Even if you get your flu shot, wash your hands religiously, and try to steer clear of people at home or in the office who are hacking and sneezing, fighting against all the germs and illnesses that seem to proliferate in winter is an uphill battle. While we can’t promise these seven natural immunity boosters will keep you from needing to take a single sick day this winter, incorporating them into your life may improve your chances of a less severe sickness, a quicker recovery time, and even avoiding “catching” a bug in the first place. Some of them (such as getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating foods rich in vitamins and minerals) are pretty obviously the basic building blocks of a healthy lifestyle, but its always good to have a little reminder how to stay healhty. Hit the jump to find out how to boost your immune system nature’s way.
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1. Rest up and get some sleep
We all know this one, but its easier said than done, right? Instead of fighting long nights with blue screens, Netflix binges, and snacks, try to make an early (or earlier) bedtime a priority. Sleeping does more than feel good: it gives your body a chance to repair itself on a cellular level. Numerous studies have shown that being sleep-deprived makes you more likely to get colds; long-term sleep deprivation may be linked with more serious illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. Many of us are pretty exhausted, but if going to sleep is challenging, experiment with a few of the following suggestions:
- Dim the lights and turn off electronic devices about an hour before bed.
- Give yourself time to digest before heading to Snoozetown. Falling asleep on a full stomach can be difficult so try to make your last meal or snack a few hours before bedtime.
- Smell your way to sleep. Dab a bit of lavender essential oil on your pressure points (including wrists and behind the ears) to help your mind relax.
2. Whip up some Golden Milk
Golden Milk, a creamy turmeric-spiked drink that has recently been added to menus on coffee and tea shops in the United States, has its origins in Ayurveda. Turmeric’s active ingredient is curcumin, which has been touted as being anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti-fungal. You’ll love this drink as a warm and soothing alternative to coffee or tea any time of the day, but we especially adore it when winding down at night. Choose your favorite non-dairy milk as the base; try cashew, which has sleep-inducing and regulating tryptophan. Another healthy turmeric-tinged drink: make a “tea” by mixing lemon juice, slices of ginger, turmeric, and a little liquid sweetener (such as honey) with warm water.
3. Eat a vegetable rainbow
Incorporating a wide array of veggies and veggie colors is recommended for most healthful and nourishing diets, but it’s especially important for boosting immunity. Vitamins such as C and A have been studied for their ability to fight off illness, so add plenty of dark leafy greens, citrus fruits, and carrots, squash, and sweet potatoes. Actually eating your vitamins in whole veggie form is preferable to supplementing with often unregulated pills and capsules. Selenium, a mineral found in garlic, broccoli, and brazil nuts, also has been touted as an immune system booster.
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4. Find some magical mushrooms
The fungus kingdom is notoriously defensive against bacteria and viruses – after all, it was funguses (specifically the Penicillium mold) which lead to the development of modern day antibiotics. Many funguses produce chemicals that kill viruses and bacteria. Some funguses are believe to have anti-cancer and anti-tumor properties as well. Mushrooms, especially Asian varieties such as shiitake, enoki, and maitake, contain natural anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties including the immune-boosting chemical beta-glucan. Plus, they’re delicious can be added to virtually any meal — breakfast, lunch or dinner. Always make sure you fully cook mushrooms for optimal nutrition and so that you can digest them properly!
5. Feed your gut flora
Speaking of funguses, having a healthy ecosystem of good gut bacteria and fungi is critical for immune health. Did you know that 70-80% of your immune tissue is located in your digestive tract? Traditional foods from a variety of cultures are plentiful sources of probiotics (aka beneficial bacteria) that can feed your gut flora. Cultured yogurts and kefirs, tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and more provide diverse belly flora, which may help lower levels of inflammation in your gut and boost your immune system. Probiotics are often found in fermented foods; the fermenting process promotes the growth of millions of microorganisms that help break down food. In addition to potentially helping to ward off some illnesses before they attack, probiotics are also used to help replenish the gut microbiome after a course of antibiotics.
6. Sip hot soup
A version of Grandma’s healing chicken soup can be found in almost any family lineage, and doctors have figured out that the power of this soup is more than just the nostalgia factor. Soups can deliver easily digestible and nourishing nutrients and keep you hydrated. When you have a cold or sore throat, the steam and humidity of soup can help clear clogged nasal passages as well. Vegetarians and vegans can make up their own version of no-chicken soup or whip up a quick and healthful miso soup instead.
7. Get your blood flowing
Exercise and immune function have a slightly contentious relationship: exercising too strenuously has actually been linked with a suppressed immune function, but the benefits of moderate exercise outweigh the potential negatives so don’t throw in the (gym) towel: exercising moderately through brisk walks, cycling, pilates, yoga, dance class, or lifting at the gym can give you an immunity boost. Moving, however it suits you, gets blood circulating, may help flush out bacteria and viruses, lowers stress levels, and helps you sleep better. If you exercise outdoors you can also get the benefit of fresh air and soak in a little Vitamin D from the sun, another key element to a healthy immune system.
8. Get some sunshine
Vitamin D is produced naturally in your body when your skin is exposed to UV radiation from the sun. Vitamin D acts more like a hormone than a vitamin, and is thought to play a role in regulating the immune system. It is found in relatively few food products, but it can be found in fortified milk products and mushrooms. Many people have low levels of Vitamin D, so its always helpful to get outside for a 30 minute walk in the sunshine to boost your immune system. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, it is hard in the winter to get enough Vitamin D from the sun alone, so it’s a good idea to drink a Vitamin-D fortified beverage or take a supplement (and/or eat lots of mushrooms!).
8. Herbs and supplements
While most of our recommendations can be found in whole foods or through making healthy lifestyle choices, a few potentially powerful immune boosters are best when taken in supplement form, whether as tinctures, capsules, or even as part of a tea. Taking vitamin C and zinc capsules regularly or at the first sign of a cold can work wonders for the immune system. Some herbal remedies have found their way into the mainstream market, including echinacea, astragalus, ginseng, elderberry and reishi mushrooms and can be purchased separately. Visiting a professional, such as a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner who has knowledge of and expertise in prescribing an array of herbs and medicinal roots, may be your best bet for getting the appropriate dosage and most effective combo. While you are there, consider having an acupuncture treatment, which has also been associated with boosting immune function.