Well here we are at April and the weather is sending us an early reminder that winter is fast approaching. It’s time to start looking at how you can support your immune system to help you fight off the season’s colds and flu.
As always, the best place to start is with good nutrition. I know this may sound a bit clichéd and repetitive, but, reducing processed foods and sugars, increasing the amount of lovely colourful vegetables you eat and adding in some fruit really is a great place to start.
During winter, nature provides us with beautiful fruits that are full of vitamin C and other antioxidants that our immune system just loves. Seasonal fruits like the citrus family – oranges, mandarins, lemons, grapefruit and kiwifruit are all good sources (hold off on the grapefruit if you are taking statins for cholesterol control or other medication with a warning about grapefruit). Frozen berries are another great source of vitamin C and other antioxidants which can be easily added to smoothies or thawed and eaten with yoghurt. Take care with fruit juices as they can contain high amounts of sugar – fruit is best eaten whole. If you have a lot of stress in your life, are very physically active, or have issues with adrenal fatigue you may benefit from taking a vitamin C supplement to support your adrenal glands, which can take a hammering during any stress including illness.
Zinc is another element that is important for our immune system. Oysters are one of the best sources of zinc, however if you are not keen on these - or don’t have the budget of the rich and famous for more than an occasional indulgence - then beef, lamb, pork, whole grains, nuts and pumpkin seeds are good sources too.
Herbs are a traditional and effective method of improving our immunity, both directly and indirectly by supporting other systems. One of the most famous is Echinacea, which is found in a number of over the counter remedies. Echinacea has been shown to prevent acute infections and to stimulate the immune response. Withania is also a well-known adaptogen that helps our bodies to cope with stress and also supports the immune system. Liquorice can assist with supporting the adrenals glands during times of stress. Keeping our stress levels under control is important in reducing the risk of illness and infections. Talk to a qualified Naturopath or Herbalist to determine which herbs are right for you, as some do have contraindications.
Vitamin D – the sunshine vitamin! This is a very important component of our immune systems, central nervous systems and is important for bone health. Many Kiwis have low levels of vitamin D, which is a downside of the sun protection message to avoid skin cancer in this part of the world. Generally GPs will not test vitamin D levels as it is cheaper to prescribe a supplement than it is to do the blood test.
Winter, with its short daylight hours, is the season when many animals hunker down and rest. We should also take the hint and make the time to rest too because our bodies do their best repair work when we are resting and sleeping. Often our modern lifestyles and the winter weather mean we are as busy as ever and so we compensate for lack of daylight with artificial lighting and rarely venture outside. Our bodies have evolved to react to natural sunshine that changes spectrum throughout the day. Early morning light helps us to wake up, sunset light tells our bodies it is time to go to sleep. At this time of year, we often miss those cues – how many times do you hear people say “I leave for work in the dark and get home in the dark”? This can mess up our circadian rhythm, leaving us tired, run down with depleted vitamin D and prone to catching the latest lurgy. For some people it can cause Seasonal Affective Disorder.
“So what can I do about it?” you may ask.
Try to get some form of direct early morning sunshine, without sunglasses on, whenever you can. This might be driving to work with the window down (but be sensible particularly when there is sun strike), waiting at the bus stop, having a cuppa outside before you start work. I also encourage you to get outside for some fresh air during the day, particularly if you spend a lot of time in air conditioned environments. You may be surprised to find how much difference a brisk walk around the block in your morning or afternoon break can make to your mood and energy levels. Maybe even drag your colleagues out for a walking meeting? On sunny days, be brave and bare some skin so that you can generate some vitamin D as you go!
The type of lighting in your home is also important. Until recently humans evolved with either no lighting or firelight at night time. Reducing cooler blue light and replacing it with warmer yellow lighting with lower wattage has been shown to help with the production of sleepy hormones like melatonin. In the evening, putting away the lap top - or any other devices with screens - between half an hour and an hour before going to bed and enabling the blue filter option on any devices where this is built in is likely to help. There are apps online that can be downloaded and adjust your display depending on the time of day and sunset in your location.
(Braun & Cohen, 2015)
As always, this is general information and not to be taken as direct advice. For a more personalised approach, either click “Book Now” to book a consultation with me or contact your local registered Naturopath or other Health and Wellness professional.
Bone, K., & Mills, S. (2013). Principles and practice of phytotherapy: Modern herbal medicine. Sydney, Australia: Elsevier Health Sciences.
Braun, L., & Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs and natural supplements: An evidence based guide (Vol. 2). Chatswood, Australia: Churchill Livingstone.
Fisher, C. (2009). Materia medica of Western herbs. Nelson, New Zealand: Vitex Medica.
Mead, M. N. (2008). Benefits of sunlight: A bright spot for human health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 116(4), A160-A167.
Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. (2014). SAD. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/a-z/resource/43/sadc
Ministry of Health. (2017). New Zealand food composition database. Retrieved from http://www.foodcomposition.co.nz/