Ah, winter. Though we’re still a few weeks away from winter’s official start, seasonal ills are on the march, so the smart money is on prepping your body for the onslaught. The mission? To make yourself an inhospitable location for viral and bacterial opportunists attempting to take up residence – and to strengthen all your defenses so you can repel colds, flu, RSV and whatever Covid-19 variants may pop up over the next few months.
How hard seasonal ills will hit this year is anyone’s guess, but now – not November or December – is the best time to focus on building up your resistance. Where to start? Here are a few of my don’t-delay defensive tips to optimize your winter wellness:
Take the full-bodied approach.
The body is an amazing machine, and running it well has a lot to do with maintenance. Remember, all the moving parts are connected. So, if you’re eating loads of nutritious, junk-free whole foods but partying like a rockstar five nights a week, the food won’t overcome the bad habits. You’re like a shiny new car with four flat tires. So if it’s immunity you’re after, you’ll need to implement a three-pronged plan which combines: 1) plenty of health-supporting foods to keep your gut happy; 2) the ‘big three’ health-promoting behaviors of movement, relaxation and meditation and 3) immunity-boosting supplements to fill in the gaps.
Get your gut together: heal and seal.
First things first: food matters. Over the years, you’ve probably heard me and my wellness colleagues refer to ‘food as medicine’, and, assuming you’re eating the right stuff, it truly is. Nothing heals and powers immunity better than fresh, whole foods. Unfortunately, the opposite is true too: gorge on processed and ultra-processed foods, heavy on the sugar, and weakened immunity and disease will be the result.
A lot of the trouble starts in the same place – the gut, specifically a ‘leaky gut.’ Often that occurs when you’re not getting enough plant fiber in your diet which starves your good bacteria which consequently don’t produce enough of the compounds necessary to repair and strengthen the gut wall. The result? Microscopic particles slip out of the gut into the bloodstream, triggering a systemic immune reaction which in turn kicks off system-wide inflammation. That inflammation weakens immunity in the near-term, increasing susceptibility to infection, and in the long-term contributes to the development of many chronic diseases. To seal and heal the gut for the winter (and beyond), you need a battle plan. So, your first step will be to follow my gut repair and healing protocol.
Fortify with food; eat for immunity.
While you’re working on getting your gut together, you’ll also be focusing on eating to maximize immunity – a good habit to work on year-round – with the idea being to consciously chose foods that feed the bacterial community in your gut, a.k.a, the microbiome, while also delivering maximum immunity-supporting vitamins and nutrients to all the other parts of the body that need them. With the right foods it’s a health win all around, the best way to stack the immunity deck heavily in favor of wintertime wellness. To build an immunity-supporting diet, add as many of the following edible essentials to your plates, bowls and cups as possible. Among my favorite ingestible immunity reinforcements:
1) ALLIUM RICH VEGETABLES
Great sources: garlic, onions, scallions, chives, leeks, shallots.
What they bring to the table: Aside from culinary deliciousness, all of these share some pretty impressive immune-boosting superpowers, most notably their powerful anti-viral, anti-microbial, antibacterial and antifungal properties. Great news for your body; bad news for opportunistic pathogens.
Secondly, they come complete with prebiotic fiber – the stuff the bacterial army in your gut thrives on, helping to prevent leaky gut and inflammation, which is ideal for optimizing immunity.
Another bonus: alliums also help your body synthesize glutathione which helps neutralize free radicals and supports the immune system Lastly, alliums take direction well. Raw or cooked, their immunity benefits are pretty similar, so start chopping.
2) LEAFY GREEN VEGETABLES
Great sources: spinach, kale, arugula, chard, collard greens.
What they bring to the table: Lots of vitamin A, C, K, folate, potassium and calcium. Adding some leafys to every meal is one of the easiest, quickest, no-brainer-est ways to feed the good guys in the gut microbiome, helping to maintain your gut’s bacterial balance and your immunity resilience. A well-fortified gut is a lot better at repelling microbial invaders than a gut that’s leaky, unbalanced, inflamed and depleted.
So, include leafy greens at every meal. Don’t just stop at a lunchtime salad. Slip ‘em in to everything – eggs, soups, stews, stir fries, you name it. It’s literally all good – as an added bonus, those leafys will help keep you feeling full longer and drastically reduce gastrointestinal downers like bloating, constipation, leaky gut and IBS.
3) FERMENTED FOODS
Great sources: sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, tempeh, miso, natto, lacto-fermented pickles, apple cider vinegar.
What they bring to the table: Not only do fermented foods deliver probiotics to the gut – those live microorganisms that are so beneficial to digestion and good gut health – but, according to Stanford researchers, they also help tamp down inflammatory proteins and increase healthy immune response, making them excellent ammo to help you combat pathogens.
On a purely culinary level, fermented foods are an incredibly easy way to instantly upgrade the flavor profile of even the simplest meals. Keep in mind though, most fermented foods have a tart, tangy taste, so start working them into meals with a light hand – all that’s needed is a scoop or two a few times a week; think condiment rather than the main event. If the taste isn’t singing to you, then try slipping a few fermented beet slices or a dash of apple cider vinegar (ACV) into smoothies; add a dollop of fermented chili paste to your morning eggs; or whisk some ACV into soups and home-made salad dressings.
4) LIQUID IMMUNITY
Great sources: Green tea, black tea, oolong tea, white tea, turmeric tea, rose hip tea, rooibos tea, ginger tea, and herbal teas.
What they bring to the table: In a word, antioxidants, and in particular, polyphenols, which help protect against the free radicals that harm the body and weaken the immune system. Many teas are also thought to assist the immune system by preventing T cells from generating inflammatory cytokines, which, as you may recall, were a major source of trouble in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In short, you really can’t go wrong with a cuppa, whether you make it with a more traditional black, green or white tea or choose to fill your mug with hot brews made with especially immune-supportive blends, which may include herbs like andrographis, echinacea, elderberry, and astragalus. No matter what you put in your cup though, be sure to look for organic, non-GMO certified, Fair Trade teas and herbs to minimize exposure to toxins.
If teas aren’t your thing, then swap in some bone broth, but do make sure your brew is from healthy, grass-fed animals. Bone broth from high quality sources will nourish your body with immunity-supporting amino acids like arginine, glutamine, and glycine – and make a great, healthy snack too.
5) HERBS & SPICES
Great sources: Ginger, garlic, turmeric, cinnamon, thyme, cayenne pepper, etc.
What they bring to the table: Well, for starters, taste, flavor, pizzaz! When it comes to spicing things up, pouring in spices and herbs as you cook is an excellent health hack that instantly raises the nutritional profile of any dish with just a sprinkle or two. What’s more, virtually all herbs and spices confer health benefits, with some aiding digestion and nutrient absorption (good news for your gut!), while others deliver antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antifungal benefits.
6) MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS
Great sources: turkey tail, reishi, cordyceps, chaga, lion’s mane.
What they bring to the table: You could think of mushrooms as the killer app of the produce aisle. Thanks to the powerful polysaccharides they contain, these fabulous fungi are known for their ability to help fight inflammation and help keep the immune system in balance, putting on the breaks when it’s over-reacting – and revving it up when it needs to fight off pathogens.
What’s also interesting about using mushrooms to fortify your immunity: you’ll likely get better results if you enjoy a few different types of mushrooms together. Or, if eating them isn’t on your menu, try mushroom powders or pills, just ramp up slowly as some may have a stool-loosening effect. Also, before digging into medicinal mushrooms, check with your doc first for any counter indications or allergy concerns.
More good lifestyle habits = stronger defenses.
What you do with your body over the next few months is also going to have huge sway over how well you stay this winter, so my advice is to pile on the good ones, many of which are simpler than you may think, and pleasurable to boot. Here’s what to do more of starting today:
1) Move – frequently, and at a reasonable pace, being consistent without over-doing it, which actually weakens immunity
2) Sleep – not sleeping enough tanks immunity, so, sleep a bit more, and add a 20-minute nap when you’re falling short
3) Relax – stress also torpedoes immunity, so unwind daily with a meditation practice – even 5 minutes will help
4) Restore – start and end the day with a few yoga moves to boost immunity (they’ll help you sleep better too!)
5) Sauna – sauna sessions, be they dry, steam or infrared, help amp up production of disease-fighting white blood cells
Immunity TLC – The 6 Win-at-Winter Supplements
OK, so, you’re eating well, treating your gut right and engaging in plenty of immunity promoting lifestyle habits – bravo! Keep up the good work, and you’ll be laughing at winter, but, there’s one more thing to add to the program: a few special supplements. I call them the win-at-winter crew and they’re great team to help round out your immunity defenses:
- Vitamin C: 2 – 3 grams of vitamin C daily.
- Vitamin D3: 2,000 – 5,000 IU daily covers most people, but have your doctor check your levels to determine if you need a larger or smaller dose
- Fish oil: 1 -2 grams of high-quality fish oil containing the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, taken daily
- N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine: 2-4 grams daily, to help replenish levels of immunity-boosting glutathione
- Quercetin: 500 or 1,000 milligrams daily for healthy gut function and intestinal integrity that keep immune defenses strong
- Zinc: 25 mg daily, but only on a short-term basis for an immune boost if you feel a cold coming on
Here’s to a healthy and well winter season!