In the Southern Hemisphere, we’re well and truly in deep autumn, quickly moving towards winter.
Cold and flu season is upon us, and there’s a lot of talk in the Australian media that this year is proving to be a particularly bad year for influenza.
I’m going to give you the low down on:
- keeping your immune system healthy through the winter months
- how to create a winter wellness self-care practice for yourself
- the many options you have beyond the flu vaccine or cold and flu medications.
What Is the Flu?
The flu is caused by the influenza virus, which is highly contagious. It affects the respiratory system (a.k.a nose, throat, sinuses and lungs) and the virus is spread by sneezing and coughing.
Symptoms begin 1–4 days after being exposed to the virus – which we call the incubation period – and includes loss of appetite, cough, fever, weakness and body aches and pains. The infection is typically self-limiting, and symptoms should clear within 7 days.
However, if you’re run down or your immune system is not functioning optimally, it’s possible to pick up a secondary infection, either another virus or bacteria.
Should I get the flu vaccine?
A question I’ve been receiving from clients over the past couple of weeks.
My answer is always, maybe.
It’s a very personal choice, but it’s essential to know the whole picture so you can make an informed decision. People who are particularly vulnerable to the flu are very young kids, the elderly, pregnant women, those with poorly managed diabetes or lung disease.
If you, or a loved one, fall into one of these categories, in addition to all the immune boosting and preventative measures I’m about to explore, you may like to talk to your healthcare provider about the option.
That being said, there is very little safety data on the flu vaccine in pregnancy and for young kids. So do your research.
The flu vaccination works 24 – 60% of the time. It will take 10–14 days for your body to develop immunity to the stains you’re exposed to in the vaccine. Meaning, if you’ve already been exposed, it may not help.
Boosting Immunity Naturally
**An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.**
When it comes to tending to your immune system, there are 3 levels of self-care:
I. Tending to your baseline wellness
II. Nourishing your immune system
III. Boosting your immune system
I. Baseline Wellness & Hygiene
**A robust immune system = a strong defense system. **
When we’re not in optimal health, our immune systems struggle.
If you are dealing with chronic stress, digestive distress, poor diet or lifestyle habits – most notably too much sugar, alcohol and/or smoking -’ you’ve got some tending to your roots to do.
If you feel overwhelmed on where to start, working with a qualified naturopath or holistic health practitioner can help you understand what your unique root causes are and work with you to realign yourself with the healthiest version of yourself.
In the meantime, make sure’ you’ve got these preventative measures covered:
- get 7–8 hours of sleep per night
- spend time in the sun each day (vitamin D!)
- eat plenty of good quality protein and a variety of fruits and vegetable
- make sure you’re not letting stress rule your life
- if you have digestive issues, work with a practitioner to uncover what your triggers are and heal your gut
- wash your hands! I know, I know, devilishly simple, but so important, especially if you’ve got young kids and/or work in an office environment. Extra important if you work in an agile working space or commute on public transport. You only need regular soap and warm water. Antibacterial soaps and hand-sanitizers have been shown to breed microbial resistance (a.k.a growing super, antibiotic-resistant bugs) so give them a miss.
II. Nourishing Immunity
This is where we can talk specifics!
Essential nutrients for your immune system.
The health and vitality of your immune system largely depend on your nutrient stores.
For the front line soldiers of the immune system (white blood cells) to function optimally, they need certain nutrients to multiply and mature.
- Vitamin C – take as ascorbic acid, 1000mg twice a day.
- Zinc – take as zinc citrate or zinc glycinate. 30mg a day with food.
- Selenium – 150mcg a day.
- Vitamin A – 10,000IU daily. Consult your healthcare provider if your pregnant or trying to conceive.
- Vitamin D – 2000IU daily
- Iron – if you’ don’t eat meat and/or experience heavy bleeding ask your healthcare provider for an Iron Studies Panel, this will give you the clearest insight into your iron stores. If you are deficient, work with a naturopath to create an appropriate iron repletion strategy.
Herbal medicines are profoundly helpful for supporting immunity. But if you’ve been following my work for a while, you’ll know I say food first, herbs second.
The most common misuse of herbs I see when it comes to immunity is using immune boosters all winter long.
You want to use immune builders all winter long and reserve the immune boosters for when someone at home or work comes down with a cold or flu. Immune boosting herbs help kick your immune system into a higher gear, yet if used for more than 2 weeks at a time, can be depleting.
My 5 Favourite Immune Builders
- Withania/Ashwagandha – useful if you’re dealing with chronic stress, any hormonal imbalances or issues sleeping. It’s a calming adaptogen (herbs that help us build resilience) and is safe to take during pregnancy and breastfeeding.’ It’s a member of the nightshade family, so be mindful if you know you have a sensitivity to these plants. Best taken as an extract or powder.
- Tulsi – aromatic, calming and immune nourishing. Tulsi will help you build your immunity, but also has a host of antimicrobial and antiviral qualities in its own right. Can be most easily enjoyed as a tea.
- Astragalus – this wonderful herb comes to us from Traditional Chinese Medicine, and its root is used in convalescent soups and congees.’ It’s sweet, nourishing and effortless to slip into foods. One of my favourite ways to include it throughout winter is as a chai. Its taste provides a very balanced base note that you could build upon with other spices.
- Medicinal mushrooms (especially reishi and shitake) – All mushrooms to an extent are nourishing for the immune system. Shiitakes, which you can easily find at Asian grocery stores, are filled with potent antiviral qualities. Include them in your broths and miso soups.
- Reishi is one of my favourite herbs of all time, and I’ve written much more in-depth about it over here.
III. Boosting Immunity & Fighting Infection
These remedies are highly effective, but as I’ve said, not to be relied on without doing the more in-depth work of restoring your health.
Echinacea – Echinacea uplevels the entire immune system. It supports the lymphatic system, helps boost white blood cell counts (if you’re taking echinacea at the time of getting a blood test, don’t be surprised if you lymphocyte count is high) and gives your body a supportive hand in waging battle over any invaders. Take 20–30 drops of the extract every 2 hours when sick. If those around you are sick, take 20 drops three times a day.
Elder – both the berries and flowers can be used. An extract of the berries is particularly lovely tasting (suitable for kids or adults who aren’t so into echinacea’s tongue-tingling ways). For kids, taking the berry all throughout winter is safe as the above herbs are not appropriate for this purpose.
Andrographis– a powerful herb! Andrographis is one of our most potent immune boosting plants. It’s typically made into capsule form, as it lives up to its name, The King of Bitters. It’s quite unpalatable for most. Excellent for when you’ve been hit down by a bug. It’s extremely cold in nature, making it not appropriate to take for more extended periods throughout winter. Doing so can make one feel extra sensitive to the cold and/or develop dry skin.