Short days, long nights and abundance of viruses swirling around us are, for better or worse, all part of the winter season, and for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, we are now in the thick of it. While many people have gotten more relaxed about the protocols that guided much of our behaviors over the last two years, ills both old and new have come roaring back. How severe (or not) things will get in the weeks ahead is anyone’s guess, but there are some things you can do right now to reduce your chances of joining the ranks of the wintertime unwell.
This winter, it’s all about immunity – and boosting yours needs to become a top priority, the sooner the better. Doing so will fortify your body against opportunistic invaders, make it harder for them to get a toehold into your system, and ideally, be able to repel them quickly if they do. To achieve the strongest immunity possible, I recommend a three-pronged approach that combines health-supporting foods to keep your gut-leak free and healthy; immunity-boosting supplements for extra support, and pleasurable, health-boosting habits. To get you started, here’s my a round-up of 21 of my favorite start-now-tips to pack your winter with wellness, and ramp up immunity to optimal levels:
Edible Immunity-boosters and Pantry Power-Players
1) Go all in on allium rich veggies.
Allium-rich veggies are known for their powerful anti-viral, antibacterial and antifungal properties…and they taste great too. They feed your gut the prebiotic fiber your bacterial army thrives on and they work just as well raw or cooked, so start chopping those garlic, onions, scallions, chives, leeks, shallots – and enjoy daily.
2) Let leafy greens give your gut bacteria a daily feast.
If you do nothing else, include leafy greens at every meal. Doing so will front-load your system with the phytonutrients and fiber that make beneficial belly bacteria thrive, in turn, keeping your immune system defenses strong. In addition to salads at dinner, add a pile of spinach under your morning eggs. Dump a fistful of kale into your lunch-time soup and into dinnertime salads and stews. Got smoothies? Toss some mixed greens in there too. Before you know it, you’ll be a greens machine.
3) Put a rainbow on your plate.
Upping your greens is great, but don’t forget to add red, yellows, and purples to the mix. Eat all the colors of the veggie rainbow to get the full spectrum of immunity-boosting phytonutrients, plus gut-feeding fiber. Get yours fresh from the farmers’ market or buy organic to sidestep chemical pesticides. In a pinch, frozen organic veggies will also help top off your tank.
4) Have a scoop of fermented food.
A healthy gut makes the rest of you less vulnerable to bacterial and viral invaders and, according to Stanford researchers, adding fermented foods to your dietary rotation increases microbiome diversity, decreases inflammatory proteins and improves immune response – to which we say, ‘yes, please!’. All you need to do is add a scoop or two of fermented foods a few times a week to feed your gut the probiotics needed to help it function optimally.
To get your dose, shop for fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso or kefir or DIY it and ferment just about any veggie you like. You can also top salads and veggies with organic apple cider vinegar or drink yours by adding a tablespoon of ‘ACV’ to a cup of hot or cold water, with a bit of lemon juice and/or stevia to taste.
5) Brew up some immune-TEA and broths.
Make alcohol a hard pass for the next few months and instead brew up hot tea drinks made with immune-boosting herbs like andrographis, echinacea, elderberry, and astragalus.
Add bone broth to your cozy winter drinks repertoire as well. Broths made from healthy, grass-fed animals deliver amino acids like arginine, glutamine, and glycine — all of which are excellent immunity reinforcements.
6) Pour on the anti-viral spices.
Ginger, garlic, turmeric, cinnamon, thyme and cayenne pepper – feel free to use a heavy hand when it comes to spicing things up. Not only will they add considerably more flavor to everything you eat, but they also pack a powerful anti-inflammatory, antifungal and antiviral punch.
7) Clue into coconut.
Another tasty, immunity-boosting add-in for smoothies, hot beverages or your morning oats? Coconut oil. Just a teaspoon a day of will add extra flavor and healthy fats, while supporting immunity with its powerful antibacterial, antiviral and antimicrobial properties.
8) Get into medicinal mushrooms.
Mushrooms help to strengthen the immune system, lower inflammation, prevent disease, and give you more energy. My four favorite mushrooms for immune support are Turkey Tail, Reishi, Cordyceps and Chaga. To get the most out of your ‘shrooms, try eating them in combination.
Strategic Supplements: My Favorite Seasonal Supplements
For strengthening winter-time immunity, good food is the foundation, and supplements are the support beams. From now through April when just about everyone’s immune system can use a little extra TLC, consider adding a few of these immunity-boosting all-stars to your daily mix:
1) Antiviral Herbs: Add antiviral and antibacterial herbs like andrographis, olive leaf extract, grapefruit seed extract, oil of oregano, licorice root, isatis tinctoria and elderberry extract to your list.
2) Vitamin C: To protect against infection, take 1 – 2 grams of vitamin C every day.
3) Vitamin D3: Ideally, your D levels should be in the 50 to 70mg/ml range, so have your doctor check yours. Then you both can determine how much is needed to close the gap. For most people, a maintenance dose of 2,000-5,000 IU a day should do the trick.
4) Fish oil: 2-3 grams of high-quality fish oils daily will help keep immunity defenses strong. Just make sure yours contain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA and no fillers.
5) NAC (N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine): A precursor to the powerful immunity-booster glutathione, NAC also supports respiratory health by acting as an antioxidant and expectorant, helping to thin out and loosen mucus in the air passageways.
6) Probiotics: Support your gut with a probiotic, preferably one with at least 20 billion viable organisms and several types of good bacteria, like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria, two of the most highly regarded strains.
7) Quercetin: It promotes healthier gut function and helps support intestinal integrity, both of which are important to keeping immune defenses strong. For most people, a 500 or 1,000 milligram supplement dose a day is a good baseline.
8) Zinc: Add 25 mg of zinc per day on a short-term basis for an additional immune boost, and, if you feel a cold coming on, to help shorten its duration.
Bonus/Honorable Mention: A vitamin infusion or ‘drip’ administered by skilled, trained and licensed medical personnel, such as a nurse practitioner, physician’s assistant or doctor. Though drips won’t ‘cure’ infection per se, they can provide additional support to the immune system to help the body more effectively fight off bugs.
Best Behavior: Feel-Good Habits and Immunity-Boosting Activities
When it comes to immunity-boosting, treating your body right and giving it a little extra TLC this winter will also help keep your immune system humming, so indulge in as many health supportive activities as possible:
1) Sleep a bit more than you usually do.
Make sleep a priority and shoot for 7 – 8 hours a night to give your body and brain the time it needs to rest, repair and refresh. If you’re dragging a bit during the day, recharge with a 20-minute power nap, ideally no later than 4 pm to avoid disrupting your nighttime routine.
2) Bust stress – and boost immunity.
A steady diet of stress torpedoes immunity, so unwind with a meditation session, be it 5 minutes or 30. Add a few yoga moves at the start and end of your day for even more relaxation and immunity boosting benefits.
3) Hit the sauna – doctor’s orders.
Time spent in the sauna – be it dry, steam or infrared – is a simple and pleasurable way to de-stress. It’s also a great way to raise the body’s core temperature by a degree or two which revs up production of your disease-fighting white blood cells.
4) Move more — but don’t over-do it.
Keep moving to keep your immune system humming, but now’s not the time to go overboard. Movement boost immunity but over-doing it has the opposite effect.
5) Soak up the sun
If the sun is shining, find a nice spot outdoors and soak up the sun for a few minutes. Doing so will lift your spirits, help regulate your sleep/wake cycle, stimulate vitamin D production and, you guessed it, boost immunity!
Keep these tips in mind and stay well this winter!