’s your body communicating to you that something isn’t right. This is your body letting you know that either something you are doing is taxing your systems or that it’s time to start doing something more supportive. Either way, your immune system is compromised and is fighting fiercely to keep you from developing long-term damage and chronic illness. After all, it’s in our body’s best interest to keep us feeling good so we can keep providing the nourishment it needs to thrive. Our bodies only slow us down when we need to conserve energy and redirect it towards fighting off an infection or processing toxins.
I used to believe that getting sick was an inevitability that came along with the changing of the leaves and the onset of rain. But once I began paying more attention to the messages my body was telling me and treating food as medicine, I learned that it is possible to get through the colder months without coming down with a cold or flu. There are so many aspects to staying healthy in the winter, and covering them all is beyond the scope of this article. Today, I’d like to share with you a little about nutrition and why soups are an ideal winter food for supporting health through colder months. At the end I will give a few tips about other aspects that can help keep you healthy this winter.
Most people as it gets colder are less inclined to eat cooling foods, like raw vegetables and fruit. The body will start to crave more energy dense foods, in an attempt to store energy. The body is doing this in preparation for the scarcity that, throughout most of human time, accompanied winter. It’s very easy this time of year to opt for a pumpkin spice muffin instead of a kale salad. While there is more storable energy (carbohydrates) in processed grains and sugar, there are significantly less nutrients. There’s a good chance that occasionally eating this way will not tip the scale from feeling fine and dandy to achy and stuffy. With that said, sugar does put extra strain on the immune system and I would advise avoiding sugar if you are feeling any symptoms of sickness. If you are feeling fine, everyone has their own threshold of how much their body is able to handle. If your body goes long enough without getting the nutrients it needs to support the immune system and detoxification, the burden becomes too much to handle.
To ward off illness, make sure you are getting enough nutrients to support your immune system. Start by cooking more. Cooking at home instead of eating out or buying processed foods is a simple way to get more nutrients without putting much thought into it. For added benefit, cook with butter, ghee, coconut oil, lard, or tallow instead of canola oil, safflower oil, or other highly processed “vegetable oils.” Also, use an unrefined salt, high in minerals like Himalayan salt or Celtic salt, instead of iodized table salt. High mineral salt at 90+ minerals, instead of just sodium chloride and synthetic iodine found in table salt. These minerals are essential to every metabolic function that needs to happen in the body.
Making soups and congee (rice porridge) are great ways to still eat something comforting while also getting easily absorbable nutrients. As the ingredients cook in liquid, they begin to gently break down. This allows your body to absorb the nutrients more easily and spend less energy on digestion. The cooking process also breaks down plant anti nutrients, like phytates and oxalates, which allows you to absorb more of the minerals in your vegetables. This is why soup is traditionally given to those who are sick. The easily absorbed nutrients, and the reserve energy can then be used for fighting off infection, processing toxins, cellular repair, and powering other processes in your body that keep you feeling good.
Another great thing about soup is that you can make a large batch and eat it throughout the week. Be aware, there is a big difference, nutritionally, when it comes to making a soup with store-bought broth and homemade broth. A broth you make at home is going to have significantly more nutrients than what you buy at the store. If you eat meat, use a meat or bone broth as your base. The bones will release amino acids like glutamine, as well as minerals like calcium and magnesium as they simmer. If you are vegetarian, try a veggie or mushroom broth. Homemade broth can be made in as little as 30 minutes but generally cooking them longer pulls out more nutrients. If you have the time, you can cook a veggie stock up to 2 hours before it begins to get bitter. A bone broth can go up to 12 hours if you like, but you don’t get any added nutritional benefit by cooking longer than 12 hours. If you are sensitive to histamines, are immune compromised or are chronically ill, a shorter broth of 30 minutes to 2 hours will be better for your body.
Soups are a staple of my winter diet and I also use them therapeutically when I get sick. If you get sick, eating soup at least once per day will warm and comfort you, while giving your body a nutritional boost. If you are able, try sticking to an exclusively soup or broth diet until symptoms begin to lessen. You’ll be amazed at how beneficial this can be when combating an illness.
Nutrition is just one piece of the equation that can keep you healthy during the winter. Here are some other things to consider to stay healthy during the winter. For starters, it’s important to stimulate your lymph. Your lymph system is the way your immune system moves throughout your body. Unlike your circulatory system which has your heart to pump it, your lymph relies entirely on movement and physical stimulation through the skin to circulate. When you don’t move, your immune system can’t do its job. To move your lymph, go for a 30 minute walk every day, do yoga or use a sauna regularly. Doing even one of these regularly will keep your lymph flowing.
When it’s cold we tend to close up windows, which cause the air to get stale and also fosters mold growth. Make a point to get outside and breathe fresh air. At home, open your windows occasionally when the rain lets up. Even 5-10 minutes daily is beneficial. To prevent mold, run a fan and a heater when taking a shower. Wash any bath mats, towels, sweater, and shower curtains regularly with hot water. Spray your shower down with a mix of citrus essential oils and apple cider vinegar to help prevent mold growth. (Bleach actually spreads mold and is very toxic, so avoid that!)
It’s easy to forget about drinking water in the winter, but hydration is essential for every process in the body, even when it’s cold. Make sure to drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day to support your immune system. If you are sick, you need even more water to flush things out. Coffee, soda, tea, and alcohol dehydrate you, so they don’t count towards your daily amount. In addition to dehydrating the body, caffeine, sugar and alcohol put stress on the immune system. If you are feeling any cold or flu symptoms, I strongly suggest cutting these out while you are healing. Add a lemon wedge and a pinch of Himalayan salt to your water to keep electrolytes replenished.
If you’re not well rested, this puts strain on your immune system. Your body does most of its repair work while you are sleeping. One way to make sure you’re getting a full night’s sleep is by limiting or avoiding smartphone and computer use 1-2 hours before bed. Even if you can fall asleep right after shutting off your computer, the light emitted from these screens tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daylight and reduces the restorative effects of sleep. You may be sleeping, but your sleep is not as deep or beneficial. If you need to use a computer or smart phone before bed, try using a blue light blocking app like f.lux.
To recap, your immune system needs adequate nutrition to keep you feeling like a million bucks. Try cooking at home more and explore broth, soup, and congee. Drinking fresh green juice and green smoothies you make at home or from a juice bar in town are other ways to sneak nutrients into your daily routine. Try moving every day. Thirty minutes or more is ideal, but even getting 5-10 minutes is beneficial. Getting fresh air, reducing your exposure to mold, drinking enough water and getting deep, restful sleep are powerful ways to support your immune system. I challenge you to take one of the tips from this article and start doing it today. I wish you amazing health and wellness through these damp and dark months!
By John Farinelli, Co-op Member
2. Building Strong Immunity: The Basics for Self Care
Every day we are exposed to billions of microorganisms. They live all over our bodies, inside and out. They come in through our food, on our hands, and in the air. They’re everywhere! Many are allies, but some are responsible for colds, the flu, and other unwelcome illness. There’s only so much we can do to reduce exposure so it’s important to bolster our internal defenses in order to keep illness at bay. And while the immune system itself is incredibly complex, supporting it begins with simple steps.
There are two major players when it comes to immune function: specialized immune cells, found in the blood and tissues and the digestive system. Cells in the blood and tissues team up to identify and destroy invaders. These cells need to be healthy, active, and in good number to do their job. The role of the digestive system begins in the stomach where the acidic environment kills off pathogens, but does not harm probiotics. Any survivors move on to the intestines where beneficial bacteria crowd out and fight off remaining pathogens. Probiotic gut bacteria also assist in the breakdown of food, making nutrients available to immune and other cells so they can function optimally.
Sugars, including starchy processed foods that are quickly converted to sugars, can significantly affect our defenses by decreasing the activity of immune cells for hours after consumption. They also create an environment that favors pathogenic gut flora making it difficult for probiotic bacteria to survive, eliminating a critical line of defense. This imbalance is also a known factor in Leaky Gut Syndrome, which can contribute to more complex immune issues such as food sensitivities and autoimmune conditions.
Stress also has a considerable impact on our immune systems. Most of us associate stress with external factors like traffic jams, a difficult work life, or major life changes, but stress can also be internal. Inflammation, lack of sleep, exposure to allergens (and foods to which we are sensitive), and intense exercise can increase strain on the body. This overwhelms the immune system with what amounts to busy-work, making it difficult for those specialized cells to identify and destroy pathogens – and easier for us to get sick.
Here’s the great news: the basics of caring for your immune system and preventing illness are simple and accessible. An organic whole foods diet including plenty of colorful vegetables and fruits provides vital nutrients to support immune function. Live fermented foods ensure a healthy balance of gut bacteria to fight off pathogens and maximize nutrient absorption. Remember that probiotics are killed off at temperatures over 105°F so be mindful when using ferments in meals and make sure purchased products are labeled as live, raw or unpasteurized. When I can’t make it myself, OlyKraut, found in the Co-op’s cold case, is my top pick! Stress-relieving practices such as breathing exercises, meditation and yoga have also been shown to support healthy immune function.
When these foundational pieces are in place, additional supplements, such as herbs with antimicrobial or immune-supportive actions, individual nutrients, and probiotic supplements, are much more effective. These are great tools to consider when our exposure is heightened or we feel the first signs of a cold coming on. When choosing supplements, check the label for any “inactive” ingredients or sugars that may be counteractive and keep in mind that food-based products are easier for the body to recognize and utilize.
When it comes down to it, we all have to eat. Making conscious food choices part of your self-care routine streamlines your time, energy, and budget by giving your immune system the nutritional support it needs without relying on costly supplements. Prevention may not seem as exciting as the latest remedy, but it’s as simple as it is vital to a strong immune system.
By Meghan Hinz, LMP, Co-op member & Co-op Community Classes teacher