Keeping Your Immune System Strong

by Danielle Charles

As the last leaves fall from the trees, colds and flues inevitably begin to crop up and spread as we adjust to the stress of colder weather, less sunshine, and less activity.  In fact, the increased incidence of illness this time of year is a direct representation of the effect this stress has on our overall level of vitality and immune health. It isn’t as though influenza and cold causing rhino-viruses aren’t present the rest of the year – we just are most susceptible to them during times of increased stress (ie cold, wet weather and darkness). But we needn’t despair or resign ourselves to getting sick – there are plenty of things we can do to buffer against environmental stressors and ensure our immunity and health remain strong.

The Basics:

Keeping yourself healthy in the winter is about buffering your body from the abrupt transition into cold weather. While we might think of deadlines at work or conflicts with family and friends as a form of stress, changes in temperature and length of day pose a form of stress to our bodies as well. The trick to staying well is to lessen the burden on your body by making sure you give it the rest, nourishment and movement it needs to function optimally. Here’s what to do:

  • Consume a nutrient dense diet rich in plant foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds), cold water fish, and smaller amounts of high quality, pasture raised dairy and meats. Focus on obtaining the full spectrum of color each day with a special emphasis on the dark green leafy foods (kale, collards, swiss chard, etc).  This type of diet ensure you are receiving the full range of antioxidant phytonutrients, ample vitamins and minerals, protein, fiber and a healthy balance of fatty acids necessary for strong immune function.
  • Don’t eat refined things – white flour, white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, refined and hydrogenated oils. The further away you get from the natural state of a food, the less vitality and nutrition it has. These foods have zip of either – and will zap your vitality too. Sugar, for example, reduces immune function by nearly 75% for up to 4 hours after consumption! My rule of thumb is that if you can’t grow it, raise it,  or process it yourself – it isn’t a food and you shouldn’t eat it.
  • Go outside! Moving around in the cold helps your body to acclimate to the new temperature, oxygenates your blood, and gets your blood and lymphatic circulation moving. Just walking for 30 minutes a day is enough to boost your immune system, improve your mood and energy levels,  and keep you feeling strong! Don’t believe me? Just try it.
  • Sleep! Some people wonder why they feel more tired in the autumn and winter, but the answer is simple – it’s dark. Sleeping an extra 2-4 hours in the wintertime is a perfectly normal and healthy thing to do. Humans are not nocturnal after all – our bodies are physiologically programmed to follow the rhythm of the sun. Giving yourself extra rest helps your body to move with this environmental rhythm. And, if you doubt the importance of sleep to your immune health, one study showed that humans who sleep less than 7 hours per night are up to 3X more likely to catch a cold than those who sleep more than 8 hours.
  • Relax! While your body is undergoing this added burden of environmental stress, it’s imperative to reduce the impact of other sources of stress in your life. While you might not be able to eliminate stress from your life completely, you can change the way you deal with and perceive it. Stress has a way of amplifying small things into terrifyingly daunting tasks – so having a reality check with yourself now and then is a good habit to get into – whatever you are stressed about is never the end of the world.  Also, prioritize down time and relaxation in your day. This is the slow, inward time of the year – making space for that energy through meditation, reading a good book, or journaling can help to diffuse tension and nourish your spirit.

Bolster your immune system:

There are also few steps aside from the fundamentals that you can take this time of year to ensure your immune system is in tip top shape:

  • Take Vitamin D during the dark months. Now, I am not normally a supplement proponent – but living in the North puts us at a clear disadvantage for obtaining adequate Vitamin D levels. The amount of UV exposure necessary to obtain the 50 mcg of vitamin D currently recommended for optimal health here in Vermont this time of year is 5 hours of face, arm, and chest exposure – and this assuming you are not presently deficient. That seems rather unlikely when the temperature is 40 degrees or less and raining. So get a supplement – you can find oil based drops that contain 1000 – 2000 IU per drop – very easy to take. Vitamin D, while known for it’s role in maintaining strong bones, is also necessary for strong immune function by modulating the activity of B and T lymphocytes.
  • Practice good hygiene. Washing your hands is identified by the Center for Disease Control as the single most effective way of preventing the spread  of infection. Scrubbing your hands for a few seconds with soap and hot water before eating or after using public facilities can dramatically reduce your risk of getting sick. (By the way, hand sanitizers are not so great as they kill of all the beneficial bacteria dwelling on your skin and make it easier for viruses and bad bacteria to replicate and survive). Also, keep your fingers away from your mouth and face as much as you can to limit transmission.
  • Strengthen your immune function with daily doses of immune tonifying herbs and foods:
    • Astragalus: This sweet tasting root increases both the production of white blood cells as well as their efficiency at fighting off viral and bacterial insults. Consume between 10-20 g daily cooked in soup broths or made into a delicious chai with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves. Discontinue use during active infections.
    • Medicinal Mushrooms: Shiitake, maitake, turkey tail, oyster and most other edible wild mushrooms contain immune boosting mycopolysaccharides that both build and stimulate immune function. Eat 2-5 caps daily in soups, stir-fries, risottos – they taste delicious in just about every savory dish.
    • Garlic: Spicy raw garlic is full of sulfur compounds that are strongly anti-microbial and decongestant to the upper respiratory tract. It  also stimulates circulation, helping to warm the body and elicit perspiration during  fevers. Eat 2-4 raw cloves daily  in pesto, infused into raw honey, or chopped with herbs and olive oil as a marinade or dip for breads.
    • Berries: Elderberry, rosehip, blueberry, bilberry and other berries are all great sources of vitamin C and bioflavanoids, which work together synergistically to improve immune function, strengthen tissue barriers, and reduce inflammation through their antioxidant and connective tissue strengthening effects. Consume 1 cup fresh or frozen berries daily, or 1-2 tbl of syrup or jam.
    • Orange vegetables: Carrots, squash and sweet potatoes all get their orange color from beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, which strengthens the structural integrity of mucous membranes lining our respiratory tract and improves the quality of protective mucous secretions in the lungs, nose, throat, stomach and intestines. Consume 1-2 serving daily of cooked orange vegetables with a fat source such as butter, olive oil or coconut oil to ensure mucous membrane health.

Treating Infection:

Even the most robust people occasionally catch a cold. Getting sick 1 or 2 times during the winter season is not generally a cause for alarm – in fact there is some evidence that an occasional upper respiratory tract infection can actually strengthen your immune system’s ability to fight off more serious infections and deal with malignant cancer-causing cells. But catching a cold is also a signal from your body that it requires some added attention and care. After all, we don’t normally catch a cold, but invite it when our defenses are down and our vitality isn’t quite where it should be. Thus, while getting well is about overcoming infection and shortening duration of illness, it’s just as much about regenerating and rebuilding your resources. Here’s my get well fast plan:

  • Keep echinacea tincture on hand, and take it at the first sign of infection. If you can catch an infection before it’s taken hold, taking repeated doses of echinacea throughout the day is often enough to head it off at the pass. Echinacea stimulates immune activity, strengthens the resistance of tissue to the spread of infection, possesses direct anti-viral activity, and facilitates tissue healing.  Several studies support its ability to reduce symptoms and length of infection.    I usually purchase 8 oz of echinacea tincture at the beginning of cold and flu season so I have it on hand – you lose critical time if you have to go out and find it. The trick is that you have to dose high – 1 dropper of tincture is not going to cut it. Start with a loading dose of  1 tsp or 5 ml, followed by an additional 2 ml dose every two hours until symptoms begins to subside – this can sometimes take 2 or 3 days. Then, reduce the dosage to  2 ml three times a day until symptoms have completely resolved to support tissue healing and prevent subsequent infection.
  • Stay home and rest. While some people seem to think that rest is a self-indulgent luxury, resting is essential for your own recovery as well as limiting the spread of infection to others (which is not so selfish!). Being ill is an energy demanding time for your body as it engages in battle, so any extraneous demands you put on yourself will detract from your body’s ability to recover and heal.  Taking a day or two to rest will dramatically reduce the length of time you stay sick, and will give your body the time it needs to convalesce and heal.
  • Simplify your diet – no need to confound your body with difficult to digest foods while it’s working hard to heal. Favor steamed vegetables, soup broths, beans and small amounts of well spiced meats. Completely avoid immune depleting and congesting foods such as sugar, flour products, sweet juices (yes even orange juice) and dairy.
  • Drink lots of fluids. Keeping yourself hydrated with warm, nourishing broths and teas is the best treatment there is because it brings soothing medicine right to the infected area . Drink a bone broth or vegetable broth mixed with a little miso through out the day, and consume 2-3 quarts of hot herbal tea. Even kitchen herbs like thyme, oregano, ginger, rosemary, and sage all make great tea ingredients as they have strong anti-microbial properties, relieve congestion, and can help stimulate febrile response – but be sure to take a medicinal dose – 1-2 tbl/ cup or even more if the herb is old. If you purchase a boxed tea formula – you need to use up to 3 tea bags per cup.  And skip the orange juice for hot water with lemon – you get the vitamin C without the sugar.
  • Pay attention to the energetics of your illness. If you have a sore throat, fever without perspiration, and dry irritating cough – giving yourself loads of a hot and dry herb like cayenne is only going to make things worse. Similarly, the last thing you want when you are stuffed to the brim with mucus is a bunch of cold, moistening herbs. Here are my favorite herbs for the two basic energetic presentations of colds and flus – often times an infection will pass through both stages before it clears up – so you will need to shift your treatment as your symptoms necessitate.
    • Hot and Dry:  When everything is irritated, dry and hot, you want herbs that will cool and diffuse some of that heat. Diaphoretic herbs that induce sweating are most definitely indicated if a fever is involved – I like peppermint, catnip, elder flower and yarrow for mild fevers, and boneset for high fevers with chills and bone pain. These are best as hot teas, sipped frequently until sweating is induced.  A nice cold infusion of marshmallow and licorice is nice for sore throats or dry coughs, mixed with crampbark if there is spasm and irritation. Cooling immune stimulants such as echinacea, andrographis or picrorhizza are also indicated to reduce fevers and cool inflamed membranes.
    • Moist: Some infections (particularly cold viruses) tend to bog up our membranes and fill our sinuses and chests with snot. These types of infections involve copious amounts of bright colored mucous, wet coughs, and swollen lymph nodes. A little heat can help to dry up some of that bogginess and stimulate immune response – ginger, cayenne, garlic, turmeric and horseradish are all wonderful for clearing congestion and bringing circulation to the area. Lymph clearing herbs are also indicated to reduce swelling in the tissues and clear fluid out – cleavers, calendula and echinacea are all useful. Herbs that help to thin mucous production and promote expectoration are also  useful if a cough develops – coltsfoot, hyssop, elecampane, and angellica are my favorites there.
  • Once you feel better, give yourself a week of tonifying, rebuilding therapy. Bitter herbs that stimulate digestion and appetite are almost always useful as you reintroduce your normal diet – dandelion and gentian are both great choices or elecampane is nice if there is lingering congestion as well. Adrenal tonic herbs can also help counteract fatigue and help you regain your energy and stamina – American ginseng, eleuthero and ashwagadnha are all nice choices. If your sinuses have lingering congestion and your nose remains a little runny – taking a small dose of goldenseal for a week or so can tonify the mucous membranes and restore normal function.  And of course, focus on the basics – nourish yourself, go outside and move, sleep, and feed your immune system with some of the herbs and foods mentioned above. By rebuilding and strengthening your vitality, you will ultimately address the reasons you got sick in the first place!

My Favorite Immune Recipes:

While you are feeling well and in good spirits, now is the time to whip up some remedies to have on hand should you need them when you aren’t feeling so well. Here are the tried and true remedies I make every fall to have ready for cold and flue season, as well as some to whip up (or have someone whip up for you) when you are sick.

  • Fire Cider: This is a recipe from Rosemary Gladstar, and I have treasured it ever since I first made it. You might like it so much, you will want to use it when you feel well too, which is just fine! I often take a little of this in hot water at the first sign of infection to stimulate my defenses, and later in the infection to clear my sinuses and relieve congestion. To make, mix the following ingredients together in a glass jar, and cover with apple cider vinegar by an inch or two. After 4 weeks, strain the herbs out and add honey to taste.
    • 1/4 quarter cup grated ginger
    • 1/4 cup grated horseradish
    • 1/8 cup chopped garlic
    • 1/8 cup grated fresh turmeric (or 2 tbl dried powder)
    • 1-2 fresh hot chilis, sliced with the seeds left on (or cayenne powder to taste)
  • My favorite cold and flue tea: Make a big batch of this to have on hand. When you are sick, drink up to 3 quarts of this hot with a nice squeeze of lemon. Use 2 parts peppermint, 2 parts bee balm (Monarda), 1 part elder flower, 1 part rose hips, 1 part pine needles, 1/2 part ginger or cinnamon.
  • Sore Throat Syrup: I made this mixture up several years ago during one of the worst sore throats of my life. It’s effect was amazing – and I’ve been using it ever since. To make, combine the following. Whatever volume you end up with, add 1/2 that volume in good raw honey.
    • 2 parts propolis tincture
    • 2 parts echinacea tincture
    • 1 part osha tincture
    • 1 part licorice solid extract
    • thyme or eucalyptus EO (1-2 drops per 1/2 cup of syrup)
  • Curried Onions: This is another great recipe learned from Rosemary Gladstar that has become one of my favorites. When you feel congested and your throat is irritated and sore, this is just the thing. Heat some olive oil in a pan, and add 1-2 coarsely chopped onions, 1-2 garlic cloves or more to taste, and ample amounts of curry powder made with turmeric, ginger, coriander, cayenne, etc. Saute until the onions get translucent and have just begun to caramelize. Then sit down and feast. Onions are a source of the flavanoid quercetin which soothes inflamed membranes and acts as natural anti-histamine.
  • Sage, thyme and cayenne gargle: Along with the sore throat syrup, this is a great gargle to soothe and tone an  inflamed throat. I usually gargle with this to tone the tissue, then follow with the syrup to coat and protect the throat. Start by making a strong infusion of sage and thyme (1-2 tbl of each)  in 1 cup hot water. Cover, and infuse for 20-30 minutes. Strain out the herb and add 1 cup apple cider vinegar, 2-3 tsp salt, 1/4 cup of honey, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Gargle every 2 hours until symptoms are reduced.
  • Herbal cough elixir: I use this syrup for coughs that are damp and productive, especially when you can’t sleep at night. (Note, if the cough is dry and irritated, go for a moist soothing tea of slippery elm, marshmallow and licorice instead). In a medium pan, add 2 tbl elecampane,  1tbl wild cherry bark, and 1 tbl ginger. Cover with 2 cup water and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Turn off the heat and add 1 tbl each of hyssop and coltsfoot. Infuse, covered, for another 20-30 minutes. Strain out the herbs, and combine the water with an equal volume of whiskey or brandy, and 1/4 the volume in raw honey. Add 2-3 drops of peppermint essential oil. Take 1 tbl of the elixir as needed.
  • Cold season essential oil blend: This smells so wonderful you will want to have it with you all the time. I made it up several years ago as an antimicrobial inhalation to sniff while traveling home for the holidays – a little extra protection from all the “germs” one gets exposed to in places like airports. I place a few drops on the inside of my scarf and inhale deeply now and then to protect my respiratory tract. I remember the woman sitting next to me on the plane saying how she had never sat next to someone who had smelled so good! I also found it’s great as a steam as well – add 1-4 drops to a bowl of hot water, cover your head with a towel and breath the vapors in to relieve congestion. Here’s my recipe: 30 drops eucalyptus, 30 drops spruce, 30 drops peppermint, 10 drops thyme.