Winter is a wonderful time of year when we get to celebrate the holiday season with friends and family. No one wants sickness to get in the way. But the increased amount of time spent indoors, the lowered exposure to the sun and fresh air, and the holiday sweets can weaken our immune systems and make us more susceptible to illness. So here are a few of my favorite things to help me stay well throughout the winter season.
Good health begins with a good foundation. That foundation is the food that you eat everyday. When your body is getting the nutrients that it needs, you will be much more resistant to illness. It is not the germs that we are exposed to that determines whether we get sick or not, but rather the condition of your health at the time of the exposure. Keeping your immune system strong and eating well are the keys to staying well. A healthy diet description can be found in my article, “Healthy Food Guidelines”. When you don’t follow these guidelines and eat more carbohydrates, sweets, or proteins in excess of what your body needs, then you are setting the stage for illness. Sugar depresses the immune system and should ideally be avoided. Natural sweeteners like honey, agave nectar, stevia, etc…are better choices but should still be used in moderation.
The other part of a good foundation is plenty of sleep and rest. Many people are so busy doing things this time of year that they do not ever really rest and relax. Continual stress puts pressure on the body and inhibits the body’s ability to regenerate and repair. We must have a proper balance to maintain health. Stress and poor sleep habits, like a poor diet, sets the stage for illness to gain a foothold. When the body is under stress, it uses up nutrients in much larger amounts and weakens the immune system. Sometimes illness comes because we have been pushing ourselves too hard and for far too long. In this case, the best thing to do is REST. Do not try to take supplements or herbs so you can push through it. That is not a holistic approach to health.
With a good diet as the foundation, one important supplement to be sure to take is cod liver oil. Cod liver oil is rich in the fat-soluble vitamins A and D. Vitamin A helps to maintain resistance to infections. Vitamin D is normally produced in our body when we are exposed to the sun. But lowered sun exposure during the winter months can drastically reduce our vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is essential for proper calcium absorption and for the health of the immune system. Adults should get at least 2000 IU of vitamin D and 20,000-40,000 IU of vitamin A per day in the winter months. Higher amounts can be taken for a few days when you first start feeling flu-like symptoms and can be remarkably effective in restoring health. I have personally seen high levels of cod liver oil nip the flu in the bud. It is something I will not be without this flu season. Vitamin D levels should be monitored by a physician if you take more than 2000 IU of vitamin D every day as it can be toxic in high doses.
Astragalus root is a traditional Chinese herb that is a powerful immune enhancer. It can be used as a long-term tonic to keep your immune system strong as well as to help in the recovery from an illness. It has antiviral properties as well. Astragalus enhances nearly every component of the immune system: it stimulates phagocytosis, it increases macrophage activity, it increases the number of stem cells in the marrow and lymph tissue, it increases the release of antibodies, and it boosts the production of hormonal messenger molecules that signal for virus destruction. While it can be taken in capsule form, the best way to take astragalus is to make a medicinal-grade tea, or decoction, with it. It makes an excellent, mild tasting tea. I like to combine it with licorice root and use one part licorice root to two parts astragalus root. Put ½ cup of dried, chopped root in about 3 cups water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 25-30 minutes. Strain and drink 1-3 cups a day. Astragalus can be taken regularly throughout the winter season as a preventative as well as when illness strikes.
Another favorite herb of mine is olive leaf. Olive leaf extract is a powerful anti-microbial herb that is antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiparasitical. It is also beneficial for sore throats and helps reduce fevers. Because of its broad spectrum anti-microbial actions, Olive leaf extract is the herb I use most often at the first sign of a sore throat or illness. I have seen it stop sickness in it’s tracks many times. A high quality tincture is recommended for maximum effectiveness.
Echinacea root is an herb most people are familiar with. It has well documented immune stimulating characteristics. It can be taken on a regular basis to help keep the immune system strong as well as at the first sign of a cold. For the best results, use a high quality tincture of Echinacea root that produces the characteristic “tongue tingling and numbing” effect.
Other vitamins and minerals that are going to keep your defenses strong are vitamin C, zinc, iodine, and selenium. Make sure you are getting enough of these and see a health practitioner if you are not sure. Too much of certain minerals can be as detrimental as too little.
In conclusion, the best way to stay well this winter is to get the proper nutrition for your immune system to stay strong. Reducing stress and getting plenty of rest should be a high priority for maintaining health. Do not wait until sickness becomes well established before taking herbs or natural supplements. Herbs are best taken at the very first sign of illness and can be more effective at that time. At the first signs of illness, eat only nutritious and easy-to-digest foods like homemade soups with chicken broth, green vegetable juices, and raw foods. Starchy foods, like grains and breads, sweeteners of any type, and dairy products are best avoided until you are well. Take care of yourself during the winter season and you will reap the benefits.
Be well!!Becky Mauldin, N.D.