The autumn sun is still caressing us with its warming rays but the chill in the early mornings and the nights lets us know that winter is on its way. With it comes winter bugs and viruses that seem to be everywhere – especially in places like buses, trains, day-care centres, schools or offices. So it’s time to think about stocking up on tissues to be ready for the first winter cold? Well, maybe you won’t need to prepare yourself quite like this! The trick is to boost the immune system of you and your loved ones to help increase the body’s resistance to infection and to improve recuperation.
“The microbe is nothing. The terrain is everything” (Louis Pasteur, 1895).
Your body is the terrain. Here are some tips to take good care of it and keep yourself really well.
The immune system is like a big orchestra where many instruments (different organs, tissues, glands and cells) play together to identify and neutralise potentially harmful substances for the body. How well it is tuned depends on individual factors, diet and lifestyle as well. Stress, lack of sleep, nutrient deficiencies, high sugar intake, alcohol, too much or too little exercise are all factors which influence and potentially weaken your immune system. But there’s no real reason to let the chill get to you because here are some winter-wellness-tips that will support you and your family to get through the cold season.
- Reduce stress in your life – the winter season traditionally invites us to take life in a more leisurely pace and to go to bed a bit earlier, just like the sun does.
- Have fun and lots of laughter and try to find the comical side of challenging situations. Laughter reduces stress hormones and boosts the immune system by increasing the activity of “natural killer cells” (a type of white blood cells) against those nasty winter bugs.
- Get moving! Regular light-to-moderate exercise releases endorphins and improves mood. It stimulates the immune system, increases circulation to combat cold hands and feet, helps to keep the heart healthy and as a bonus, works those extra kilos off the hips and belly and – it can be fun!
- Get outdoors and catch as much of the autumn sun as you can. Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is essential for your immune system function. Studies have shown that individuals with low vitamin D levels are more likely to catch a cold or get infected by flu viruses. Not surprisingly the flu season happens to hit when vitamin D levels are lowest due to less sun exposure during winter. If you were actively avoiding the sun during summer – or simply didn’t get much of it – you might need supplementation. We are naturally designed to build our vitamin D levels up over summer to get us through winter. If you’re prone to the winter blues, this also indicates low levels. Talk to your natural health practitioner about a suitable top-up.
- Snuggle up with your favourite winter socks, scarf and hat. Cold hands and feet, draughts to the neck and head compromise the health of mucous membranes, which then makes it easier for bugs and viruses to invade your body. Keep your body temperature stable and support your body to fight these winter nasties.
- Keep up hand washing hygiene and teach your kids to sneeze and cough into the elbow. Remember to dry your hands well after washing as bacteria and viruses happily multiply in a moist environment.
- Last but not least: listen to your body. Rest when you feel tired or if you think you have a cold coming on and treat yourself with a good night’s sleep. And do stay away from work. Your cold is something your colleagues really don’t want you to share!
As the cold and rainy season approaches and the sunshine hours get fewer, you might want to boost your levels of vitamins and minerals to sufficient levels with supplements. Your naturopath or medical herbalist can advise you what would be best for you.
One of the best ways to increase fresh fruit and vegetable intake – in a totally tasty way – is by a daily smoothie – you will need a good blender and ample supply of fresh fruits and green veges.
- Remain well hydrated. This means drinking at least 6-8 glasses of water per day. This will helps your circulation and aids the delivery of immune strengthening nutrients to various parts of your body, as well as removing waste. It is best to avoid cold drinks because they cool the body temperature and slow down your digestion (about 70% of the immune system is in the gut). Sip regularly on water that is no cooler than room temperature and/or herbal teas and reduce your intake of coffee and alcohol.
- Enjoy 5 to 10 portions of raw and cooked vegetables and fruit of all colours. Dark green leafy greens, orange, yellow and red varieties are especially high in vitamins A and C. These Vitamins are important antioxidants which keep the mucous membranes healthy and support the production and function of white blood cells. We find the best and tastiest way to get these into the whole family is a with a daily green smoothie. Even the kids will love it.
- Add citrus fruits, pineapple, kiwifruit and capsicum for their high vitamin C content. Bromelain is an enzyme in pineapple that also helps to break up mucous.
- Reduce intake of sugar –refined sugar lowers the ability of the white blood cells to function properly and hence weakens the immune system. You might like to try active manuka honey, xylitol or fresh fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth.
- Zinc and Selenium are minerals which help to arm the immune system. They reduce replication of viruses and enhance the function of white blood cells. Zinc and Selenium also work in a team with vitamins A, C and E, helping to replenish them and enhance their function. New Zealand soil is low in selenium so it is important to have foods that are high in selenium content, such as brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, wheatgerm, fish and seafood, meats and garlic, or you may need supplementation. Zinc lozenges or throat sprays used at the first sign of infections help to reduce symptoms and reduce duration of colds, flu, sinus problems or sore throats. Foods high in zinc include nuts and seeds especially pumpkin and sesame seeds as well as legumes, eggs, seafood, wholegrains, miso, tofu, green beans or mushrooms.
- Include garlic, onions and ginger in your diet on a regular basis. These foods contain natural substances which help to inactivate bugs and viruses. Garlic is considered to be a natural antibiotic!
- As an immune stimulating and bug-fighting boost make a hot lemon and honey drink for the whole family. If you do notice the first sign of a cold or flu add a pinch of cayenne pepper, some fresh grated ginger, with as much of a clove of fresh crushed garlic as tolerated. Enjoy your cuppa nice and hot and wrap yourself and/or the kids up warmly, embrace the hot water bottle and take a rest. This helps to stimulate the immune system, improves circulation and warms the body. Other options to boost its power are cinnamon or clove powder and a teaspoon of manuka honey.
Mother Nature supplies us with fantastic herbs which help to prevent or to speed up recovery from cold and flu. Most of them are safe for kids in appropriate dosages. For more information on these or to get your individual herbal mixture it is best to consult a trained medical herbalist or naturopath. Some examples include:
- Echinacea – renowned for its ability to stimulate the immune system. This herb helps to prevent viral and bacterial infections, is anti-inflammatory and facilitates the removal of toxins from the blood. It is a very safe herb to take and can also be used while breast feeding. (Please note that echinacea can cause an “over stimulation” of the immune system: including asthma, allergic reactions and it is dangerous for people who are on immune suppressants for example rheumatoid arthritis or with organ transplants).
- Olive leaf extract – contains natural compounds which help to destroy bacteria and viruses. It increases white blood cell production and helps healing.
- Elderberry/Elderflower – another antiviral and immune stimulating herb. It also reduces inflammation and helps to improve symptoms of infections. A herbal blend of these is a great general tonic to keep your immune system robust through winter. Even the kids will take it.
- Linden flower – as tea or herbal tincture. Very nice for the little ones too as it is very calming, warms the body as well as supporting the immune system. This herb is excellent to use for fevers as well.
- Thyme – another herb that is often considered as a natural antibiotic. Particularly good as a gargle for sore throats – simply make a strong tea, strain, gargle and swallow.
- Many of these herbs are available dried – such as echinacea, sage, thyme, chamomile, rosehip, linden leaf and catnip. Keep a few in your pantry (or garden) to create herbal teas. Sage and thyme are in most people’s gardens and are very antibacterial. Together they make an excellent tea or gargle. Chamomile, linden leaf and catnip have calming properties and help in mild fever – especially good for kids. Add rosehips for taste and antioxidants, and echinacea for stimulating the immune system. Simmer a handful herbs covered for 10 to 15 minutes, strain and add a dollop of manuka honey to sweeten.
- Inhalations and gargles: These are great to decrease mucous and bacteria in the airways and to clear the head and ease a sore throat. Have certified organic essential oils (such as those from Rich Earth) on hand like lemon-scented eucalyptus, kunzea oil, manuka and tea tree oil as natural antiseptics and lavender and/or roman chamomile for soothing and calming actions. Put 2-3 drops for adults or 1 drop for children in a bowl with steaming water, place a towel over head to create a tent and inhale the vapour. Instead of essential oils you can use a handful of dried herbs and pour water over it.
- Foot baths: fantastic to warm the body up, to relax and calm the kids. Put 2-3 drops of essential oils like rosemary, tea tree, lavender or chamomile into a bowl and pour some warm water over it. Have your child placing the feet in the warm water. Add warmer water bit by bit to increase temperature to 38-40 degrees. Sit for 10 minutes then dry feet thoroughly and put on warm socks.
- Chest rub: these contain essential oils like menthol which is anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, stimulates mucous secretions and reduces pain. The ointment is absorbed by the skin and very effective for the lung tissue and airways. Rub into skin at chest, neck and upper back and wrap your little patient with a warm cotton cloth.
- Onion compress: helps to reduce inflammation and pain in ear infections. Cut an onion into small pieces. Put in into foil and heat briefly in the oven or heat gently without adding oil in frying pan until some juice is set free. Disperse the warm onion pieces in a cotton cloth, wrap it up and put on infected ear. Hold in place with a beanie or scarf and let it rest on the ear for at least 30 minutes.
And just a few more easy tricks for your winter-wellness:
- Fever is your friend. A temperature up to about 39oC stimulates the immune system. So let it do its job. Recent research has shown that suppressing a fever (such as with Pamol/panadol) can do more harm than good. (See our information about using paracetamol here).
- Stay at home if you’re not well. And tell your unwell colleagues to go home! Cold and flu viruses should be kept in isolation!
- Remember to start taking action early for prevention or at the very first inkling of infection for best results. April and May are the best months to begin taking supplements to be ready for the first cold snap.
Prepared like this you can be sure you and your family will enjoy these winter days with a healthy smile.