BY DR. TARA DUNNE, BS, MA, ND
How To Boost Your Immune System Naturally
It’s that time of year: cold and flu symptoms seem to be everywhere. Kids are taking time off school, co-workers are calling in sick, coughing and sneezing can be heard all around, and the only remedy recommended seems to be a free flu shot offered by your local pharmacy.
Why is it when winter season rolls around, it seems that our immune systems disappear? Have you ever heard, “If you go out in the cold without a jacket, you’ll catch your death of cold!”? It’s not entirely true that being jacket-free will cause you to succumb to cold or flu symptoms, but there is something to be said about certain illnesses being more prominent in the colder months. Why is cold weather so taxing on our immune systems?
Colder environments tend to have lower humidity, and thus dry out our nasal passages more. This makes it slightly easier for pathogens to avoid getting trapped by nasal mucous and they subsequently gain easy passage into our bodies. Also, colder weather does tend to make the immune system less active. We stay inside more often, exposing ourselves to close contact with people and contagions. Staying inside also limits our exposure to the sun, our vitamin D source, and we will chat in a bit about why that is a factor that can impact our risk of catching a virus.
The immune system is a complex thing, but explaining it doesn’t have to be, so let’s keep it simple! The immune system is basically a series of cells and proteins working together to fight off viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens that try to invade your system. It defends the body against things that would otherwise deplete our health. Your spleen, bone marrow, thymus, lymphatic system, white blood cells, antibodies – all of these different parts of the body need to be working together to maintain an optimally functioning immune system.
The immune system is not something to deal with superficially. It’s not just about amping up the immune system as much as possible in order to achieve optimal health. It is actually more about healing any immune system dysfunction as a whole, or making sure we use treatments that help it to gain balance. In some diseases you have underactive immunity and in others, more commonly, you have an overactive immune system (such as with allergies, or autoimmune conditions). Healing the immune system as a whole is important to wholly fighting off invaders and staying healthy. Bringing the immune system back into balance is key.
So what things can we use in nature to help heal the immune system and bring it back into balance? There are many things in nature that can help. Here, I will list a few:
HEAL THE GUT
Did you know that around 80% of the body’s immune system is found in the gut? It’s incredible to think that taking care of our digestive health can lead to wellness in so many other areas. But if you have an unwell gut, chances are you are also battling an unwell immune system. One of the most important steps you can take to enhancing your immunity starts with healing your gut. Cutting out processed foods, sugars, foods you are sensitive to, any foods that make you feel unwell, and instead consuming whole, unprocessed, unrefined foods and clean water can make a huge difference with respect to the health of your gut! Consuming good quality bone broth can help heal, rebuild and rejuvenate your gut. It’s also packed with vitamins, minerals, and good fats geared to strengthen your immune system. And last but not least, our gut health can be fortified and supported simply by taking a good quality probiotic. Probiotic supplements improve the gut by increasing specific immune cells in the intestines. By doing this they not only support the immune system, they also help detox your colon.
Sticking with gut health, according to Asian medicine, we are to use the winter season as a time to rest. To have optimal health, we should focus on saving our energy wherever possible so that come the spring, we have the energy we need to create new life. Eating raw foods in the winter season is hard on our digestive systems, and subsequently takes a good amount of “energy” to digest and process these foods for nutrition. Traditional Chinese medicine theory recommends eating only cooked and soft foods in the colder months. Giving your gut a break for the winter season can help it heal and keep your immune system strong and ready to fight off invaders.
Astragalus root is another Chinese medicine gem when it comes to boosting immunity. It has been used for thousands of years as an adaptogen and immune system booster. It is a powerful plant that has an extensive history as a disease preventer and disease fighter. It acts as an antioxidant, inhibiting free radical production. The polysaccharides (sugar molecules clustered together to make carbohydrates) found in astragalus restore and strengthen the immune system gently, without sending it into overdrive.
I mentioned above that one reason the winter is so hard on our immune systems is due to our lack of exposure to the sun, and therefore a lack of exposure to a good source of Vitamin D. Our bodies make vitamin D from sunlight. Vitamin D is vital to the health of our immune cells. In fact, vitamin D deficiency is associated with a number of autoimmune conditions. Many studies have correlated low vitamin D levels with higher risk of infection. Keeping our immune systems balanced as we spend more time indoors away from the sun usually means taking a good quality vitamin D supplement. It’s always a good idea to have your blood levels checked before starting on any vitamin or mineral (especially if it is a fat soluble vitamin, like vitamin D), so chat with your health care provider if you think this is a good first step for you.
Another heavy hitting vitamin/mineral when it comes to immune health is zinc. Many studies show that if you have a zinc deficiency, you will be more susceptible to pathogens and infections. Why? Because zinc impacts several aspects of the immune system. For example, zinc is important for protecting the strength and integrity of your skin. The skin is an important barrier protecting you from pathogens. If the skin integrity is weak, pathogens can easily get in. Zinc also regulates genes inside your lymphocytes (the white blood cells that serve as our immune cells). Without proper levels of zinc, the development and function of these cells will suffer, putting your immune system at risk.
Elderberry is a heavy hitter when it comes to boosting your immune system. In fact, it has been used traditionally for thousands of years for that very purpose. It’s particularly effective against the common cold and against several different strains of the flu (this is a good time to point out there is a difference between a cold and the flu! Make sure you know what you’re dealing with when looking for treatment or symptom relief options). Elderberry increases inflammatory cytokine production thereby activating the immune system. I recommend it as a good remedy to have on hand for when you or your loved one starts feeling sick. I even recommend it preventatively to start taking when you notice everyone around you is coming down with something. While other recommendations may be used daily, I usually recommend elderberry at these more specific times.
Oregano oil is an essential oil that combines several antimicrobial powers. It can help fight bacteria, fungi, viruses and even parasites – the main microbes responsible for infections. Interestingly, animal feed companies are starting to add oregano oil in their products since the use of antibiotics is not well received / prohibited. This essential oil has the power to heal and boost the immune system. It’s a great option when looking for a broad-spectrum antimicrobial. The recommended way to take Oregano oil is using 4-6 drops with food daily. I want to point out the importance of taking it with food. Always dilute your essential oils with food, particularly good fats. This helps lessen the chance of toxicity when consuming such a heavily concentrated product.
Constitutional Hydrotherapy was found to be effective in significantly activating monocyte population in treated subjects for up to four hours post-treatment, thereby enhancing the immune system. Ok, but what is it? Constitutional hydrotherapy is a treatment method using water to heat, cool, stimulate, relax, and detoxify the body, the way traditional practitioners have been doing for thousands of years. This natural water therapy consists of alternating hot and cold towels over the chest, abdomen and back. It gently stimulates, heals and rejuvenates unbalanced systems in the body, including the immune system. It’s a beautiful relaxing way to help enhance and achieve optimal health.
As always, please check in with your primary health provider before starting any new supplements or self-treatments, especially if you have a chronic condition, are taking medications or other supplements that may interact, or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
It’s a wild world of pathogens out there! Having a balanced immune system can help you stave off infections and optimize your health for years to come. Keep these tips and tools handy this winter season and stay healthy!
View more natural and effective immune boosting products in the Pure Feast shop here.
About the author
Dr. Tara Dunne is a licensed naturopathic doctor who received her degree from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. She also holds a master’s degree in Health and Wellness and a bachelor’s degree in Biology. She is passionate about natural wellness and helping people achieve optimal health.
Her special medical interests include atypical neurodevelopment, pediatrics and biochemistry. Tara spent several years training under some of the world leaders in these specific topics, and she now uses that training coupled with natural therapies to help people overcome illness and achieve optimal health. She is dedicated to making sure the best possible care, outcomes and information is available to everyone. In a world of health information overload, she's committed to helping people navigate their own personal health journeys. Her other interests include caring for her family, triathlon training and fitness, volunteering for people living with special needs, major league baseball, and cooking.