Immunity is the season’s magic word. That’s not a Survivor reference; I’m talking about warding off the very real threat of colds, flu, and other winter germs lurking on every doorknob, in every public bathroom, and on every grab rail of your morning train to work. When temperatures drop and windows stay shut, viruses can thrive indoors. If your immune system isn’t up to the task, you’re likely to catch the latest bug to hit town. This means less energy and just plain old feeling awful. Each winter, these infections put millions of people out of commission and send more than 200,000 sufferers to the hospital.
For sure it is cold outside, but winter season needn’t be the unhealthiest time of year for you and your family. So how do you protect yourself?
With some smart habits and a little help from nature, you can safeguard your immune system against the season’s grossest illnesses.
Here is a list of exactly what you need—and what you should avoid—to strengthen your body’s immune system during the winter season.
1. Have a Hearty Breakfast Every Day.
Winter is the perfect season for porridge. Eating a warm bowlful on a cold morning isn’t just a delicious way to start your day, it also helps boost your intake of starchy foods and fibre.
These give you energy and help you feel fuller for longer, stopping the temptation to snack mid-morning. Oats contain fiber-rich whole grains that increase serotonin, a feel-good chemical in your brain, and they steadie your blood sugar level.
Make your porridge with milk or water, and don’t add sugar or salt. Add a few dried apricots, some raisins, a sliced banana or other fruit for extra flavour.
Milk and dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt and fromage frais are great sources of proteins and vitamins A and B12. They’re also an important source of calcium, which helps keep our bones strong.
2. Sleeping Well.
Proper sleep (eight hours for an adult) can help keep the body’s immune system healthy and fight off colds. Make sure that your bedroom is comfortable – not too hot, not too cold and not too noisy. Stay away from big meals at night. Try to make dinnertime earlier in the evening, and avoid heavy, rich foods within two hours of bed. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes as these substances can affect the quality of your sleep.
Regular, moderate exercise, relaxation techniques – some people find ayurveda really healpful – and establishing a regular relaxing bedtime routine, such as listening to soft music or soaking in a warm bath may help to promote improved sleep. Also try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
3. Hydrated Yourself Well.
Don’t forget to keep drinking water!
As the weather cools down and our thirst decreases it is easy to forget to drink enough water. You still need to aim for about two litres/day of water during winter as it is essential for our body to function. If you struggle with plain water (like I do sometimes) try mild herbal tea. There are so many flavours available now that you’re sure to find some you enjoy.
4. Keep Moving.
While it’s a little harder to find the motivation to exercise when it is cold outside, remember that keeping active during winter is essential to support our immune system and wellbeing. Even if only for 15 minutes a day! Take a walk and enjoy the cooler weather. Or you can move your exercise indoors during winter will help to keep you warm as well as fit and healthy.
5. Stay Connected.
Bears may hibernate, but we humans weren’t meant to hide away in our dens all winter. In fact, socializing is a very powerful way to boost your mood. Socializing helps strengthen your immune system by keeping you active. Friendships counteract the harmful effects of stress hormones, so avoid the temptation to rug up on the couch all winter.
Invite friends over for dinner or host a games night, visit local museums and art galleries, wrap up warm and go for a walk in the park with your family or plan a cinema date with your partner.
6. Wash Your Hands – a lot.
Frequent hand washing is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading illness as it limits the transfer of bacteria, viruses and other microbes. This is important during winter when we tend to cough and sneeze more frequently.
The proper way to wash your hands:
Wet your hands and lather up with soap for 20 seconds to help dislodge germs and rinse well under running water.
7. Eliminate All Forms of Sugar.
This includes not only the obvious kinds (cake, cookies and sweets, in general), but bread, pasta, rice, yogurt and commercial, store-bought fruit juices. Although all of these things are made with different types of sugars, your body still converts them to sugar, which will compromise your immune system.
8. Take a Daily Multi.
Do your homework to find the best supplement for your health.
Even if you eat “perfectly” all the time with loads of fresh fruits and vegetables, you still need to boost your nutrition with a supplement. What supplements you will need will depend significantly on your lifestyle.
You always pop vitamin C when you feel a cold coming on. However, during winter when vegetables and fruits high in the immune boosting vitamin are scarce, you may need to take regular vitamin C supplements to support body tissue growth, healthy blood vessels, strong bones and teeth, and to ward off winter influenza.
A body that’s low in iron can really feel really sluggish come winter. This is particularly true for women who have heavy periods. Iron supplements can rev up your energy levels and encourage healthy, fresh blood oxygen delivery to the lungs, spleen, bone marrow, muscles, and cells.
If you’re already iron deficient, chances are your vitamin A stores are depleted as well. Unless you’re pregnant, vitamin A will put the sparkle back in your eyes, the glow back in dull winter skin, and keep your bones strong in case of a slip or fall in nasty winter conditions.
Calcium, an essential mineral, supports strong bones and teeth. In essence protecting those bones from icy falls and those teeth from sweet, sweet cavities in the wake of holiday sweets.
As the days get shorter and the nights longer, it seems that we hardly see any sunshine during winter. This can be bad news for the D deficient since this essential vitamin is only absorbed when the body is exposed to sunlight. That’s why getting out in the sun (when weather permits) is vital during colder, darker months. Without vitamin D, the body can’t absorb calcium or stimulate certain immune responses that protect us from colds and infections.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acid supplements can help boost your mood, improve your mental focus, and ward off the sniffles.
If you suffer from seasonal dry skin, nails, and hair then you might be seriously lacking in vitamin E. This moisturizing antioxidant infuses the skin with moisture and soothes, red, itchy, flaky skin and brittle hair and nails against free radical damage, windburn, psoriasis, and dandruff.
Unfortunately, if you’re not a fan of green, leafy vegetables, you’re probably not getting enough folic acid. And during winter months when spinach and arugula are at an all time low, it’s even more difficult to top up depleting stores, which result in dry, flaky skin during cold months when we take more hot baths and showers, and when the humidity is low and skin won’t retain sufficient moisture.
This energetic little group of vitamins, known as B Complex, are responsible for converting carbohydrates into energy, to help metabolize fats and proteins for fuel. That’s why supplementing with B’s (particularly vitamin B12) can lessen feelings of depression, holiday anxiety, and SAD.
Many women suffer from painful menstrual cramps, particularly during winter. However, adding a magnesium supplement to your daily diet can ease cramps during cold weather months by lessening muscle contractions and severe nerve impulses.
9. Try Astragalus.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.
Astragalus is a perennial plant, about 16 to 36 inches tall, that is native to the northern and eastern parts of China, as well as Mongolia and Korea. It has hairy stems with leaves made up of 12 to 18 pairs of leaflets. The root is the medicinal part of the plant, and is usually harvested from 4-year-old plants.
Astragalus appears to work by stimulating the immune system. It has antioxidant effects that inhibit free radical production. In the body, free radicals damage cells and are linked to many health problems associated with aging.
Astragalus is a natural dietary supplement that’s used for various health conditions. For instance, it’s used to treat the common cold, it is known to increase the white blood cell count, and stimulate the growth of antibodies and create a resistance to both virus’s and bacteria. It’s also used to help improve overall weakness.
This Chinese root capsules are available in health food stores. To maintain disease-fighting levels of herb in your system, use it for at least 3 months (up to 2 years at a time) for best results. Take two 500 mg capsules of dried astralagus root, three times each day.
10. See the Light.
Your body produces D—which has been shown to help regulate mood—when your skin is exposed to UVB light. But in the winter, the sun’s rays aren’t strong enough in the northern half of the United States to power D production.
Beyond the D factor, sunlight increases levels of serotonin and also works to suppress melatonin, a chemical that makes you drowsy. Be sure to pop outside whenever you do spot some rays.