The first thing to do is shift your perspective.
Exposure to bacteria and viruses is an important process that strengthens and trains the body’s army troops – aka, the immune system. So, while hand washing and basic hygiene are important and prudent, staying healthy is not all about avoiding germs.
What we need to do is keep your troops healthy and strong so that they neutralize the bacteria and viruses they encounter quickly and efficiently. That way you and your children can weather this natural immune building process more comfortably.
So let’s talk about how to keep your immune system strong so it can do its job effectively.
The Importance Of Digestive Health
70-80% of your immune system is housed in the lining of your digestive tract. The remainder is in your mucous membranes and blood. This means that the long term ticket to strong immunity is tip-top digestive function. Microscopic bacteria are running the show (which you can learn more about in this video post).
So, reflect a moment on the state of your digestion. Do you suffer from chronic constipation? Do you have food allergies or intolerances? Do you experience gas or bloating? Do you have IBS or colitis? Some other things that degrade digestive bacteria are antibiotics, NSAIDs like Advil/Tylenol, cigarette smoke, stress, sugar and toxic chemicals. Are you/ have you been exposed to these?
If this is you (or your child), then the soldiers of your immune system are not as happy or efficient as they could be. You might find that you get every bug that comes around. You might find that colds stick with you for longer than they do for others, or that they aways develop into secondary infections.
Do you see the connection now? Sluggish digestion = sluggish immune function. The reverse is also true; you might find you have no particular digestive issues yet you are always sick. You too will benefit from digestive healing because sluggish immune function = sluggish digestive function. Remember…. it’s turning out that the gut bacteria are largely running the show when it comes to the immune system.
So, the long term fix to fewer sick days is digestive healing.
There are several digestive healing protocols floating around that you might want to take a look at to improve your immune function. You might have heard of Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS), or the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, or the Autoimmune Protocol. These are blueprints to help you reduce digestive irritants, kill yeast and repopulate the gut with colonies of healthy gut flora. This is your ultimate long term solution for poor immune function. Even taking elements of these protocols is helpful and supportive of immune function.
But perhaps you are not yet ready to go there and what you want are simple strategies to just get through this season.
Here are some short term strategies to get you and your family through cold and flu season.
Immune Booster Strategy #1: Antioxidants
Antioxidants such as vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin A, selenium and zinc all help to reduce oxidative stress in the body and strengthen immune function. As with all nutrients, getting them from food is best.
Incorporate fresh, whole foods such as colourful fruits and vegetables, avocado, berries, greens, eggs, nuts and seeds into your diet. Sardines are a fantastic source of selenium (and vitamin D). Here’s a video on how to get more antioxidants into the diet. The supplement I have seen best results with to help you get this in and support immune health is this one that contains only concentrated whole food.
Immune Booster Strategy #2: Cod liver oil
Cod liver oil provides an excellent source of vitamins A and D along with some essential fatty acids. These are all nutrients that are difficult to get in high enough amounts through a typical diet and are crucial to digestive and immune health.
Choose a cod liver oil that has high levels of both vitamin A and vitamin D – some companies have drastically reduced the amount of these vitamins. Rosita is a good one. You can also see my recommendations here in my dispensary.
Immune Booster Strategy #3: Fermented food/beverages
Fermented beverages are easy to make and provide a fantastic source of vitamin C and probiotic bacteria. They help keep the bowels running smoothy, nourish the gut flora and are energizing. I have used water kefir and kefir soda in my family for many cold and flu seasons and have found them to be the a great way to ward off sickness. If you’re gung-ho with the ferments, try making sauerkraut or pickled carrots. You can use the juice for salad dressings or even mix it into soups to give a citrus type taste. Find more info about fermented foods here and here.
If you’re not yet ready to get into fermented foods, consider starting a multi-strain probiotic daily. It won’t give you the vitamins, enzymes or help regulate the pH of your digestive tract like fermented food will, but it will help keep your gut microbes happy – and that’s a good thing for immune health.
Immune Booster Strategy #4: Magnesium
While magnesium it not often thought of when it comes to immune health, it is involved in multiple ways (summarized here). Many practitioners feel we are all likely deficient in it due to poor soil quality (he amount found in food is dependent on the amount found in soil, and magnesium in soil is eroding away).
Magnesium can also work as a gentle laxative if you suffer from constipation (and, as mentioned above, you’ve got to get rid of your constipation if you want your immune system to function well). Chose magnesium citrate or glycinate or use a topical magnesium oil spray for better absorption.
Immune Booster Strategy #5: Zinc
Zinc is involved in just about every chemical process in the body. It is a great immune builder. If you eat red meat on a regular basis you are probably getting enough zinc. But it is hard to get if you are a vegetarian (pumpkin seeds are a good vegetarian source). Take a low dose of zinc (less than 15mg for a child) unless zinc levels have been checked by your doctor.
A few more things to do:
Be aware that sugar feeds pathogenic bacteria in the gut, depletes the body of mineral (particularly magnesium and zinc) and seems to paralyze the immune system for a while. So sugar and processed carbohydrates are not your friend this winter.
Be aware that most multivitamins made for children contain sugar (which defeats your purpose) and lack significant amount of the right kind of nutrients – the kind we’re talking about here. For your kids, consider switching out the multi for a more targeted immuno-supportive regime as detailed above. To see my advice on picking supplements check here
Medicinal mushrooms and certain herbs like astragalus are also excellent antibacterial agent and immune enhancers. I particularly love the Deep Immune and Deep Immune For Kids formulas made by Saint Francis Herbs and the Zinc Food Complex made by New Chapter (this latter one is for adults, not kids).
Vitamin C is great for the immune system. My favourite sources are camu camu, elderberry and acai. Typical over-the-counter vitamin C is derived from GMO corn and I do not recommend it.
Summary for cold and flu season:
Things that Help:
Antioxidants (vitamins A, C, E, selenium, zinc, plant chemicals from whole fruits and vegetables) ;
Medicinal mushrooms (reishi, shitaki, mataki);
Probiotic foods and supplements;
Cod Liver Oil (vitamins A and D);
Antimicrobial herbs like garlic and oregano
Things that Hinder:
Chronic constipation and other digestive troubles;
Sugary multi vitamins;
Undetected food intolerances