Key takeaways

When it comes to health, prevention is better than cure, and resilience is your best protection against colds, viruses and flus this winter. Strengthening your immune system will help you build the inner resources to reduce your chances of getting sick, and to minimise the severity and duration of an infection. In this article, we’ll show you how to adopt a few simple daily habits leading up to, and throughout winter, to help fuel your immune system and strengthen your resilience.

Your immune system and your health during colder weather

There is a misconception that being out in the cold weather causes illness, however, it’s actually your immune system that is compromised which increases the likelihood of infection. The cold weather does have a role to play and contributes to catching a cold or the flu for the following reasons:

  • The days are shorter in winter which means less sunlight. Sunlight is needed for Vitamin D and melatonin production which help support the immune system so less of these important nutrients means less capacity to fight off invaders.
  • People spend more time indoors with the windows closed. The close proximity means you're more likely to breathe in the same air with others who may have a virus.
  • The flu virus survives much better in low humidity than high humidity, and Melbourne winters are both cold and drier, ideal conditions for a virus to thrive.

The most effective way to reduce your chances of getting sick this winter is to improve your health by strengthening your immune system. Not only will you reduce the chances of getting sick, you will also reduce the intensity and duration of the cold or flu, and return to good health much quicker.

The four ways to improve immune health and reduce infection

Functional medicine practitioner Jabe Brown shares how immunity can be strengthened or supported in four ways:

  1. By fuelling the immune system – adopting good eating habits to provide the body with the nutrients needed for good health during winter. This means eating food with nutrients like protein, vitamin C and zinc, and having adequate vitamin D levels which is especially important for people who are immune-compromised (see below for more information).
  2. By stimulating the immune system – if you happen to get a cold or virus, there are a number of herbs that help stimulate the immune response to fight off the infection. These include herbs like Astragalus, Andrographis, Ginseng or medicinal mushrooms like Reishi or Shiitake.
  3. By borrowing immunity – this involves bringing in support or antibodies from other functioning immune systems such as probiotics, propolis, lactoferrin or colostrum.
  4. By killing off the infection - through the use of anti-virals and/or supplements, you can specifically target the infection and neutralise it.  Some examples include garlic, manuka honey and green tea (more information is provided on these foods below).

How do you fuel your immune system naturally to ward off unwelcome winter-loving bugs?

The four approaches to strengthening your immunity as outlined above will help you maintain good health, reduce the duration of a virus or infection, and restore balance and health after an illness.

However, prevention is better than cure and working toward strengthening immune resilience especially leading up to winter is the best approach to ward off colds, the coronavirus and flus. The four pillars of health form the stable foundation for a strong immune system and ongoing health. These are sleep, managing stress, exercise and good nutrition.

1. Manage stress levels

Stress is a part of everyday life living in a big city, therefore finding ways to manage and reduce stress is essential to ongoing health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that 36 hours of stress reduces SigA by 80%. SigA is Secretory Immunoglobulin A, an antibody which plays a critical role in maintaining your immune system.

Take the time to do whatever makes you feel more relaxed and at ease to support your mental and emotional health, because your physical health depends on it: nurture the relationships with people you care about because they a source of emotional comfort; remember to breathe properly and try the 4-7-8 breathing; practise mindfulness and be aware of where you allow your thoughts to dwell; be present to yourself and others; and avoid media, news, events and situations that make you feel depleted. As you increase your level of your self-care, your sense of improved wellbeing and good health will follow.

2. Sleep well

A close relationship exists between sleep and immune health. Natural killer cells, powerful cells involved in your immune system’s first line of defense, are significantly compromised as a result of poor sleep. In one study, just a single night of 4 hours of sleep reduced circulating NK cells by a whopping 70% in comparison to an 8 hour sleep.

If you are struggling to fall asleep or stay sleeping through the night, pay attention to your winddown time and make an effort to develop a consistent bedtime routine that begins a good hour before you go to sleep. Find more tips in our sleep article.

3. Exercise regularly

Exercise has a profound effect on the normal functioning of the immune system. In addition to reducing inflammation that leads to better health outcomes, improvements in immunity due to regular exercise of moderate intensity may be due to maintenance of thymic gland mass - the gland responsible for the production of T cells involved in the immune response, alterations in the composition of "older" and "younger" immune cells, enhanced immunosurveillance, and/or the reduction of psychological stress that can negatively impact immune function.

4. Top up your nutrition

Good nutrition plays a critical role in maintaining or building a strong immune system. By giving your immune system the fuel it needs to function at its optimum, you’ll be giving yourself the best opportunity to stay well.  Following are some key strategies you can use to boost your nutrition and wellness this winter.

Consume more foods with immune supporting nutrients

Ideal immune system nutrients include vitamin C, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin A. You’ll find these nutrients in the following food sources:

Vitamin A: Eggs, fish liver oil (cod liver oil), liver (organic is recommended), dairy (if tolerated), green, red, orange and yellow fruit and vegetables: carrots, oranges, apricots, mangoes, sweet potatoes, squash, tomatoes, melon, spinach, peppers, watercress, cabbage, broccoli, asparagus etc., pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts.

Vitamin C: Peppers (chilli, sweet), watercress, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, citrus fruits, kiwi, peas, melons, tomatoes, parsley, blackcurrants, apples, papaya, bean.

Vitamin D: Herrings, mackerel, salmon (wild caught only), oysters, cottage cheese, eggs. Sunshine still is the best and most abundant source of vitamin D.

Zinc: Seafood, prawns, shellfish (especially oysters), haddock, canned fish, ginger, lean red meat (lamb, beef), nuts (pecans, brazil, almonds, walnuts), peas, turnips, egg yolk, oats, seeds (pumpkin, sunflower), rice, lentils, pulses, molasses, calf’s liver, Crimini mushrooms, dark green leafy veg (spinach, collard greens), asparagus, turkey, quinoa.

Avoid foods that increase inflammation in your body

They create the breeding ground for disease to flourish. These foods include:

  • Processed food, junk food, and fast food
  • Sugary foods, cakes, sweets
  • Trans fats which are often added to processed foods
  • Refined carbohydrates found in white bread, pasta, biscuits, cakes
  • Too much alcohol – it's best to limit or moderate alcohol consumption if you’re trying to strengthen your immune system.

Add warming foods to your diet

“Warming foods” will alleviate cold and flu symptoms and help reduce infection. Warming foods and drinks include:

Ginger - drinking ginger tea (with fresh thyme or sage) can help alleviate a sore throat and cough. Ginger has potent anti-inflammatory action, thyme is both antiviral and antibacterial, as well as being good for chesty coughs, and sage is antiseptic and an antimicrobial. Also remember to add ginger to your food.

Garlic - eat garlic 2-3 times per day. Garlic is a potent antiviral and best eaten freshly crushed and raw to preserve the active compound, allicin. Add garlic to your recipes at the end of cooking, and cook for no more than 5 minutes.

Turmeric - and its most active compound curcumin, has many scientifically proven health benefits. It’s a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.

Herbal teas – particularly green tea has anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial properties that support the body to detoxify.

Add probiotic-rich foods to your diet

Probiotics have beneficial bacteria to support the gut and since 80% of the immune system resides in the gut, it’s an excellent habit to cultivate. Probiotic rich foods include kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, and kombucha.

Other factors that contribute to a better immune system this winter

Social Connection: Loneliness and isolation can lead to a disruption in the stress response resulting in lower morning cortisol levels and raised evening cortisol (the opposite of what is defined as a healthy cortisol pattern). Look after the relationships with those you care for, and if you find yourself without a support network, reach out for help. You may be surprised at how many people are seeking the same, especially after a period of isolation that lockdown brought in Melbourne.

Get plenty of sunshine: The sun is the most easily available and potent source of Vitamin D and essential for a strong immune system.

Practice good hygiene: Washing your hands regularly will help to prevent infections. But a note of caution, keep this in balance because too much washing and sanitising leads to dry hands. Our functional medicine practitioner Rebecca Hughes suggests replacing the oils washed away in your skin which are protective barriers to unwanted external substances, with oils like olive oil or coconut oil. This will maintain the integrity and health of your skin better than moisturisers and is especially helpful if you have eczema or psoriasis.

How will you boost your immune resilience this winter? Please share below, you’ll be helping others too!

Share your plans on how you will strengthen your immune system this winter, we’d love to hear from you.

If you’re a patient of ours and you’d like us to put a plan together to look after your health this winter, get in touch with your health coach for more information.

Put our advice into action: What is one step you’ll implement above now? Let us know in the comments below!

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Bee Pennington
Bee, an award-winning health coach at Melbourne Functional Medicine, specialises in mindset, emotional health, and maintaining healthy boundaries. Meditation and breathwork facilitator.
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{ "datePublished": "Mar 21, 2023" }