Winter is the season of never-ending colds and flus. I know how it is to have back to back colds that jump from kid to kid in your home. It can feel impossible to make plans with family or friends because you’re fearful of getting them sick. However, it’s not completely out of your control. There are many different ways that you can strengthen your family’s immune system and arm yourself to be more resilient.
We know that our diet has a huge impact on our immune function alongside our health as a whole, so a logical place to start is with the foods you’re consuming. Focusing on a whole food diet, including primarily unprocessed foods is very important, especially in peak cold and flu season. Exercise, the amount of water we drink, and our stress levels also have huge impacts on our immune health. If you need some simple tips to keep your body strong this season (and all year long!), you’re in the right place. Here’s where to start:
The first and easiest way to give your immune system a boost is to reduce your sugar intake. Studies have shown that your white blood cells are not able to fight off infections as easily when they’re inundated with high amounts of sugar. In diabetics, having high blood sugar is linked to immune system malfunctioning and can cause infection. While the immune system needs glucose (sugar) to function properly, excessive amounts lead to pro-inflammatory cytokines production, which is a fancy way of saying cells that cause inflammation in your body (and therefore ruin immune functioning).
To put all of this in perspective, a cupcake has around 45 grams of sugar. Thinking back to your most recent holiday or birthday event, how many treats did you eat on average? The American Heart Association recommends less than 36 grams of sugar a day for men and less than 24 grams a day for women.
Those numbers might feel intimidating, but don’t let it get to you. Enjoy your treats in moderation. The key is to focus on your overall health, not just a single day. This may look like cutting sugars in the week leading up to an event or occasion where you know you may consume high amounts of treats. It may also look like choosing low sugar hot chocolate for your nighttime sipping (check out our recipe!), or going for the plain yogurt with fresh fruit rather than the sweetened strawberry yogurt for your breakfast.
For your kids, be sure to pay attention to labels and look for hidden sugars. Oftentimes “fruit juice concentrate” is used to add sugar to kids’ drinks and snacks while keeping the label that claims “no added sugar.” Plus, watch out for added sugars in packaged foods like pasta sauce, jelly, or peanut butter.
Increase Fruits and Vegetables
Upping your fruit and vegetable intake increases the amount of bioavailable nutrients that are essential for immune functioning. Vitamin A, commonly found in carrots, sweet potatoes, and red peppers, is known for its ability to help with eye sight, but its effects on the immune system are equally important. These compounds impact immune function and cell growth, which are both essential for fighting off viruses and bacteria. Fruits and vegetables also have antioxidant properties which help alleviate the body of oxidative stress, and allow for better immune functioning. Beta-Carotene is another important nutrient found in leafy greens and sweet potatoes that increases the amount of disease fighting cells in the body. Are you eager to add more of these to your diet yet?
Adding more fruits and vegetables to your meals doesn’t have to be complicated. During your next dinner, try replacing one of your rolls with an extra serving of vegetables. If you like smoothies even in cold weather, adding frozen kale or spinach to it can increase your veggies without you even noticing. This lasagna recipe is packed with spinach and is the perfect dish to bring to your next potluck. Bonus, your kids will LOVE it. Another great way to increase fruit intake in kids is to try freeze some dried fruit for a special treat or add things like shredded carrots to pancake or muffin mix. Making a yummy dip can also keep kids eating vegetables.
Increase Fiber and Improve Gut Health
Fiber is one of the most overlooked yet incredibly important components to our diet. Studies show that a fiber rich diet early in life can help the immune system fight infections throughout life. Dietary fiber, probiotics, and probiotics are all essential to help our bodies function to their full potential. These parts of our diet control our gut health which has a huge impact on our immune system. Research has been growing about gut health and its function alongside our immune systems. The “good” bacteria that are present in the gut are actually key to fighting off viruses and “bad” bacteria that enters the body.
There are a number of ways that our gut health is influenced by our habits and diet. Taking antibiotics can kill the good bacteria in your digestive system and throw off your whole immune system. In general, it’s best not to hop on over to urgent care and get antibiotics every time your kid comes home with a cold. You actually could be harming their immune systems by flooding them with unnecessary antibiotics that will affect their future gut health.
Some easy ways to increase fiber is just as simple as adding fruits and vegetables, as these are both very high in fibers. Another great way to help your gut health is to eat more plain yogurt that has millions of live and active cultures—be sure to look for yogurt with low sugars though. There are also over the counter pre- and probiotics that are available if you find yourself struggling to add more through your diet.
Heavy drinking is associated with increased bacterial and viral infections. Alcohol affects the cells in our body and can hinder immune functioning, so it’s best to avoid these drinks if you’re trying to stay healthy. One example of this is the way that alcohol disturbs immune cells and special hairs in the lungs that are designed to clear pathogens and other foreign particles from the airway. It also can affect our gut health, which as we just learned, is vital to immune function. While you might not want to cut alcohol out of your life altogether, try to say no to that second glass of wine at dinner and do your best to avoid mixed (sugary!) drinks.
Exercise (in the Sun!)
Studies show that exercise plays a huge role in our overall health, but it also offers up tons of benefits to our immune system specifically. Exercise can regulate the way that immune cells grow and function in our body. Our immune system is essentially triggered and bolstered when we exercise, so a consistent regimen can reduce the risk of certain illnesses.
Vitamin D is another essential component to our immune functioning. Deficiency in Vitamin D is linked to immunosuppression and increased bacterial infections. It’s estimated that around 41% of Americans are deficient in Vitamin D, making this a huge part of illness in the U.S. The recommended daily amount of Vitamin D is 600 IU, which can be met through a mix of diet and sunshine. Deficiency in Vitamin D can also lead to problems with the absorption of different vitamins and minerals that are key for immune functioning.
While there are many foods that contain Vitamin D, the most bioavailable form of Vitamin D actually comes from the sun. An easy way to incorporate more exercise into your life while reaping the benefits from the sun is to invite your family out for a hike or walk after lunch. Volunteer to watch your kids outside while they play football or answer some emails while sitting on your back patio. Small changes like this add up!
Get Quality Sleep and Try to Avoid Stress
Quality of sleep and its relation to immune system functioning is pretty easy to see in your life. It seems like every time you get less than your normal night of sleep, you wake up with a running nose or achey body. Our bodies need rest in order to repair cells and prevent and heal from illness. When we do not get enough sleep, we cause our immune cells to struggle to reproduce and function they way that they should. Chronic lack of sleep is also linked to certain illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. These will ultimately impact your immune system too! Research shows that increased stress also leads to a weakened immune system. When our bodies are in crisis mode or under high pressure our essential functions are put off to protect other areas and immune functioning is weakened.
I know there are an array of factors that can make it difficult to sleep—whether you tend to stay up late finishing work or wake up every other hour to take care of a newborn. If you need extra support in the sleep department, I have a whole post on improving your Z’s that can be found here. Remember to power down your electronic devices an hour before bed and avoid sleep aids. Getting the proper amount of sleep will also help you reduce stress so it’s a win-win.
The winter season doesn’t have to be a stressful time riddled with illness. By making a few simple changes to your diet and lifestyle, you can give your whole family the immune system boost needed to keep your days joyful.