I think it is fair to say that it has been one hell of a cold season: Omicron variants, the flu, RSV, Shingles not to mention the run of the mill head cold. It seems like staying well feels both more important than ever and more challenging than ever. At the moment, it seems like the germs have settled down a bit, but allergies are starting to pick up with tree pollination and flowers getting ready to start blooming.
As a household this is something we are constantly dealing with. We were fortunate to have avoided sickness through the vast majority of the pandemic. However, the germs caught up with us this winter. We had a cold during the holidays and then finally caught COVID mid-January (yes, we joined the least exclusive club ever).
Immune boosting has been heavy on my mind the last few months. During the time we were dealing with illness, I was so grateful to have a holistic immune boosting toolkit. At the clinic, patients often ask me what I do to stay healthy or how I treat a cold. I’ve put together a three-part blog post that walks you through my top strategies for keeping my immune system functioning optimally, what I do when I feel a cold coming on and my favorite tips for recovering fully and quickly from a cold.
This first post focuses on optimizing healthy immune function. In other words, these are the things I do when I am well to help me get sick less often and make sure communicable illnesses are not too miserable.
To keep yourself well, I recommend having a personal checklist that you consider weekly that helps you stay honest and active in living a healthy life. Here is an example of a healthy living checklist.
Get enough sleep (7-9 hours a day). Research has shown that sleeping less than 6.5 hours a night more than 2 nights a week predisposes us to both acute and chronic illness.
Eat a varied diet rich in fruits, vegetables, herbs, and fungi. Most contemporary Western people do not have a calorie deficit, however, for many, our diets are heavy in carbs and protein and light in fresh food. Fresh plant-based foods are our best sources of phytonutrients and antioxidants that are key for a healthy immune system. Aim for 5-12 servings of vegetables, fruit, herbs or fungi a day. Try to make sure the colors of these foods are varied (aka “eat a rainbow”) since assorted colors of foods have different nutrient profiles.
Limit your consumption of highly refined and processed foods, sugar, excessively oily foods, and alcohol. We don’t need to deprive ourselves of these things completely, but these foods should not be the primary basis of what we eat. They are low in nutrient density, hard for the body to process and inflammatory overall. I think of these as anti-foods; things we eat that don’t give a biological benefit (though they may bring some pleasure which is also greatly beneficial). When they are consumed our body needs to balance them out by having extra-quality nutrition around the same time.
Make sure you are having regular bowel movements. Our BMs eliminate more than just food waste. They eliminate waste from the liver and toxins as well. When we are not eliminating well, it also impacts our micro-biome, leading to the growth of pathologic bacteria. Seventy to eighty percent of our immune system is found in the gut so increased toxins hanging around with an imbalanced gut biome has a significant impact on our overall immune function. If you are dealing with constipation, make sure you are drinking enough water and eating at least 35 grams of fiber a day. If you are properly hydrated and eating enough fiber and still are not regular, reach out to a health care provider that can help you explore options like magnesium or herbs, gallbladder and thyroid health. Having normally formed and daily BMs is important!
Hydrate! The lymphatic system is a fluid system. When we are dehydrated, the lymph does not move well, and it severely impacts our ability to get nutrients into cells and to get waste out of cells. Healthier cells mean a healthier system overall. Water is truly life. I suggest drinking at least half your body weight in ounces every day and more if you are consuming caffeine or alcohol.
Move your body daily. Our lymphatic system, which is responsible for the transportation function of our immune system, has no pump. We need to move our muscles to support the movement of the lymph and if the lymph does not move, it does not function well. You don’t need to hit the gym or go running every day to get your lymph moving. Simple and gentle movements done a few times a day, like stretches, freely shaking the body, small jumps or isometric muscle contractions (just tensing a relaxing a group of muscles multiple times) can help with moving the lymph and keeping the lymphatic system working optimally.
If you live in a northern climate, monitor your vitamin D levels during the winter. Vitamin D is essential for a healthy immune system and cannot be synthesized in our bodies without exposure to sunlight. Optimal vitamin D3 levels are 50 nmol/L. If your levels are below this, use a Vitamin D3 supplement. Vitamin D3 is fat soluble. This means it needs to be consumed with fat or the body will not be able to absorb it. Many supplements combine D3 with fat (coconut or sesame oil for example). If your D3 does not have fat built in, make sure you take it with a meal that includes some healthy fats. Another D3 consideration is the benefits of combining vitamin D3 with vitamin K2. These vitamins work together as a team to support the immune system, the vascular system and the health of our bones. If you are supplementing with one, you should also supplement the other and there are many supplements that combine the two. Optimal dosage of D3 and K2 can vary a bit, so it is a good idea to work with a healthcare provider to help you figure out the best dosage for you.
Spend some time outside every day. Outdoor air is much cleaner than indoor air and many plants and trees secrete compounds that have a beneficial effect on the immune system. In addition, the exposure of natural light helps to support the circadian rhythm of the body, which when regulated supports healthy immune function. In the winter, the effects of sun exposure on the creation and conversion of vitamin D in non-equatorial areas is limited but still has the potential of a limited increase in vitamin D levels. Try to get outside for at least an hour a day.
Manage your stress. The body of research shows us that the negative effects of stress on our immune system are huge! Learning how to manage and limit stress in our lives is likely the biggest and most important single thing that we can do to support our health. Resources for stress management include mindfulness, bio or neuro feedback, talk therapy, behavioral therapy, somatic therapy, acupuncture, massage and techniques for Vagus nerve and heart rate variability balancing.
Stay connected to community. Loneliness and isolation may be the only things even worse for humans that stress. We truly evolved as pack animals and for most, feeling disconnected creates stress and overtime takes its toll on mental and physical health. Volunteerism and group-based therapy are two examples of resources for those dealing with loneliness.
If any item from this checklist is missing, it can impact your health in a significant way. The fact that these basic things can feel challenging really highlights how unhealthy our lifestyle and culture have become in the Western world. Each of us might have other individual health goals that we could add to this list. For example, you might be working on being mindful about how much time you spend looking at screens or doing weight bearing exercise and eating foods high in calcium to support bone health.
I suggest taking five to ten minutes at the same time each week to look over your check list and see how you did that week. Give yourself a number 1-10 or a grade A-F.
Beating yourself up for behaviors is not productive (so don’t do it) but taking an honest look and building awareness around our own behaviors can be helpful and insightful for helping us to make changes that support our health and well-being. Checking in can show us where we seem to need the most support.
What I see clinically is that when three or more of these items on the check list are out of alignment, this is when we are vulnerable to getting sick. For example, if you are under slept, forgot to drink water, and did not spend anytime outside last week and then you get exposed to germs it is much more likely that you will catch a cold.
Each of us has certain factors that are more significant for us than others in terms of keeping us resilient. It is important that we come to understand what these are so when we experience stress, we know which things to focus on to keep us well. In my case, poor sleep and sugar consumption are big factors that can wear me down. My body responds very well to gentle movement and eating lots of green leafy vegetables. If I eat some cake, have a glass of wine and stay out late, I know I need to double down on the things that help me feel good to counteract the effects of those behaviors. I need to hydrate, eat my veggies, move my body, and go to bed early the next day…. or I am likely to catch a cold!
It is easy to forget about the foundational aspects of healthy living that we are discussing here unless we actively take the time consider them and make adjustments to our behavior on a regular basis. Slowing down to do this can feel difficult with the pace of our daily lives but in truth bringing each of these checklist items into play in our lives is absolutely essential to living long, healthy lives.
Keep your eyes open for my next post on what I do when I am catching a cold next week.