By Kerri Harvey
It might seem strange that people should be focusing on winter immunity when it’s only just autumn but in fact, this is the best time to start building up your immune system for the winter season of colds and flu. The human immune system is much like a chain — only as strong as its weakest link.
Everybody has a different weak link, so it’s important to know your chink to treat it optimally. By taking supplements, eating properly and making small adjustments to your lifestyle, you can ensure you’re fighting fit by the time the winter bugs arrive.
Life is Lethal
Stress is the top cause of a weakened immune system and it’s an almost unavoidable fact of modern life. Our winter season falls in the middle of the year, when you’re in the thick of things at work and at just about the time when you’re really starting to feel like you need a break. So, most people go into winter stressed out and immuno-compromised.
Compounding this, pollution, smoking, lack of sleep and poor diet also greatly deplete the immune system and these things are common factors in people who lead stressful working lives. So lifestyle choices and a healthy balanced diet remain the first steps to a stronger and more resilient immune system.
Although you might not be able to control the amount of stress in your life, you can do something about how you cope with it. For example, getting a good night’s sleep can make all the difference to how overwhelmed you feel and how well you are able to cope with what your day throws at you. Sleep is when the body rejuvenates itself and prolonged lack of sleep can make you physically ill, not to mention emotionally frazzled.
Taking time out to relax, whether it be through meditation, reading a book or taking a stroll outside, is also incredibly important to help you unwind.
Johannesburg dietician Jeske Wellmann says year-round good nutrition and a multivitamin suited to your specific health needs are essential to keep the immune system strong and capable of fending off winter viruses.
"A large part of your immune system is in the gut, so what you put in your mouth and stomach really makes all the difference. A well-balanced diet is exactly what you need to boost your immune system," she explains.
"Focus on whole grain foods with a low Gl index because there is more nutrition in them; low fat protein; lots of fresh fruit and vegetables bought from a reputable supplier for essential vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants; and the essential Omega-3 essential fatty acids found in sardines, pilchards, salmon, herring, mackerel plus the Omega-6 essential fatty acids present in sunflower, linseed and flax seeds."
While it's easy to enjoy vegetables in summer salads, winter comfort foods can also be highly nutritious. Wellmann says that simple modifications to cooking methods can make all the difference to overall nutrition.
"Don’t overcook vegetables and rather add them to stews right at the end of cooking time, so the heat doesn’t destroy their nutritional value."
You can also get creative with soups, which enable you to cram many vegetables into one meal. Choose wholewheat pastas and breads for a more nutritious option.
Why is a strong immune system more important in winter?
Surprisingly colds and flu are actually around all year. These conditions appear to be more prevalent In winter because we live In closer proximity to each other because of the cold weather. Staying huddled together indoors with heaters on and windows closed are conditions that viruses love, because they can spread their misery more easily.
Perfect candidates for colds and flu are usually children, the elderly, diabetics and those people confined to bed, as their immune systems are generally weaker.
Office workers are also at a higher risk, as air-conditioners recycle germs and viruses and constantly reintroduce them into the office, as well as drying out the air, which makes for a perfect virus breeding ground.
Wellmann adds that it's not that difficult for busy people to also enjoy good nutrition, it just requires a little planning.
"Cooking is an issue for most working people. If you have a domestic helper, ask her to cut or peel the vegetables so you just have to cook them. Ensure you always have a good supply of necessary ingredients, fruit and vegetables on hand and buy healthy snacks. When you eat out, always order a salad or additional vegetables because restaurants never serve you enough to make a balanced meal."
In addition to good nutrition, you should limit or eliminate stimulants and smoking and do 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. Then you’ll be well on your way to a robust immune system.
"Walking, cycling, swimming and things you can do in and around the house are fine,” says Wellmann, “you don’t necessarily have to go to the gym."
Johannesburg homeopathic practitioner Dr Caron Cole confirms that lifestyle choices and diet are essential for immune building and adds that water is also vital.
"Most people don’t drink enough water, adults should have at least eight glasses of water a day," she says.
Water is an essential component of health and it makes sense that your immune system won’t work properly unless your body is healthy and getting all the basics its needs.
Dr Cole stresses the importance of antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E or grape seed extract. Zinc and selenium are also essential for immune boosting and preventing chronic illness. She says children generally need a bit more calcium and the elderly should watch their protein intake to ensure they consume enough amino acids.
"Good supplements vary dramatically depending on a person's individual needs," says Dr Cole, "and it's important to know that you can overdose on certain vitamins, so always stick to the correct dose for your body size and specific needs."
The homeopathic single remedy Aconite, taken at the start of an illness, can prevent a cold from getting worse and Anas barbarea is excellent for treating colds and flu once you have them.
"However, there is also a range of injectables that include Echinacea comp and Engystol, which I advocate for immune compromised patients to take on a weekly basis. These have antiviral properties and are the homeopathic flu vaccine alternative," says Cole.
Ideally you should start taking supplements and building your immune system as soon as the weather starts changing in autumn - towards March or April. This is best to prevent illness and keep healthy throughout winter.
Echinacea is a broad spectrum immune booster for adults. Colostrum is helpful for children, especially those with allergies. Dr Cole emphasizes that patients should not exceed the recommended dose on medication including herbal medication. Patients should contact their healthcare practitioner if symptoms persist.
For immune maintenance, she advises high quality multivitamin supplements to be taken throughout the year along with moderate consistent exercise.
A healthy immune system ensures a disease-free winter minus coughs and sniffs. Achieving this is easier than you think. Focus on a healthy lifestyle of reduced stress, stimulants and pollutants, a balanced diet ... and the odd walk in the park. Good immunity is quite achievable, but the time to start tweaking it is now.
With winter on the horizon, a healthy immune system is essential to ward off the many bugs and viruses waiting patiently to attack during the cold season.