Supporting Immunity – staying healthy this winter.

Many different types of viruses are circulating this winter. These viruses can cause respiratory illnesses with cold or flu-like symptoms. The list includes Covid, Influenza virus, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), parainfluenza virus (which cause common respiratory illnesses such as colds, croup, bronchiolitis, bronchitis & pneumonia), rhinovirus and adenovirus. Symptoms of infection can include fever, cough, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, headache, muscle aches, fatigue and a general feeling of unwell.

We are exposed to pathogens every day. We inhale, swallow or touch them and your body’s response can depend upon the strength of your immune system. While not everyone who is exposed to germs will develop a disease or become sick, how sick you may become can depend on how strong a defense your body can launch. The winter months are particularly challenging, as many around us are coughing, blowing noses and generally sharing their germs. Remaining well in the face of this exposure is all about good overall health and immunity. 

What is the immune system?

The immune system is a complex system of cells, lymphatic vessels and organs, and tissues that work together to protect the body from infection and disease. When our immune system is working properly it detects threats such as bacteria and viruses, then triggers an immune response to combat them. However sometimes it fails or is weakened, and we can become ill, either acutely, or with recurrent chronic infections that just won’t go away. There are many stressors that can affect immunity including poor nutrition, chronic illness, stress, ageing and lifestyle choices. 

So how can we support our immune system?

  • Eating well will support good gut health and immune health. Include plenty of immune enhancing foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, quality protein, good fats, good carbs, and fibre to provide nutrients such as zinc, B vitamins, vitamins A, D, E and C, selenium and iron. Include anti-inflammatory foods such as turmeric, ginger, garlic, onions, broccoli, blueberries, spinach & kale, green leafy vegetables, beets, celery, broccoli, berries, pineapple, and salmon. Good oils and fats are beneficial for immune support, avoiding fatigue and reducing inflammation. Examples are those found in fish, seeds and non-allergenic nuts e.g. chia, sesame, linseeds (flax), and their oils, avocado, olive oil, and coconut oil. You need good fats to absorb some key antioxidants and nutrients. Reducing inflammation helps support immunity. 
  • Increase exercise, even gentle regular exercise, at least 30 minutes per day, and get out in the fresh air and sunshine whenever possible. Exercise helps c
  • alm the nervous system and combined with vitamin D from gentle sun exposure helps strengthen immunity. Choose a level of exercise that suits you. 
  • Make lifestyle adjustments to lower or manage stress and anxiety levels and improve energy. Stress is major player in immune dysfunction and the body’s responses to stressful situations can contribute to suppressing the immune system. Try reducing alcohol, not smoking, some gentle exercise, regular sport, massage, acupuncture, meditation and some enjoyable recreation activities. 
  • Improve your sleep. We need good quality unbroken and refreshing sleep, as lack of sleep can disrupt immune function. Practice sleep hygiene and shut down computers/TV etc. well ahead of sleep time and relax before bed e.g. reading, listening to music, meditating or doing breathing exercises.
  • Drink more water, at least 1-2 litres daily for hydration and detoxification. Try water with a slice of citrus, herbal teas or simply hot water with lemon juice, which is also a good way to start the day. Ginger tea – raw ginger, organic honey and a slice of lemon in hot water is a great winter drink.
  • Add useful supplements if your diet is not adequate – these include Vitamin D3, Vitamin A, fish oil/omega 3s, B-complex vitamins, zinc, olive leaf, vitamin C, iron, magnesium and immune enhancing probiotics.
  • And include herbs– Some helpful herbs to support and protect the immune system are Elderberry, Echinacea, Medicinal mushrooms, Andrographis, Garlic, Ginger, Astragalus, Siberian Ginseng, Poke root and Cat’s Claw. These beautiful herbs provide many health benefits in addition to immune support. And add in some herbs that assist stress and anxiety such as Lemon Balm, Passionflower, and Ashwagandha (Withania). 
  • A detox once or twice a year may help remove toxins, fungi, candida etc., and rebuild levels of good bacteria and vital nutrients to help build resilience. 
  • Finally– minimize possible infection by washing your hands regularly and not sharing food and drinking utensils with anyone suffering from cold and flu infections. 

While avoiding illness is preferable, if you become sick here are some suggestions to assist recovery:

  • Rest and hydration rest is key to allowing your body time to recover, so stay home. Keep drinking fluids as much as possible.  Try teas, clear warming soups and broths e.g. those with chicken and vegetables that will nourish the immune system, and just plain cool water. 
  • Lemon, ginger, and honey tea a slice of lemon and ½ a teaspoon of honey with a sliver of fresh ginger, steeped in hot water. Great for soothing sore throats and coughs, and for a warming, immune boosting, therapeutic drink when recovering from illness. It has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant and antiviral benefits. 
  • When you feel able to exercise go gently – walking rather than vigorous gym workouts as you recover. 
  • Ensure the food you are able to eat is nutritious and include some protein for energy and anti-inflammatory fruit and vegetables to help rebuild your strength, reduce fatigue and lower inflammation.
  • If feverish – Use Paracetamol if needed, drink fluids, add electrolytes to water if you are dehydrated or have been vomiting, (e.g. hydrolyte), and use cool damp cloths to sponge body, head and neck, or take a tepid bath or shower. Keep the room temperature cool and sleep with only a sheet or light blanket. 
  • Nasal flushing or irrigation – Also known as sinus rinsing, is the practice of moving a saline (saltwater) solution through your nasal passages to help with a stuffy or runny nose, to clear out mucus and flush out debris and allergens. Devices such as FLO sinus care kits are helpful. 
  • Steam inhalations with a small amount of eucalyptus in a big bowl of boiling water and breathe deeply can help relieve congestion and help expel mucous. Boil water in a kettle and carefully pour it into the bowl. Drape a towel over the back of your head, and slowly lower your head toward the hot water but be careful to avoid making direct contact with the water (20 -30 cm from water). Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for at least two to five minutes but no longer than 10 to 15 minutes each time. However, you can repeat steam inhalation two or three times per day if you’re still having symptoms. You can also steam inhaler (or vaporizer).
  • Gargling – Dissolve ½ a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water, gargle (don’t swallow) for 20-30 seconds, every 3 hours. Salt water can help reduce irritation and swelling in your throat. It may help to soothe a sore throat. 
  • Postural drainage and breathing exercises may help clear mucous from the lungs. There are many suggestions online, or a good physiotherapist will demonstrate. It involves sitting or reclining in certain positions to drain mucous from your airways using gravity. Depending on the areas of your lungs most affected by secretions, there will be certain positions that will work in achieving the best result. 
  • Certain supplements and herbal medicines may help with recovery – Examples include Vitamins A, C, D, E, Zinc, B Vitamins especially B5, B6 and B12, may help also. Beta glucans, Turmeric, Garlic, Ginger, Echinacea, Andrographis, licorice, Olive leaf, Thyme, Marshmallow, Quercetin, Fish oil/Omega 3s, Palmitoylethanolamide (PEA), and various medicinal mushroom combinations including shitake, maitake, reishi, and cordyceps. 
  • If symptoms worsen and you are short of breath and have difficulty breathing, and/ or high fever, vomiting or symptoms of dehydration such as dizziness or confusion, seek medical help. 

Pamela Nelson is a Naturopath, Clinical Nutritionist and Herbalist at Health Space Clinics Lane Cove. 

Author: Pamela Nelson

Pamela is a dedicated, qualified Naturopath, Nutritionist, and Herbalist at Health Space. She aims to help her clients achieve balance in all areas of their lives. Her areas of interest include chronic illness, allergies and food intolerances, digestive problems, stress and anxiety management, sleep issues, and regaining work/life balance via lifestyle changes.

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