Staying Healthy During Cold and Flu Season
Staying health during cold and flu season may seem like an impossible task but there are things we can do every day keep our immune system healthy. So, what can we do to boost our immune system and what should you do if you get sick with a virus or bacterial infection this winter?
First let’s discuss what a healthy immune system looks like: a healthy immune system is a detective looking for stranger signals and it will mount a response if it identifies a signal (ie: virus or bacteria) as dangerous. It is also homeodynamic and tightly controlled by genomic and enzymatic mechanisms to keep tight regulation. Healthy immunity is restorative and able to repair damage from injury. And lastly, a healthy immune system is tolerant or actively unresponsive to substances that enter the body that are not dangerous like food, healthy bacteria, and ourselves. When the immune system is activated, inflammation is occurring and while we hear all the time that we need to reduce inflammation, and that is true, we do need some inflammation to help us fight off infections, wounds, and injuries. So while too much inflammation is bad, turning off all inflammation is also not a good thing.
Healthy Immune System Lifestyle Factors
Let’s discuss what we can do to keep it functioning optimally. I bet you can list at least a half dozen supplements you’ve seen in the headlines but my first advice is to go back to the basics. Lifestyle choices we make have a far greater impact on our immune systems functioning than any supplement we can take (and trust me, there are good supplements, more on that below).
Healthy Immune System Basics
- Sleep: This is probably the single most important thing to focus on. Sleep is a natural anti-inflammatory. Even just one poor night sleep can lead to an impaired immune response if you encounter a virus or infection this season. Aim for 7-8 hours per night and try to maintain the same sleep and awake times as much as possible.
- Nutrition: Food is information, and it can either fight inflammation or contribute to inflammation with a direct response to our immune system’s ability to right off viruses and bacteria. For example, eating foods that are high glycemic (think high sugar, refined carbohydrate foods) has a direct correlation with inflammation in the body that we can see on laboratory values. Conversely, a diet high in antioxidants from fruits and vegetables is associated with a decrease in inflammation. We are what we eat (and what our microbiome eats). It should go without saying but eating a well balanced, healthy and diverse diet supports a healthy microbiome which in turn supports your immune system in so many ways! There was a study from 2021 that looked at the diversity of the microbiome and found that the lower the diversity the increased severity of COVID19 symptoms. Food matters! To support the microbiome it is important to incorporate a variety of probiotic foods (yogurt, kefir, fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, kombucha, fermented cheeses) and prebiotic fiber (green-ish bananas, asparagus, garlic, onions, leeks, oats, apples, flax seeds) and phytonutrients from a rainbow assortment of fruits and vegetables (More on that HERE).
- Exercise: Exercise can have a profound effect on our immune system’s ability to function optimally. It has been shown that prolonged periods of intense exercise can depress the immune system but moderate intensity has been found to be beneficial. Exercise reduces systemic inflammation and reduces the risk of infection by increasing circulation of infection-fighting while blood cells and antibodies, improves overall circulation and decreases stress hormones. Another large study looking at COVID19 and exercise, showed that physical inactivity was associated with more severe outcomes with SARS-COV-2 infection including hospitalization, ICU admission and death. Those who exercised 150 minutes per week had the most protection but even those who exercised for just 10 minutes had some degree protection. So get in some regular, moderate intensity exercise, preferably outside in the sunshine so you can get some natural Vitamin D synthesis!
- Stress reduction: Sympathetic activity (aka fight or flight mode) suppresses the immune system and it is not uncommon these days for individuals who are chronically stressed to be in a constant state of fight or flight which can suppress the immune system, making it more likely to get sick. Practicing meditation or mindfulness, connecting with loved ones, and exercising can all help to reduce chronic stress.
Natural Remedies for Upper Respiratory Symptom Relief
- Running a humidifier, especially at nighttime
- Neti-pot or Neil-Med sinus rinses for nasal congestion
- Menthol rubs or essential oils (peppermint, eucalyptus)
- Salt water gargling for sore throat
- Steamy showers to open up the airways
- Honey- preferably raw -is helpful for coughs and sore throats, reduces inflammation of mucous membranes and has antioxidant properties
- Soothing teas: peppermint or chamomile (Pique tea has a Mint Green Tea that I love)
- Maintaining good hydration helps to loosen up secretions
- Bone broth/soups – offer hydration and good nutrition and they are easy to consume when sick. Sipping on a hot broth acts as a natural decongestant
IMMUNE HEALTH SUPPLEMENTS AND BOTANICALS
Many want to know, what is the quick fix, the one pill that will boost the immune system and the truth is, there is not one magic thing that will stop a cold in its tracks or ward off viruses but there are several nutraceuticals and botanicals that have good evidence for use to help modulate the immune response. This is not an exhaustive list but these are some of my favorite immune health supplements and things I keep handy for me and my family during cold and flu season. We don’t take all of them, all of the time but during cold and flu season we tend to be more proactive on the supplement front. As always, it is vitally important that you work with a trained practitioner to know if these are safe for you to take with respect to your health history and current medications.
Here are my favorite Immune Health supplements to support the immune system during cold and flu season:
- Vitamin D: There seems to be a lot of controversy over vitamin D but I am in favor of making sure there is adequate intake, based on lab values always, with a goal of 50-80ng/ml. I have never seen an optimal Vitamin D level without supplementation, even here in Sunny Colorado and even in the middle of the summer. Vitamin D is an important immunomodulatory hormone that helps to enhance the defense against infection by up-regulating microbial peptides and dampening inflammatory cytokine production. There is a large body of literature looking at vitamin D and COVID19 that shows that optimal blood levels of Vitamin D results in lower rates of SARS-COV2 infection and lower risk of severe infection. Side effects of vitamin D are minimal but labs need to be monitored to ensure calcium does not elevate with higher doses of vitamin D. It is good to take Vitamin D3 with K2 for most people, especially when consuming higher doses.
- Vitamin C: This immune health supplement is probably the most mainstream. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that reduces inflammation in the body as measured by CRP (C-reactive protein), an inflammatory marker. It plays a role in supporting cellular function in the innate and adaptive immune system and regular Vitamin C intake has been shown to shorten the duration of colds and high doses of Vitamin C during acute illness has anti-inflammatory properties to help with recovery.
- Zinc: This nutrient also has shown to reduce the frequency and duration of infections. Evidence suggests that it suppresses viral attachment and replication. Zinc deficiency is common in many people. It is best to start zinc supplementation within 24 hours of symptom onset and it can cause nausea in some individuals so taking it with food can be helpful.
- Quercetin: This food derived flavanol is a great anti-inflammatory botanical. Found in apples, onions, berries, tea, and tomatoes, quercetin helps modulate the histamine response and is helpful in conditions like allergies, asthma and atopic disease. Quercetin has been shown to have antiviral effects against RNA (influenza and SARS-COV-2) and DNA (herpesviruses) viruses by limiting replication of the viruses.
- Omega 3s: Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential fatty acids which means they are not created in the body and must be consumed through diet or supplementation. While these aren’t directly immune health supplements they are important. Two subtypes of essential fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive at high doses. A study from 2013 found that omega 3’s enhance B cell function which help to fight off pathogens. They are also necessary for a healthy cell membrane including the membranes of immune cells, so having adequate levels of omega 3’s promotes proper cell function.
- Echinacea: This is one of the most well known botanicals immune health supplements. It is a plant that is native to North America and has properties that will increase white blood cell activity, increase natural killer cell number and activity, protects against free radical damage and promotes cellular immunity. It has been shown in mice and human trials to reduce the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections if take soon after the onset of symptoms.
- Astragalus: This herb has been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to enhance vitality, promote wellness and for numerous chronic illnesses. Astragalus contains a number of immune boosting polysaccharides, like glucans. It has antibacterial effects, antiviral properties and helps prime the innate immune system to respond to pathogens.
- Andrographis: Andrographis is another herb that has been used in TCM for hundreds of years. Andrographis has antibacterial, antiviral and antiparasitic effects as well as an ability to stimulate the immune system. It has been used for centuries to treat upper respiratory tract infections, coughs and sinusitis. This herb is good for treating infection once you begin to feel ill.
- Bromelain: Was discovered in pineapple stems and has anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain relieving) properties. It has evidence for use In trauma, post-operative healing, sinusitis and osteoarthritis. In upper respiratory tract infections, Bromelain works by breaking down proteins found in the mucus which helps to thin out nasal mucus with sinusitis.
This is not a comprehensive list of all of the wonderful nutraceutical and botanical supplements out there but these are a few of my favorites. By no means, does anyone need to be taking all of these, all of the time but given their low risk they do have a place in my personal routine and in my practice. I still believe lifestyle factors play a bigger role in keeping the immune system functioning at its peak. And again, I cannot urge strongly enough, it is critical to work with a practitioner who can tell you what the best regimen would be for you based on your personal history and current medications due to interaction possibilities. If you are located in Colorado and looking to up-level your immune system, book a free introductory call today! Book HERE!
Two of my favorite cold and flu season must haves both by Orthomolecular:
DHist – contains: quercetin, bromelain, stinging nettle, Vitamin C, N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine
Viracid – contains: Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin B12, Zinc, Astragalus, Andrographus, European Elder Berry, Echinacea, L-Lysine
Both also come in pediatric versions!
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