A ‘prevention is better than cure’ way of living stresses the importance of nourishing, supporting and strengthening your body to promote vitality, instead of waiting for illness or symptoms to manifest.
We as South Africans tend to dread winter, especially as it is associated with frequent colds and a vulnerable immune system. But the importance of a preventative approach to your health must be emphasised, and those who live by it usually bear the fruit of a healthy, strong and resilient body.
IMPORTANCE OF A STRONG IMMUNE SYSTEM
The immune system is key to our overall well-being and when its function is impaired, it usually tends to disrupt our health in more ways than one. A cold or the flu often occurs when immune function is compromised, but a flagging immune system can also manifest in more sinister ways – from autoimmune disease to cancer. Therefore, supporting immune function extends beyond preventing a common cold or flu as it may protect you against more serious ailments in the long run.
BALANCE RATHER THAN BOOST
‘Boosting’ the immune system can actually be detrimental to your health. If the immune system is ‘boosted’ in someone with an autoimmune disease or chronic low-grade inflammation, their health can be further derailed. I prefer focusing on regulating and balancing the immune system, thereby ensuring that it’s neither over-active nor under-active. The guidelines provided below are aimed at regulating immune function to reinforce its capacity to protect you against harmful organisms and disease manifestation during the winter season.
Several foods have been identified as immune supporting due to their nutrient profile and the phytochemical (‘plant chemical’) content: garlic, onions, ginger, mushrooms (shiitake, maitake and reishi), raw honey and coconut oil.
Eating seasonal fresh produce may significantly contribute to a strong immune system. There’s a particular reason why certain fruit and vegetables are ‘in season’ – their nutrient profiles are suitable and relevant to the body’s needs during that season. See if you can source a local farmer’s market, or something similar, where you can buy fresh and seasonal fresh produce.
Spices include: cayenne pepper, turmeric (mixed with black pepper), cumin and cinnamon.
Aim to include these foods and spices on a regular basis in preparation for the change of seasons and to strengthen the immune system.
Nutrients for optimal immune function:
- Vitamin C supports immune function very well, especially when it comes to colds and flu. Excellent sources of vitamin C include: camu camu (available as a superfood powder), kiwis, citrus fruits, strawberries, papaya, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, goji berries, guava, fresh lemon juice and superfood greens (moringa, spirulina, wheat grass, barley grass and alfalfa grass).
One of my favourite immune-supporting drinks is a blend of organic green tea with fresh ginger root pieces and freshly squeezed lemon juice. It’s hydrating, energising and simply delicious!
Zinc also supports the immune system. Good sources of zinc include: oysters (the best natural source of zinc), shellfish, pumpkin seeds, lean meat cuts, ginger, egg yolk, almonds and walnuts.
- Vitamin D is important for a strong immune system – several immune cells contain vitamin D receptors.
BEWARE OF SUGAR
Sugar suppresses immune function and may also influence the gut microbiome, which is actively involved in immune regulation.
As South Africans we are blessed with an abundance of sunshine on most days, which is a primary source of endogenous (‘in the body’) vitamin D production upon skin exposure to sunlight. Aim to get 15 to 20 minutes of sunlight, preferably before 11 am and after 3 pm (between these times the sunlight can be too harsh). Food sources of vitamin D include: oily fish, egg yolk and mushrooms.
Stress and sleep
As most of us have experienced, stress and insufficient sleep can be directly correlated with impaired immune function. The problem is that being stressed often disrupts healthy sleeping patterns and, conversely, sleep disruption can increase sensitivity and vulnerability to stressors.
Sufficient sleep is of paramount importance to recuperate, regenerate and rejuvenate all the systems in the body, of which the immune system is a primary consideration. The immune system is strongly influenced by sleep health and by the regulation of your circadian rhythm. When this rhythm is disrupted through stress and/or lack of sleep, immune function may consequently be dysregulated.
Breathing for sleep and stress
An effective way to support deep sleep and to assist in stress management is functional breathing techniques. One of my favourite techniques is the 4-7-8 breathing technique which switches your nervous system from fight-or-flight mode (stress mode) to rest-and-digest mode (rest mode). You cannot be in one or the other – you’re either in a stressed state (whether it’s mild or overwhelming) or in a rested state; the latter is known to be conducive to optimal sleep, healthy stress management and overall health. Being in rest-and-digest mode switches on the body’s self-healing mechanisms and focuses energy on recuperation and restoration.
Stress depletes nutrients
Stress is demanding on micronutrient stores (vitamins and minerals), so if you’re experiencing a stressful time, make sure you are obtaining the nutrients you need, primarily through a wholefood, nutrient-dense diet and, if needed, from a high-quality multi-nutrient supplement.
Although exercise promotes health in many ways, including stress management and increased resilience, an excess can dysregulate immune function and increase your vulnerability to catching a cold or flu. During the colder months, make sure you keep yourself warm during and after a workout and incorporate intentional rest when your body is asking for it.
GUT AND IMMUNE DEFENCE
Approximately 70% of immune tissue is located in the digestive tract so a healthy gut environment is necessary for optimal immune function. Research has proved the importance of taking care of your gut microbiome (the bacteria located in your digestive tract) for overall health. Beneficial gut bacteria work symbiotically with your immune system through constant interaction between your gut bacteria and the immune cells located in the gut immune tissue (the gut-associated-lymphoid- tissue/GALT). This cross-talk triggers an immune response to invading organisms and promotes an appropriate immune response. An imbalance between beneficial and harmful bacteria in the gut may provoke a dysregulated immune response and in this way, diminish immune defences.
Foods that support a healthy microflora environment include: kefir (milk, water or coconut kefir), kombucha, sauerkraut, chia seeds and milled flax seeds. A high-quality probiotic that contains Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium strains may also support a healthy gut microbiome by ensuring the primary gut microbes are present to support immune function.
WINTER IS NECESSARY
Winter is not only inevitable but necessary to shape us, to strengthen character and prepare us for winters to come. The winter seasons can be the most beautiful seasons of our lives, even though it may not feel that way as we go through it.
Here the words of author Richard Foster ring true: ‘Winter preserves and strengthens a tree. Rather than expending its strength on the exterior surface, its sap is forced deeper and deeper into its interior depth. In winter, a tougher, more resilient life is firmly established. Winter is necessary for the tree to survive and flourish.’
Remember that when you are going through a winter season, spring is coming.