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By Dr Corinne Harpster, ND Naturopathic Physician at SageMED in the Factoria area of Bellevue, WA
Why do we get sick more often in the fall and winter? What can we do to prevent getting ill? Fall and winter in our part of the world mean things are darker, colder and generally we all stay inside a bunch more with the heat cranked up. The lack of sun (and vitamin D), lack of fresh air, increased contact with those around us as well as dry hot air from indoor heating can lead to an increase in illnesses such as colds and flus.
Please note: all of the information here and elsewhere on this blog is for educational purposes only and not to be used as a diagnosis or treatment plan; you should talk with your family practitioner about what is best for you individually.
A lot of our immune function can be found in our gut. One of the best ways to increase immune function is through increasing gut health. If you or your child suffer from allergies or sensitivities to foods avoiding those foods for a period of time while you strengthen your gut can vastly improve health. To strengthen the gut and immune system I suggest:
Homemade sauerkraut (this is super easy and inexpensive to make!) here’s my recipe
Live culture yogurt (I like Nancy’s whole organic plain yogurt or Nancy’s organic whole milk Greek yogurt which has a whopping 20 grams of protein a serving!),
Kombucha or Kefir (live culture milk, water or coconut Kefir work well)
Other fermented fruits and veggies that are either prepared at home or purchased at the health food store (look for non-pasteurized products as pasteurization can kill much of the probiotic content) I really love the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Elix Katz which has a lot of easy and delicious recipes to try at home
Coconut oil is anti-microbial, meaning it fights against viruses, bacteria and fungi. Cooking with coconut oil is a great way to incorporate it in your diet: you can add it to baked goods, cook meat and veggies in it, add it to hot drinks or smoothies or you can eat it off the spoon.
Garlic is anti-microbial and an immune stimulant: you can either take garlic pills or you can finely mince or press garlic and let it sit for 10 minutes before cooking with it. Mincing/pressing the garlic will create allicin, which is one of the most potent anti-microbial components of garlic. It requires 10 minutes to break down chemicals into allicin, so mince it, let it rest 10 minutes and then you can cook with it.
Onion is lower in overall anti-microbial and immune stimulating effects compared to garlic but it is high in quercetin, which is helpful for healing the gut wall. One of my favorite ways to eat onion is in gratin form: http://nourishedkitchen.com/onion-gratin-recipe/ Oh man. So yummy.
Mushrooms are a great source of immune stimulation. The mushrooms that are most helpful include Button, Crimini, Portobello, Reishi, Shitake, Maitake, Enoki, Lions Mane and Cordyceps. It is necessary to cook these mushrooms very well to break down poisonous substances that are present in the raw mushrooms. *All mushrooms have these poisonous substances to some degree: don’t eat raw mushrooms!
Naturally high fiber diets help us in multitudes of ways. Increasing fiber rich foods will help with keeping bowel movements regular, moving toxic bacteria and viruses out of the gut. It also feeds our good bacteria! Some of my favorite high fiber foods during the winter include: winter squash such as butternut and pumpkin as well as sweet potatoes.
Dark skinned berries are very high in flavonoids, which support not only our gut health but our overall health as well. These berries include: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, black cherries and purple grapes.Cooking berries actually increases their antioxidant effects and frozen berries do NOT lose their nutrients.
Don’t forget the pastured meats and dairy, either. These foods are wonderful supporters of our gut and immune health.
Other ways to support immune function:
Elderberry syrup has been scientifically proven to be very helpful for increasing immune function and actively fighting against the flu. Children should take about ¼ teaspoon of Elderberry syrup and adults should take about ½ teaspoon a day to help increase immune function. My preferred brand that is available in health food stores is Wise Woman Elderberry Syrup. I also really like Herbal Revolutions ‘Elderberry Plus’ elixir, which is a combination of elderberry, astragalus, ginger and mushrooms. I would suggest ¼ teaspoon for children and ½ teaspoon for adults for prevention. You can find Herbal Revolutions products on etsy.com
Probiotics in powder or pill form (I prefer food sources such as those listed above but if for some reason that won’t work for your family get a high quality probiotic and make sure to take it with food)
Vitamin D: here in the Pacific Northwest our ‘Vitamin D Winter’ lasts from October through April. Please note that there are ways to get high vitamin D from foods (see the link about "Vitamin D Winter" but if that is not possible supplements may be needed. It may be necessary to supplement vitamin D especially for those with dark skins, the elderly, pregnant and breastfeeding mamas and… well, anyone really. I generally suggest 400 iu a day for children and at least 2,000 iu a day for adults. Talk with your doctor about your individual needs.
Vitamin C has been found helpful for immune function as well. Adults should be taking about 1 gram a day and children about 250 mg a day.
Cod liver oil has been used traditionally, particularly in Nordic regions, for immune health. I suggest at least ¼ teaspoon a day for children and ½ to 1 teaspoon a day for adults. Cod liver oil has Vitamin A, Vitamin D and omega fatty acids all of which support immune function.
Hydration: because of our indoor heating we get dried out a lot more and that causes our mucous membranes to dry out. Dry mucous membranes lead to little micro-tears that allow ‘bad guys’ such as pathogenic bacteria and viruses into our bodies. Keep hydrated through water, herbal teas and broth.
Get outside/get fresh air! Get outside even if it is cold, even if it is raining, even if it is snowing. That fresh air helps clear our lungs. Crack the windows in your house on a regular basis to help keep things fresher inside, too.
Get plenty of sleep: our bodies repair themselves while we sleep. No sleep, no repair = much more likely to be ill.
Dr Corinne Harpster is a naturopathic physician with extensive training in nutrition and herbal medicine. She is currently accepting new patients at SageMED in Bellevue, WA.