A great deal of our patients during the winter months are coming in to see us too late – once they have already developed a cold or flu! The old adage “prevention is the best medicine” is definitely true when it comes to acute viral infections such as these. Though there are numerous ways in which your naturopathic physician can assist you in speeding up recovery from infection, maximizing the function of your immune system right now could mean a winter season without the need for recovery!
1. Avoiding Food Sensitivities
When we eat foods we are particularly sensitive to, the immune system in our digestive tract is called into action. When these foods are being consumed on a regular basis, this means our immune system is constantly active and turned on. You might think that active immunity is a good thing – and it is. However, when our immune system is busy dealing with food sensitivities in the gut, this means it is less available for dealing with cold and flu.
Food sensitivities are different from immediate anaphylactic allergens (those you might require an EpiPen for) as they affect your body in a more delayed manner. If you are unsure of your unique food sensitivities, speak with your naturopathic doctor about your options for diagnosis and treatment.
2. Getting Enough Sleep
For many of us the holidays are filled with long days of shopping, entertaining, and other festivities. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything we need to get done, let alone enough time to sample all of that holiday baking. As a result, one of the first sacrifices many make all too easily is that solid 7-9 hour sleep per night.
But if you want to avoid getting sick and missing out on those precious hours of holiday fun, you will want to make a point of getting enough shut-eye.
The repair of cells and the balancing of hormones, which are responsible for maintaining the integrity our immune system, both occur primarily at night, while sleeping. What’s more is that the physical repair of body tissues occurs best between the hours of 10pm-2am – so, better to get to bed earlier than rely on sleeping in or napping.
3. Limiting Sugar Intake
Most of us know inherently that too much sugar is not good for us for a variety of reasons. Specifically in terms of immune health, limiting sugar intake truly can be helpful for two key reasons. For one, a sugary meal will cause a rapid rise in levels of the hormone insulin, which over time can contribute to immune system depression. As well, the army of bad bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract that act to suppress immune function actually feed on sugar. So by limiting sugar intake, you are doing your part to prevent these pesky invaders from growing strong and multiplying.
During the holiday season, avoiding sugar can of course be a considerable challenge. Try your best to sample rather than indulge, opt for herbal teas rather than sugary beverages, and always consume a small quantity of protein with sugary meals to avoid rapid spikes in blood insulin levels.
4. Keep Active
Scheduling a regular fitness routine into your busy holiday calendar can be difficult.
Not to mention that the idea of exercising out in the cold rain and snow can be far less appealing than curling up inside with a warm blanket and a hot beverage. However, in addition to preventing holiday weight-gain, making physical activity a priority can also keep your immune health in check.
Studies have shown that regular, moderate exercise produces an increase in the amount of macrophages in the body – a key type of immune cell responsible for defense against bacteria and viruses. As well, the increase in whole-body circulation that occurs with regular exercise means that immune cells are visiting all parts of our body more often and on a continual basis. This means our immune cells have more exposure to body tissues in order to keep invaders like the cold and flu virus at bay.
5. Keeping Stress in Check
You can probably think back to a time when your immune system succumbed to a cold or flu virus in the wake of a stressful time in your life. While speaking with patients about the progression of their illness, I find that most of them became sick at the end of a stressful work week, during an exam period, or when family obligations really started to pile up. At a biochemical level, when our bodies are under extreme stress for an extended length of time the result is an out-of-balance increase in the stress hormone called cortisol. While under short-term stress, increases in this hormone are normal and healthy, in the long term they can lead to immune system suppression and an increased likelihood of developing cold and flu symptoms.
What can you do at this busy time of year to decrease stress in your life? Eat well, sleep well, exercise, and make a point of removing yourself from stressful encounters whenever possible. If you make stress reduction a priority in your life, you will find it easier to monitor and avoid stressful situations as they arise.
Depending on your unique health history, there may be specific protocols that could be beneficial for enhancing the health of your immune system. Your naturopathic physician can help you optimize your immune health for the winter season and all year long.