Keeping Your Immunity Up During Virus Season (and Beyond)

Our immune systems are truly incredible. Most of us spend the majority of our time in good health, which speaks volumes about the power of our bodies to handle unseen viruses, bacteria, and other germs without our conscious attention. To keep us safe, there exist several lines of defense. Our skin is the most external barrier and the part of us that is exposed directly to the most pathogens, thus the importance of effective hand-washing. Touching your face can easily transfer germs to your internal environment through the mucus membranes of your eyes, nose, and mouth. The liquid film on these surfaces has antibodies which add another layer of protection, and from there things get really interesting. Read on to learn more about how we can keep our immune system functioning highly to protect us from infectious diseases.

Maintain a healthy respiratory tract

Did you know your nose and sinuses have anatomically evolved to filter and humidify incoming air? Moist air helps maintain a useful mucus barrier, which allows our bodies to eliminate incoming bacteria and viruses. Should particles make it past this, our lungs also have tiny hairs called cilia that unidirectionally move things up and out, if we take care of our airways. 

What you can do:

  • Use humidifiers at home, especially in buildings with forced air heat. Respiratory droplets (the mists created by coughing and sneezing) cannot travel as far in humidified air. 

  • Breathe through your nose. This has multiple benefits, filtration and humidification of air being two of them. 

  • Use saltwater sprays, nasal rinses, or nasal sprays with xylitol to keep your interior airways well-conditioned and moisturized so germs can less easily break through the mucus barrier.

  • Don’t smoke or vape. Nicotine makes it harder for your lungs to clear respiratory waste.

Eat a diet rich in nutrients

All the biochemical reactions that help our bodies assimilate nutrients and convert them into building blocks used in generation of new cells and tissues require vitamins and minerals as cofactors. To assist with those processes, we can take supplemental vitamins, which is recommended for some people, but vitamins derived from our diet are utilized more easily and efficiently than packaged ones. 

What you can do:

  • Choose brightly colored fresh foods over processed foods. The pigments that color the vegetables and fruits that we eat come from antioxidant-rich flavonoids, which plants produce to protect themselves from attack. Generally, the darker the color, the richer the flavonoid content. 

  • Out-of-season, consider choosing frozen veggies since nutrients are better preserved with the flash-freezing process than with long-distance travel over multiple days. 

  • Use garlic and ginger liberally in your cooking if you like their flavors and tolerate them. They both have antimicrobial properties. Ginger juice has broad spectrum antiviral activity. 

Take good care of your gut

Our immune system has an elegant and complicated codependent relationship with the bacteria that live in our intestines, the gut microbiome. If your body is busy struggling with digestive challenges that result from overconsumption of unhealthy foods, it can’t stay properly attuned to outside pathogens.

What you can do:

  • Feed your gut bacteria what they want. If you are craving starchy foods, choose root vegetables and whole grains over processed flour, which spikes blood sugar. 

  • Add fermented foods, like sauerkraut and kimchi, which help promote beneficial bacterial balance as well.

  • Consider supplementation with prebiotics and/or probiotics, but understand that probiotics alone are unlikely to shift the gut microbiome dramatically or permanently. The good bacteria need continual nutrient supply from a healthy diet to maintain their populations.

  • Supplement with vitamin D3. Vitamin D deficiency, which is very common, is even more of a problem in the darker, colder months when the sun is less available to activate vitamin D in our skin. Consider getting a blood level checked. As a supplement, a daily dose between 2000-4000IU is appropriate for most people, especially during winter. Vitamin D affects the immune system in multiple ways, one of which is through the gut microbiome.

Stay physically active

Studies have demonstrated that people who exercise regularly get sick less often. Though overtraining can hamper your body’s ability to respond to illness, regularly raising your heart rate, engaging in resistance exercise, and stretching your muscles all help keep your immune system functioning well. 

What you can do:

  • Shoot for at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise a few times a week, but if that is not doable, get physical how you can, when you can. Walking and dancing are both great forms of movement. 

  • If you develop an illness accompanied by fever or difficulty breathing, allow your body to rest, but consider a restorative practice like gentle stretching.

Prioritize quality sleep

Besides nutrition, sleep probably pulls the most levers in your health control panel. Our body has a deep reliance on sleep for recalibration and recovery. Try as we may (and we do), there aren’t many shortcuts to gain extra hours in the day. Dark winter hours are an opportunity to allow yourself what may feel like a luxury in modern day busy schedules: recharging your body. 

What you can do: 

  • When budgeting your time, start by carving out your ideal sleep window. Once you’ve given yourself that allowance, you can figure out what else can be sacrificed in the energy balance sheet. 

  • Try to sleep on the same schedule as many nights of the week as possible. Many physiological processes rely on predictable circadian patterns to function optimally.

Manage stress so it doesn’t manage you

We’re well-equipped to handle an incredible amount of mental and physical stress. Acutely, that’s a great thing, and it’s important for our bodies to remain responsive to the need for rapid decision-making and multitasking. However, chronic stress wears on us and negatively impacts our hormones, as well as our autonomic nervous system function. Specifically, when we spend an excessive amount of time in “fight or flight,” our sympathetic nervous system circulates compounds–like the stress hormone cortisol–that impair immunity. 

What you can do:

  • Try out different stress management techniques to see what works for you. For some people, silent meditation is perfect; for others, a thrilling bike ride helps blow off steam. If your mind feels calmer after finishing whatever “it” is, there’s a good chance you are doing it right. 

  • Learning how to breathe in a slower, deeper manner is a simple intervention that can be done anywhere, all the time, and it pays large dividends for health.Consciously prolonging your exhalation stimulates your “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn slows heart rate and can lower blood pressure–two signals that relax the body. 

Consider herbs and supplements to support immune health

We’re inclined to seek medical support reactively, when we become sick, but plant medicine has been used to prevent illness, by both humans and other animals, for millennia. Plants rely on us to help spread their seeds, so consider using them to enhance your immunity!

What you can do:

  • Consider taking blends of medicinal mushrooms for immune support. These are available as capsules, powders, or liquid tinctures. Eastern medicine traditions have long regarded select mushrooms as important for health maintenance, but Western culture is newer to embracing them. 

  • Keep elderberry syrup in your medicine cabinet. It can be used both preventively and at treatment doses as an immune-supportive, antiviral medicine.

  • Consider taking echinacea daily for a few weeks at a time during peak infection seasons. Studies are mixed on Echinacea, partly because large analyses have combined studies that use different species and different parts of the plant, but herbalists still heavily rely on Echinancea’s immune stimulating properties. 

  • Astragulus, another supplement used widely in Traditional Chinese medicine, has documented immune-supportive effects and is easy to find. 

In summary, we have several methods of bolstering resistance to the infections that we all inevitably encounter. Some of these strategies are helpful year round habits that have benefits far beyond keeping your immune system primed. Washing your hands, using hand sanitizer and avoiding touching your face will reduce transmission significantly, and these practices are still critical to protecting yourself and the people around you. Escalating your preparation for seasonal bursts in colds, the flu, and other circulating viruses by adopting some of the above practices can result in more enjoyable, productive, and healthy winter months.