Strengthening Your Immune System for the Fall and Winter

Ahhh.... the smell of fall is in the air... The days are gradually getting shorter while the shadows are slowly getting longer. The air is filled with the chatter of kids and the shuffling papers as teachers hand out the homework assignments that will fill the after-school hours along with all the other extracurricular activities of the fall season, including sports, music lessons, and other fun events. The busyness of fall is an exciting and often welcome change from the dog days of summer. The start of school and the change of seasons does mean, however, that our immune systems will be as busy as we as they deal with all the new exposures viruses and bacteria.

So, what can we do to support our immune systems' best efforts to keep us well? Here are seven easy tips for you and your family to keep you healthy throughout the fall and winter seasons:

1) Hygiene, hygiene, hygiene!

Hand washing is, of course, our #1 tool in preventing illness, and should be done frequently throughout the day. Make it a habit to wash your hands when you get home and before eating. Sing "Happy Birthday" twice while washing with soap and warm water (including under your fingernails) and keep those fingers out of your mouth, eyes, and nose, too!

2) Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

Noticing a theme yet? Water is one of our best defenses to keep ourselves and our cells healthy. Individual needs will vary, but a general rule of thumb is to consume at least half of your body weight in fluid ounces per day (i.e., a 150 lb person should consume 75 ounces). This rule only pertains to the consumption of water and not any other liquids, including sodas, coffee, tea, alcohol, etc. In fact, consumption of these other beverages will increase your daily water needs, and thus their quantities should be limited. Physical activity will also increase your needs. Talk to your doctor about the amount that will be best for your health status and activity level.

3) Hungry?

A good diet will be your best medicine throughout the whole year and there is no doubt that a poor diet will make you much more susceptible to colds and flus. After all, your diet is your daily opportunity to consume important immune-supporting vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in their most absorbable form, while, on the other hand, a poor diet can actually deplete these important nutrients from your body. A good rule of thumb in this regard is to eat foods that most closely resemble what they looked like in their natural state. In other words, if it comes in a box, through a drive-thru window, from a convenience store, says "diet", "fat-free", "sugar-free", or carries some kind of major brand label, don't eat it. These foods are generally highly processed and nutrient deficient. Instead, choose fresh, organic fruits and vegetables in their whole form; organic, free-range meats, poultry, eggs, and butter; and whole, unprocessed grains. When life seems too busy to prepare a healthy meal, try cutting up your veggies and meats ahead of time and freezing them in separate bags that you can easily defrost to make a quick stir-fry.

4) Happy Bellies!

Probiotics are another important piece of the immune system puzzle, and are the super-heroes of our gastrointestinal system. Probiotics are the good bacteria that turn milk into yogurt and cheese, cabbage into sauerkraut and kimchi, and soy beans into miso and tempeh (among lots of other foods!), and additionally are responsible for keeping the cells of our gut lining intact and healthy. Research has shown that human health has an intimate relationship with the types and ratios of bacteria present in our guts- in fact, many diseases are now being linked to the presence of "bad" bacteria in our guts. How do we support a healthy bacteria population in our GI systems? The best way is to eat fermented foods on a daily basis (like the ones listed) just as our ancestors have done for millenia. Alternatively, supplementation with a high quality probiotic is a good option, especially if your diet may not always be stellar. Talk to your doctor about which probiotic is most appropriate for you and your family.

5) Home Hydrotherapy!

 One of the easiest way to keep your immune system in shape is to harvest the healing power of water you already use for bathing on a daily basis to promote healthy lymph and blood circulation. While the heat of your shower water is good for bringing blood and lymph to your tissues (notice your pink skin!) it is the opposing temperature of cooler water that helps to actually move that blood and lymph back towards your heart and through your lymph glands where your immune system can do its work. The easiest way to accomplish this is to finish your shower with a thirty second spray of cooler water. Don't worry, this doesn't have to be a form of torture with freezing cold water... you can start with lukewarm water. Just make sure it's colder than the warm part of your shower. Trust me, you will be thankful for including this spritzer in your daily regimen when you get fewer colds than those around you.

6) Healthy Vitamin D levels!

 Vitamin D has emerged in the news over the last few years as a very important nutrient in immune health among its many other known and unknown vital functions in the body. Recent studies have shown that optimal vitamin D levels are important for triggering certain immune cells into action to fight off viruses and bacteria*. The best sources of vitamin D are exposure to sunlight (which helps activate the vitamin in your skin) and through foods, such as eggs, cod liver oil, and other fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, and mackerel. Your doctor can test your vitamin D levels with a simple blood test.

7) Hibernation!

Last, but not least, we can not underestimate the power of a good night sleep in keeping us refreshed and our immune systems strong during the fall and winter months. The bears just might know better than we do about the importance of rest during the darker months, since this is the time when our body recharges itself for the busy growing seasons of spring and summer. So, while the rest of the world around us goes into a seasonal slumber, we would serve ourselves well to follow suit by programming our bodies to the changing light and temperatures and aiming to get more sleep during these darker months. Our bodies' hormonal systems, which include hormones responsible for breaking down and repairing our cells, are directly responsive to daily light patterns, and the best way to ensure our bodies get more rest during these seasons are to make sure our sleep environments most directly reflect the outside light patterns. Ideally, this means that all light, including the light from street lamps, alarm clocks, cell phones, and other electronics are blocked or removed from the bedroom (or at the very least covered up). If need be, an eye mask can also be worn to block out outside light. Optimizing your sleep can also mean trying to limit your TV and computer time to 1 hour before bedtime.

Just remember that we can be smarter than the average bear and work to strengthen our immune systems during the fall and winter seasons just by following these simple daily guidelines. And, if you do happen to catch a cold or flu this season, help keep everyone else around you healthy by taking the appropriate time off from work or school. Your body and your friends and family will thank you.

*Source: Alleyne, Richard. "Vitamin D 'Triggers and Arms' the Immune System". New York Times Online. March 7, 2010.