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5 Steps to a Healthier Immune System

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

By Marie Nuthall, M.Ac, L.Ac.

Welcome to ‘flu season’ or, as my acupuncture colleagues call it, the ‘high-stress, over-indulged, not taking care of yourself season’. Whatever term you prefer, most can agree that this is that time of the year when stress is at its peak, our diet is dotted with holiday confections at every turn, our sleep is not optimal, and it’s too cold to exercise outside. Now we have the perfect formula for illness to set in. Here are some things you can do to prevent illness or significantly shorten its duration:

1. Get some zzzzz’s

The strength of our immune system is directly tied to how much sleep we’re getting. The recommended average for adults is 7-9 hours per night. Since the body does its repair work during sleep, it makes sense that immunity takes a big hit by a chronic lack of sleep. In fact, people who are not getting enough sleep get sicker easier and faster and will stay sick longer than those who are. This is because, during sleep, bodies are restoring, rejuvenating, repairing muscles, conducting cellular repair, circulating immunity-strengthening chemicals and synthesizing hormones.

2. Wash your hands!

Your skin is the primary barrier to viruses and bacteria. It is imperative that you wash your hands often and well during cold and flu season. Wiping down doorknobs and touch surfaces in your home and office and not touching your face unless your hands are freshly scrubbed are the simplest and most effective things you can do.

3. Mind that diet

During the holidays, this can be the toughest suggestion to follow. There are enticing treats and full candy-dishes at every turn. Although it would be optimal if we could avoid sugar entirely, know that if you are feeling a little run down already, sugar is your #1 enemy during this time. Why? Because it lowers your immune system via paralysis, it creates an inflammatory state in the body and blocks the uptake of vitamin C into your cells which is vital to your health especially if you’re not 100%. In addition, sugar can contribute to mood swings, exacerbate depression, anxiousness, and irritability.

Foods for cold season

  • Kiwi – fruit most loaded with vitamin C (lessens the duration of cold)

  • Garlic – 3 raw cloves/day

  • Oysters – zinc and selenium-rich

  • Mushrooms – specifically for cold and flu maitaki, shitake, cordyceps, ¼ to 1 oz per day

4. Dress appropriately

One of the most cringe-worthy scenes of winter is seeing people running around in short sleeves and pants sans coat on a blustery winter day. In Chinese medicine, wind and cold are illness-causing pathogenic factors and the most vulnerable areas are the neck, upper chest, and base of the skull. Before heading out, in addition to your coat, grab a scarf to cover that neck, and don’t forget the hat and gloves.

5. Keep those stress levels down

Stress suppresses the immune system and is a significant trigger for illness. Consider this - when under situations of extreme stress/fight-or-flight-mode (you’ve heard the lion-attack analogy) our bodies have the innate ability to commit all its resources to protect our vital organs first and foremost. Immune system functioning becomes secondary until the threat is resolved. If you are chronically entrenched in stressful behaviors, you are leaving your body vulnerable to infection and disease.

Your state of mind absolutely affects your state of health. Researchers from the University of Ohio, Kentucky and British Columbia reviewed nearly 300 studies on stress and its impact on health. Their findings were significant in that “stress of any significant duration – from a few days to a few months or years, as happens in real life – all aspects of immunity went downhill. Thus long-term or chronic stress, through too much wear and tear, can ravage the immune system.”

To lower stress:

  • Develop a yoga practice – lowers stress and cultivates mindfulness

  • Get Acupuncture – lowers stress and improves physical symptoms

  • Learn to meditate

  • Go outside – a brisk walk (while properly bundled up) will do wonders

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