12 Natural Remedies to Stay Healthy This Winter
Like it or not, it’s that time of year again- cold and flu season. We all know it, because most everyone during the fall or winter season has succumbed to the viral malady that can last 1-2 weeks and cause sneezing, scratchy throat, low energy, stuffy head, and a runny nose.
According to the CDC, it’s still the number one reason for lost days at school and at work (1). With no cures on the horizon due to these numerous (over 200 types), ever-changing viruses, our best offense is to learn to play defense! When we improve our host defense mechanisms, we can effectively shorten the duration and severity in the event of ‘catching the cold’.
But why and how do we become so susceptible during the ‘cold season’? There are four main reasons that the change of season leads to a weaker defense:
- Less Sunlight. Because we’re spending more time indoors, days are shorter, and the sun follows a lower daily path in the sky (unless you live near the equator), we get less vitamin D. This vitamin has been shown in numerous human studies to be a remarkable immune regulator (2, 3).
- Reduced Activity. When it’s cold outside we spend more time indoors. This typically means less activity and movement. Movement is what drives the circulation of our lymphatic system – the bodies’ immune vessel network. Less movement means less immune efficiency to get to any foreign bug.
- Indoor Heating. Because of the dry air from forced air heating in our homes and workplace, our mucus membranes – those delicate immune barriers in our sinuses, eyes, respiratory system, and gut – become dry, weakened, and susceptible to invaders.
- The Holidays. For most of us, this is a time of celebrating with multiple social festivities and family gatherings where we eat too much, drink too much, and typically consume more sweets than at any other time. Add gift shopping, family quarrels and end-of-year deadlines, and the combination of stress and lack of adequate sleep can be a ‘perfect storm’ that results in the weakening our immune systems.
Given these factors, it’s no surprise that it becomes more difficult to prevent colds in the winter. So what are some natural options that will help to strengthen our immune systems without the known side-effects and risks associated with antibiotics, the flu shot, and over-the-counter drugs? This year, try these 12 well-known remedies to stay healthy, happy and productive throughout the Holiday season and all winter long!
- Take vitamin D daily. If you get your vitamin D levels tested, try to stay in the ‘sweet spot’ which is around 50-70 mg/ml (4). If you are deficient at least 8,000 I.U. a day is required to raise serum to healthy levels (5). If you get vitamin D shots, you should know that one massive dose once a month is unlikely to help you maintain robust immune protection long-term. Additionally, mounting evidence now suggests that elevating your vitamin D level with an oral supplement is unlikely to provide you with the identical health benefits as getting your vitamin D from sun exposure(6). Since both vitamin D and vitamin A compete for the RXR gene receptor, it’s a good idea to take a balanced vitamin D with a little vitamin A. Vitamin A is especially helpful during cold season for mucus membrane immunity, as it helps balance the main antibody in those tissues called secretory IgA, which is necessary if one hopes to prevent a cold, so make sure you take around 500-1,000 I.U. a day.
- Strengthen your defenses by protecting your natural barriers. This means protect your mucus membranes. According to Ayurveda, the ancient traditional healing system from India, fall and winter are times of kapha-vata disorders, where congestion and stagnation can build up. For our sinuses, this is bad news, as it’s a common entry point for cold bugs to invade and set up shop. Keeping them flushed out can reduce congestion tendency as well as flush out debris, viral particles and toxins. The best way to keep your sinuses flushed is to use a neti pot or a sinus irrigation cup. These can be found online, at health food stores, or even at CVS. Simply fill the cup with pure filtered water that is slightly warm (don’t use tap water), and add a couple pinches of sea salt. Then occlude one side of your nose with the nozzle, tilt your head forward and to the side, breathe out your mouth, and tip the cup so that the contents start flowing into the nasal cavity and come out the other side of your nose. Do this for about 1/2 of the pot, then repeat for the other side. It can be repeated several times a day as a severe nasal congestion remedy. It’s easy, cheap, and effective for sinus health and clearing.
- Use essential oils to help the respiratory system. A cool-mist humidifier that runs in your bedroom at night while sleeping is a great way to support your respiratory system. For extra support, find a unit with a medicine cup or reservoir that can be used to place essential oils into. My favorites for chest congestion are lavender, pine and eucalyptus. A good mix is 5-10 drops of these oils into the cup/reservoir (NOT THE WATER – it will destroy the humidifier distillation unit). Alternatively, another option is to buy an essential oil diffuser. Either system and the organic essential oils are available at most health food stores and are also available on-line.
- Eat fermented foods to replenish gastrointestinal tract. Believe it or not, the gut is the major immune regulation system in the body. Various authorities claim that the gut makes up anywhere from 70-80% of our immune system. In fact, our entire gut ecosystem (microbiome) contains many TRILLIONS of bacteria, more than our human cell population! The goal is to balance and enhance the beneficial population of friendly bacteria. Why? Because of the myriad of far-reaching beneficial effects the bacteria do for our immune system (not to mention brain). A recent article in the June 2012 Scientific American highlighted the importance of our gut ecosystem, and how in the quest to kill “bad” bacteria and viruses, modern medicine has overlooked the importance of strengthening our immune systems by strengthen our “good” gut bacteria. So how do we do this? Probiotic capsules are a start but typically inadequate for immune health. What I’m referring to is real, cultured and fermented foods! All traditional populations have always consumed a variety of cultured and fermented foods for good health and immunity. Foods like naturally fermented homemade sauerkraut, kimchee, kefir, yogurt and fermented drinks like fruit kvass and kombucha are literally PACKED WITH TRILLIONS of beneficial bacteria in each serving. Compare this to the average ‘high-potency’ probiotic, which may have 30-100 billion per serving. You’d literally have to consume an entire bottle of probiotics to equal a single serving (hand-size) of cultured/fermented foods.
- Reduce all sweets and white flour products. Elevated insulin and glycemic imbalance are some of the greatest immune destroyers. Replace white flour with almond or coconut flour in your Holiday baked goods, or better yet, avoid flour products completely. Anything that’s a flake, noodle or cookie is probably a flour product. Learn to cut out the bread down and choose instead warm, nourishing homemade soups or stews made from bone broth and fresh leafy greens. Try cooked millet, organic wild rice or quinoa instead of pasta for a side dish.
- Eliminate all pasteurized dairy products if you have congestion or phlegm. Since most of the actual nutrition found in milk is destroyed during pasteurization and the process also alters the milk molecule, pasteurized milk and foods made from pasteurized milk, like cheese and ice cream, top the list of allergenic foods. Mucus and phlegm production, as well as reoccurring ear infections, are common symptoms of a dairy allergy, and are best avoided entirely if you become congested. Raw organic grass-fed milk, however, has many well-recognized health benefits and medicinal qualities.
- Drink herbal teas. According to Dr. Vasant Lad, a prominent Ayurvedic doctor, drinking equal parts of ginger, cinnamon, and lemongrass (optional: a pinch of cardamom) is a great tea to drink for both supportive and remedial measures. Steep the herbs for 10 minutes or more and drink when it’s warm (7).
- Use immune supportive herbs. Elderberry, echinacea, astragalus and garlic are all good immune supportive herbs and may be taken through the entire cold season. Elderberry is particularly good tasting in a liquid form (important for children) and high in flavonoids, which strengthen the immune barriers (8). For those with holiday stress contributors, consider ashwaganda and holy basil (tulsi) to reduce cortisol, a major stress hormone. These can be taken as a warm tea, or in capsule form daily.
- Add shitake and maitake mushrooms to your meals. The polysaccharides (beta-glucans) are tremendous immune supportive compounds for cold season. If you can’t buy fresh, get them dried and soak in water for 1 hour before using in a stir-frys, soups or baking. Try adding dried and roasted mushrooms to salads for a tasty and health-promoting “bac-o-bit” crunch.
- Stay active to boost immune activity, reduce stress and counter “winter blues”. A brisk walk every day, yoga, a bike ride or swim can do wonders for your immune system, your waistline, and your mood as the days grow shorter.
- Take warm baths. Use 2 cups of Epsom or Dead Sea salts per tub of hot water, and soak for 10-20 minutes. This can be tremendously purifying and reduce coldness in the body. In addition, you may add lavender, pine and eucalyptus essential oils (5 drops of each) into the tub, once a week or more as desired.
- A long winter’s nap. Place a high priority on getting at least 6-8 hours of sleep every night. Keep the bedroom dark, without electric blankets, cell phones or cordless phones next to you. Put all electronic devices away (computers, tablets, phones, games, TV) at least 1 hour before bed. Yes, you can do this. Reading a mellow book, listening to relaxing music, or take that warm bath before bed will have you sleeping like a baby!
3) The Vitamin D Solution, by Michael Holick, PhD, MD.
5) GrassrootsHealth Vitamin D Action
7)The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies, by Vasant Lad.
8) Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy – Modern Herbal Medicine, by Simon Mills and Kerry Bone.