With winter around the corner, cold & flu season will be upon us before we know it. In light of this, we’ve created this article to provide suggestions in three different areas to help support and strengthen your immune system during this transitional period: plant power, vitamins & minerals, herbal supports. The immune system is very complex, its role is to eliminate viruses, bacterium and abnormal cells in our bodies, while safeguarding our healthy tissues. There have been many articles circulating about powerful natural remedies to fight against Covid-19, we want to remind everyone that while there are amazing properties in natural remedies, the key is consistent use and prevention by strengthening your immune system and in turn, your immune response. Further, it is important to note that exercising regularly, getting a good night’s sleep and reducing stress are all extremely important aspects of supporting your overall wellness and immune system.
It is well known that what you eat impacts your immune systems’ ability to fight off infection. Filling your dinner plate with a range of colourful fruits and vegetables is a great place to start because plant foods and whole grains contain strong anti-inflammatory properties that help support strong immune function. Obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses impair immune function, increasing consumption of plant-based options can help combat these illnesses and indirectly further enhance your immune response.
Cooking with herbs like garlic can help support the immune system because of elements like allicin, which helps prevent infections. Historically, garlic was used topically to disinfect fungal infections. These benefits are best experienced when consuming raw garlic – adding to things like fresh pesto or sauces is a great way to incorporate into your diet. Ginger, horseradish and cayenne all help stimulate blood flow in the body and their antimicrobial properties help eliminate foreign cells that might pose an infection risk.
Additionally, mushrooms are incredible at supporting our immune supports, including ones like reishi, chaga and shiitake, because of their powerful polysaccharides that balance the immune system through immunomodulation. This means that these mushrooms help stimulate an inactive/under-active system and can calm an over-active system. These mushrooms have adaptogenic properties and are commonly taken in powder form (we have ours every morning in a cup of cacao!). Consumption of adaptogenic foods is encouraged, especially through the fall and winter months as they help us adapt to seasonal stress on our body and immune system
Vitamins & Minerals
While taking vitamins as supplements is something that many of us do on a daily basis, trying to incorporate more nutrient-dense foods into your diet should be the priority because accessing vitamins and minerals from whole-food sources makes nutrients more bioavailable and easier for our bodies to use. Vitamin C is probably the most well-known immune boosting antioxidant-rich nutrient, it can be found in dark leafy greens, citrus foods, and lots of other fruits – it is so available in so many places that supplementation is often not necessary. Similarly, Vitamin E helps your body fight off infection due to its antioxidant properties. Vitamin E can be found in lots of nuts and seeds (peanuts, sunflower seeds, almonds) as well as in spinach and broccoli. Colourful foods often contain high levels of carotenoids (think carrots, pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes) that the body is able to convert to Vitamin A which is then able to support the immune system through antioxidant effects. While I did mention that it is best to get nutrients from foods, Vitamin D may be the one exception to that. Vitamin D is primarily obtained through exposure to the sun and especially during fall and winter in North, many of us do not get enough exposure to the sun. There are few plant-based sources of Vitamin D, the exception being mushrooms, but most plant-based milk, cereal and orange juice will be fortified with Vitamin D. Speak with a healthcare professional or refer to the RDA (recommended dietary allowance) for your age group when looking for a suitable supplement. Selenium and Zinc help slow over-active immune functions which helps control inflammation. Selenium can be found in garlic, broccoli, brazil nuts and barley, while zinc is found in baked beans and chickpeas!
Herbal supports have been around for thousands of years, before the development of modern medicine and often are used as preventative measures against disease and to ensure everyday health and wellness.
Echinacea has been historically used to help tackle upper respiratory tract infections, helping shorten duration and intensity of illness. Echinacea’s antimicrobial properties also help regulate bodily inflammation and strengthen immune response. Similarly, elder (from elderberries) has been used for hundreds of years and has antimicrobial properties and potent antioxidants that provide cell protection, elder has been shown to reduce duration of cold and flu symptoms. Elderberries are also a source of Vitamin A, B & C. Goldenseal is another herb that is known for its immune supporting antibacterial and antiviral properties. Specifically, goldenseal increases secretion of mucous membranes, helping your mouth and nose ward off microbes (both of which are often the starting place for many illnesses). The preventative effects of these herbs remedies are not well defined, and it is suggested that these herbal supports be taken within the first 24 hours of symptom onset to help manage illness progression and give your immune system some extra support.
Essential oils are another way that you can support your immune system. Essential oils are highly concentrated, volatile (evaporate easily) and aromatic oils that are extracted from plants during distillation. Aromatherapy is a field of study that works to treat and prevent illness through topical, inhalation and ingestion routes of administration.
Eucalyptus essential oil has wonderful properties that help open up airways and is often used for illnesses that have respiratory symptoms. Adding a drop of Eucalyptus essential oil in the corner of your hot shower is a great way to diffuse the oil and instantly help open up your airways.
Peppermint essential oil has both antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, research has shown peppermint essential oil can help with ringworm, headaches and digestion (to name a few). Peppermint can help prevent cold and flu symptoms, and is a great afternoon pick me up that supports focus. When using peppermint, be sure to dilute it with a carrier oil (i.e. coconut or jojoba oil) as peppermint is considered a “hot oil” and is quite strong when applied undiluted to the skin.
Oregano, thyme and tea tree oils are other immune supporting staples that are all antimicrobial, antibacterial and anti-fungal which means they are effective at killing off germs and helping prevent illness. If needed in stronger doses, these oils can be consumed in capsules – please seek recommendations from health care professionals. Note that oregano, like peppermint is a “hot oil” and should be diluted with a carrier oil when applying topically.
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