Welcome to mid-winter: the season of sickness! If it seems like everyone around you is coughing and sneezing, it’s because we are in the heart of cold and flu season. This is a common time of the year to get sick for multiple reasons:
- We just finished the holiday season where we tend to run ourselves ragged preparing for upcoming festivities. We eat and drink more and sleep less. And we’re stressed!
- There is less sunlight, which means less outdoor activity and less vitamin D exposure (a huge player in immune function).
- Shorter days and colder weather cause some of us to spend more time on the couch, watching sports or binging shows (and sometimes our favorite snacks as well)!
- There are multiple, easily transmitted respiratory viruses circulating this time of the year.
Despite all this, you can skate through the winter without a scratch if you take advantage of the many things you can do to naturally to support your immune system. Here are five of my favorite examples that can be easily incorporated into your daily winter routine.
1. Get Adequate Sleep
I often tell my patients that sleep is everything, and I really mean that. Your immune system repairs itself during the night. The less you sleep, the easier you catch colds, and the harder it is to fight infections.
Being sleep deprived also increases your cravings, causes weight gain, and causes you to rely on caffeine which further impacts your sleep and immune function. Aim for 6-9 hours of sleep per night. Make it a priority and give it the attention it deserves. Sleep is everything.
2. Stay Well Hydrated
In the U.S. we are highly addicted to caffeine in the form of fancy lattes and energy drinks. This decreases the amount of water we take in throughout the day, negatively impacting our immune system. Every cell, tissue and organ in your body needs water to function properly. When we’re dehydrated, we cannot transport nutrients appropriately to the cells in the body where they are needed to function. We also can’t get rid of waste we make. Finally, we cannot transport our cells (such as white blood cells) needed to help us fight infections.
Although the data varies, it seems that 64-82 ounces of water per day for the average adult is enough to support function but not overdo it and negatively impact our electrolytes.
3. Get Plenty of Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that contributes to immunity. Vitamin C protects molecules like proteins, fats and carbohydrates from damage. Recently, Vitamin C has been proven to be a useful adjunct for the prevention and treatment of coronavirus and other viruses circulating in the winter months.
Vitamin C is water soluble and since we can only store so much in our bodies, we must take it in consistently to help our immune system function optimally. Vitamin C is found in many fruits and vegetables, but is also effective when taken orally in pill or gummy form. I recommend 500-1,000 mg daily which most people can handle without having any belly problems.
4. Get Your Daily Dose of Vitamin D
We really messed up when we started telling everyone to bathe in sunscreen to the highest degree. Vitamin D, which comes mostly from the sun, is our first line of defense to prevent infections.
Vitamin D is fat soluble, so if you carry extra fat around, vitamin D likes to slide into the fat cells and hide. In my obesity medicine practice, I deal with a lot of vitamin D deficiency, and can tell you first hand how important replacing this deficiency is to your overall health. In the winter months, especially in places with less sunlight, vitamin D levels get extremely low in my patients, contributing to their frequent illnesses. This resolves once this very important vitamin is replaced.
Recent data has really driven home the point of the immune benefits from lower vitamin D, showing that patients at greatest risk for death from coronavirus had the lowest vitamin D levels. Once the vitamin D rose above 50 in the bloodstream, the hospitalized death rate from coronavirus dropped to zero!
5. Balance Your Digestive System with Probiotics
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said “All disease begins in the gut.” He is right. Research has repeatedly shown that establishing the appropriate balance of bacteria in your digestive system is linked to health and wellness. Probiotics stimulate both non-specific and specific immunity, preventing illness and improving overall health. Probiotics have also been shown to improve weight loss, cardiovascular health, depression, anxiety, digestive health, eczema and allergies.
Immune Health Can Be a Breeze
Having adequate immune health does not mean you need to take a handful of medications or supplements every day. It just involves focusing on self care. The five things listed above will not only improve your immune health, but your overall sense of well being. Take the time to make self care a priority in the days and months ahead! It will be well worth it.