Unexpected ways to strengthen your immune system this winterJune 22, 2023
So, you’ve armed yourself with vitamin C for the winter - but is there more you could be doing to protect yourself from cold and flu bugs this winter?
Over the past few years immune health has become a focus for many of us. By now we all know the basic advice on how to stave off coughs and colds over winter, but perhaps it’s time to zoom out and think more holistically about immunity. What can you do every day to boost your immunity and general wellbeing? How is your lifestyle linked with whether or not you get sick every winter?
Let’s take a look at daily habits that can see you sailing through the cooler months sniffle-free.
Assess your stress
Have you ever noticed how you’re more likely to get sick after a period of stress such as exams or moving house? The evidence is well and truly in – intense, long-term stress can lower your immunity.
Managing your stress levels can be a powerful tool in your immune system-boosting kit. If you’re going through a period of higher stress, schedule regular breaks, whether that’s a herbal tea break, a walk with a friend, or spending time on your favourite hobby. Breathwork can be a really beneficial (not to mention free) way to relieve stress and can be done discreetly whether you’re on public transport, in the office, or even in a cafe.
Give your lymphatic system some love
Your lymphatic system is a network that helps to move immune cells around the entire body via lymphatic fluid. The lymphatic system can get sluggish and cause fluid to build up, leading to swollen glands, puffiness, impaired immunity and sinus congestion.
Getting your lymphatic fluid moving effectively is simple and can even be relaxing. Try one (or all!) of these methods if you feel like your lymphatic system could use some extra support this winter.
Hot and cold therapy: alternate your shower temperature between hot and cold. Hot and cold changes cause expansion and contraction of the blood vessels, effectively acting as a pump to move fluid around the body.
Exercise: Getting your blood pumping with some quick cardio helps to move lymphatic fluid around and has many other immune-boosting benefits. Even gentle stretching, yoga, and foam rolling will help to manually move fluid and prevent stagnation.
Dry brushing: What could be better than a morning pre-shower ritual that exfoliates, invigorates and boosts immunity all at the same time? Take your dry brush from the soles of your feet and move in small upward strokes towards the heart before continuing on with your shower.
Massage: All massage is great at manually moving the lymphatic fluid around the body and tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system (so you can de-stress and de-puff at the same time). Try a gentle, relaxing lymphatic drainage massage next time you need extra support.
Get nosey about your nasal microbiome
Yes, just like your gut, your nose also has its own microbiome. With a healthy balance of microflora in the nose, your immune system can get to work straight away protecting you from airborne foreign invaders that make their way in through the nasal passages. In fact, certain bacteria have been linked to a worsening of symptoms, particularly sinus-related symptoms. Staphylococcus, for example, was shown in one study to worsen sinus symptoms more than study participants with lower staph levels. (Lehtinen) Conversely, Lactobacillus, a beneficial strain of probiotic bacteria can reduce the symptoms and severity of a cold.
How can you improve your nasal microbiome? Like all the other microbiomes of the body, there is a connection to the gut microbiome. Taking a probiotic, along with eating probiotic fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir, yoghurt, and sauerkraut and getting plenty of prebiotic fibre to feed the good bugs can drastically alter the body’s various microbiomes.
Thanks to all the new research about beneficial bacteria, there are also a number of probiotic nasal sprays on the market if you want more ‘direct’ support.
Boost your nutrient intake
So we’ve long known about the importance of vitamin C in immunity, but what about the other nutrients that don’t get a lot of air time?
Zinc is required for a staggering amount of processes in the body, not least of which is normal immune cell function.2
Vitamin D3, aka the ‘sunshine vitamin’ is a wonder nutrient when it comes to immunity. This antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory nutrient can become decline in the winter time and many people can benefit from a supplement over the colder months.
Selenium may be a micronutrient, but it’s a major player when it comes to reducing oxidative stress and chronic inflammation while fighting off infection.3
Omega-3 essential fatty acids - especially EPA and DHA - boost the activity of immune cells, including macrophages whose job it is to kill pathogens, remove dead cells, and activate other immune cells.4
Phytonutrients are the plant nutrients that provide beautiful colours to fruits, vegetables and spices. Carotenoids are a specific type of phytonutrient found in orange, red, yellow and green plant foods which have a potent effect on boosting immune cell activity and reducing free radical damage.5
What to do if you’re already sick
Follow your body’s cues for rest and don’t try to push through your to-do list when your body is calling out for a day or two on the couch.
A slow, yin yoga practice if you are finding it difficult to rest can have many of the same benefits. Yin yoga calms the nervous system, moves lymphatic fluid and can help work out sore muscles that may be a symptom of infection. YouTube is brimming with yoga videos for when you’re feeling unwell, so you can practice from the comfort of your living room - or try some of these poses.
Zinc is more effective than vitamin C at reducing the duration of a cold.In fact, a 2020 systematic review of randomised controlled trials found that zinc lozenges reduced the duration of a cold by a whopping 2.25 days.2
Salt water gargle is a simple but extremely effective home remedy for sore throats. Salt is proven to kill throat infection-causing bacteria at the back of the throat. Stir half a teaspoon of salt into a 250mL cup of warm water and gargle small sips of water at the back of the throat.
By embracing the ‘big picture’ when it comes to immune health, you’re not only strengthening your body’s defences while increasing vitality and greater balance in your life. Your immune system is one of your greatest allies on long-term health and wellbeing, taking care of it every day - not just when you’re already under the weather - is an investment in yourself long-term.
- Markus J. Lehtinen, Ashley A. Hibberd, Sofia Männikkö, Nicolas Yeung, Tommi Kauko, Sofia Forssten, Liisa Lehtoranta, Sampo J. Lahtinen, Buffy Stahl, Anna Lyra, Ronald B. Turner. Nasal microbiota clusters associate with inflammatory response, viral load, and symptom severity in experimental rhinovirus challenge. Scientific Reports, 2018; 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-29793-w
- Wang, M.X., Win, S.S. & Pang, J. (2020). Zinc supplementation reduces common cold duration among healthy adults: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials with micronutrients supplementation. Am J Trop Med Hyg, 103(1):86-99. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7356429/
- Huang, Z., Rose, A.H. & Hoffman, P.R. (2012). The role of selenium in inflammation and immunity: From molecular mechanisms to therapeutic opportunities. Antioxid Redox Signal, 16(6):705-743. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3277928/
- Gutierrez, S., Svahn, S.L. & Johansson, M.E. (2019). Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on immune cells. Int J Mol Sci, 20(20): 5028. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6834330/
- Chew, B.P. & Park, J.S. (2004). Carotenoid action on the immune response. The Journal of Nutrition, 134(1): 257S-261S. https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/134/1/257S/4688304