Last winter (2010/2011) was a particularly bad cold and flu season, and I’ve already had a number of patients come in asking for help in optimizing their immune health to help ensure that this winter is a healthier one!
Our immune system is one of the most complex systems in the body. While there are many factors that influence immune health (nutrition, environment, etc) making it difficult to provide a “one size fits all” approach, there are some common principles that can apply to everyone.
- Diet: Now is the time to make sure that every bite counts. Get rid of refined sugars and carbs, and eat lots of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. Foods high in vitamin C are especially important, as white blood cells work most efficiently when saturated with vitamin C.
- Optimize your vitamin D status: There’s a reason why colds and flus are more common in the winter, and that’s because we make less vitamin D in the winter than we do in the summer when we’re exposed to more sunlight. There’s a growing body of evidence that many Canadians are deficient in this important vitamin, so I do recommend asking your doctor for a blood test. It’s important that 25-hydroxyvitamin D be ordered, and not 1,25-hydroxyvitamin D. In home tests are also available through the ‘Vitamin D Council’ website.
- Probiotics: We know that more than 70% of our immune system is located in our gut, and maintaining a good population of “healthy” bacteria is important. Not everyone needs to take probiotics everyday, but you do need a reliable dietary source, and may need to supplement in certain circumstances. You should take a good quality, multi-strain refrigerated probiotic if you have a history of antibiotic use (especially recent), have IBS or IBD, take acid-suppressing medications, or have recently traveled (or plan to travel) out of the country.
- Keep stress levels in check: Cortisol, one of the hormones produced when we’re under stress, is known to suppress immune function. Chronic stress can lead to elevated levels of cortisol, which will impair your immune system’s ability to fight infection. Be sure to actively engage in stress reduction every day, and take steps to “treat the cause”. Seek out resources and treatments that will support and nurture your ability to cope. Our clinical therapist, Christina Wilson, is well trained in techniques that can help. Also, consider naturopathic medicine if you feel like chronic stress is impacting your health. Adrenal dysfunction is very common, and easily treated.
- Use herbs wisely. Over the counter products like Cold-FX and Echinacea are great, and work very well for some people. But, the best approach is an individually compounded tincture (mixture of herbs) designed to suit your symptoms. Other herbs we commonly reach for include astragalus, elderberry, horehound and usnea.
Feel free to download my “Cold and Flu‘ handout, which outlines a few other ideas to stay healthy this season. And, as always, please feel free to let me know if you have any questions.