Autumn is an ideal time to do a little extra to support your immune system. If you are experiencing the first sniffles, sore throat, cough, cold sores or lowered energy levels, it can be a sign that you need to strengthen immunity —your body’s defence system. A strong immune system will help you to fight off the all too common bugs, influenza and colds that arrive with winter.
Nutrition tips to help strengthen immunity
On cold days a cold salad may not seem very appetising. To continue to avail of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants a healthy salad can offer, try warming up your salads with spicy dressings using cayenne, ginger, horseradish and turmeric.
Add nuts, seeds and seasonal vegetables such as purple sprouting broccoli and kale, parsnip shavings and marinated courgettes. Lightly wilted greens with vitamin C rich citrus dressings such as orange and walnut oil, or pumpkin seed oil, can add interest and gustatory appeal.
Seasonal fruit like apples, plums, pears and berries offer us the nutrients and phyto-chemicals that can strengthen immunity. Vitamin C has antiviral and antimicrobial properties and helps to stimulate the production of specific antibodies, a process enhanced by zinc, which is why you will often see these two nutrients paired in supplements.
Vitamin A, found in most yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables, is also antiviral and essential for a strong immune system.
Eat seasonal root vegetables like turnips, beets, parsnips, radishes, carrots, onions, garlic and potatoes. Root vegetables draw their nourishment from the earth. They are rich in minerals that support the body’s immune system. When grown in rich soil they are full of nutrients and cleansing fibre. Many are high in vitamins A, C, and the B vitamins, as well as antioxidants and other healing phytochemicals. For example sulphides found in onions and garlic support immune function and help lower LDL cholesterol.
Garlic contains allicin, a natural antibiotic that can help to support a healthy immune system.
Brassicas such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage are members of the cruciferous family and in season this time of year. Cruciferous vegetables tend to be nutrient-dense, rich in chlorophyll to feed the blood, antioxidants and Vitamins A and C to promote healing and strengthen immunity. Dark green vegetables tend to be rich in the B vitamins that are essential for a healthy nervous system, which greatly influences immunity.
Vitamin B6 is primarily found in whole grains, potato skins, broccoli, prunes and lentils. B6 has been shown to enhance the ability of white blood cells (lymphocytes) to eliminate offending pathogens.
Fermented vegetables help to balance the levels of friendly bacteria in your gastro-intestinal tract, which is a vital part of your immune system. Fermented foods improve digestion and nutrient absorption. Absorption of vitamins and minerals through the small intestine is essential for a healthy immune system. Instead of breads made with commercial yeast look for sourdough bread. Add sauerkraut, pickles and olives to salads or serve as a side dish. Add miso paste to dressings, stir-fries and soups. Kombucha is a fermented tea rich in probiotics; try it as an alternative to your usual tea.
While we usually think of nuts and seeds in association with heart health they can also help to strengthen immunity. Pumpkin, hemp and sesame seeds are rich in zinc. The thymus gland needs zinc to produce T-cells to fight pathogens. Seeds are also a good source of calcium, iron and manganese. Brazil nuts are high in selenium, which plays a role in the production of antibodies. It works best with vitamin E in protecting the body from free radical damage. Sunflower seeds are a great source of vitamin E, also vitamins A, B, D, K, calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, magnesium and omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids. You only need a small serving of nuts and seeds a day, eat them as a healthy snack, as nut milks or butters, or add to them to smoothies and other recipes.
Western herbal medicine to strengthen immunity
Western herbal medicine distinguishes between many groups of herbs to strengthen, stimulate, calm and rebalance the immune system. In acute conditions herbs that assist the body’s natural defence system help to speed up the body’s own healing process. For example in the case of flu, herbs that induce sweating (diaphoretics) help the body to eliminate toxins.
For chronic recurring infections due to low immunity, tonic herbs that nourish and stimulate can help. In autoimmune conditions the immune system is hyperactive; immunomodulating and calming restorative herbs can help to restore balance. A qualified herbalist can formulate an immune system tonic for you and ensure you get exactly what you need.
Herbal infusions (tea) present the opportunity for calming rituals while also availing of their health benefits. Thyme is a natural antiseptic, as is sage, either can be used at the first sign of a sore throat as a gargle. An infusion of lemon balm and nettle is one of my favourites on a cold evening. Lemon balm calms the nervous system and can be applied externally to cold sores. Nettles are so nutritious I consider them a superfood.
In all cases, identifying and addressing the root cause of a compromised immune system helps not only to resolve the problem, but also to prevent the problem from recurring.
Seasonal lifestyle changes to strengthen immunity
Winter is a time to slow down and go within as our bodily rhythms change with the shorter days and longer nights. Going to bed a couple of hours earlier will allow for a couple of hours extra sleep. The importance of adequate rest is often overlooked in terms of maintaining a healthy immune system.
Emotional well-being is intricately linked with a strong immune system. Winter is an ideal time to journal, meditate or simply sit quietly with yourself. It is also a good time to explore creative pursuits, to find ways to strengthen your mind/body connection, intuition and acknowledge inner strengths.
A daily 30 minute brisk walk and some stretching routines are easy ways to keep your immune system strong. Dry skin brushing, herbal baths, nourishing oil rubs and hair masks can be very relaxing as well as beneficial. Try adding some warming spices such as cloves, ginger and cinnamon to your herbal teas and other recipes. Light a candle, use aromatic essential oils or a smudge stick to engage the senses and add to the ambience of time indoors.