Winter is officially here and almost everyone I know has already been effected by some sort of cough, cold, or man/lady flu. Our immune systems are seriously sophisticated and work very hard on the daily to keep us well. When our immune system becomes compromised, our usual defence forces let down their guards, leaving us more susceptible to the infection of pathogens and we become unwell. A variety of different things can compromise immunity including physical and mental stress, poor diet, excessive alcohol intake, smoking, toxin exposure, certain medications, autoimmune conditions and other chronic diseases.
Utilising food as medicine has never been more appropriate than when trying to prevent and treat colds and flus. Easy, accessible and evidence-based immune boosting foods to include in your diet this winter include:
- Garlic, ginger, chilli & onion: heat up your inner thermostat! Supporting a fever can be a very good thing. Also, these foods are excellent sources of antimicrobial properties and can be added to almost any savoury dish.
- Shiitake & reishi mushrooms: clinical research shows that these significantly increase certain types of white blood cells, key regulators of immune function; so much so that they are often used after chemotherapy (which drastically reduces white blood cell counts). They can easily be added to soups and stews and will keep your immune system firing all winter long. Avoid buying mushrooms imported from China – choose Australian grown where possible.
- Zinc is a mineral which is vital for our overall health and immune function. It is found in high amounts in meat, oysters, egg yolks, pepitas/pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. Zinc is also crucial for healthy mental, hormonal, digestive and skin health. Keep the seeds from your pumpkins, toast them and sprinkle them on top of pumpkin soup!
- Eat cooked foods. Aside from warming us up from the inside out, cooked foods are easier for us to digest during winter when our digestive system tends to slow down. Raw juices and smoothies of course contain many health benefits but are best saved for the warmer months when our bodies need cooling, not heating.
- Water, water and more water: staying hydrated with 2-3 litres of water each day reduces sluggishness and helps to flush out bacteria and toxins which can compromise our immune systems. Avoid ice and add fresh lemon, berries or mint for added health benefits instead.
- Exercise: gentle movement is also required to help move toxins, waste and bacteria through your lymphatic system and out of the body. There isn’t much that getting out into nature won’t fix and everyone knows that a post run/yoga high is the best kind of high!
- Fermented foods: think sauerkraut, kim-chi, kombucha, kefir, unpasteurised apple cider vinegar and organic miso. More than 70% of your immune system resides in your gastrointestinal tract in the form of your gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). Hence, keeping your gut bugs happy is a key element to consider when regulating immunity. Research has also found that certain strains of probiotics i.e. Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus lactis can reduce the frequency and severity of the cold and flu. Chat to your local naturopath about choosing a probiotic supplement with bacterial strains specific to supporting your immune system this winter.
- Y.E.P. tea (yarrow, elder and peppermint) is a blend of herbs traditionally used to help reduce the severity of colds and flus. It’s also pretty delicious and is available in most health food stores.
- Vitamin D: our main source is from sunlight which of course decreases during the cooler months so it’s important to get some sunshine on our skin whenever possible. Vitamin D is required not only for healthy immune function and the prevention of autoimmune diseases, but also in preventing osteopenia/osteoporosis and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which can lower our mood during winter.
- Rest: winter is a time to slow down, go within and take time to rejuvenate from the warmer months. Burning the candle at both ends will almost always end in a “crash and burn” scenario and leave you bed ridden for days, or worse, weeks! Home cooked meals and early nights in are a good call to prevent getting run down during the cooler months.
- Eat rainbows! Colourful fruits and vegetables contain a plethora of immune enhancing vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin A, zinc and iron. Currently in season are apples, oranges, mandarines, lemons, kiwi fruit, broccoli, pumpkin, sweet potato, leeks, onion, swedes, radish, spinach, silver beet, cauliflower, carrot, celery, celeriac, beetroot, rhubarb and lots more.