If you have an autoimmune disease, cold and flu season is probably not your favourite time of year. Our disease, along with common immunosuppressant medications, can make our immune systems more vulnerable to unwanted viruses.
What if you could use a few simple nutrition tips to stave off those chills? The good news is, you can! Nutrition is a powerful and often untapped tool to support the immune system, and it’s hiding right in your fridge.
A good place to begin is to stay hydrated. Water intake is often overlooked in the chilly winter months, but it’s an essential component of optimal immune function. To increase your intake, try warm water with fresh lemon and ginger. Lemon provides a dose of vitamin C and ginger is a natural antimicrobial that will help to stave off those unwanted bugs. If you feel a sore throat coming on, add raw and unpasteurized honey to your tea for extra vitamins, enzymes, and phytonutrients. Together, these ingredients will help to boost the immune system. Herbal tea is also a great way to stay warm and hydrated. Try packing your favourite herbal tea in place of cold water when you’re on the go during flu season.
Aside from water, if I had to choose one food category for the winter months it would be mushrooms. When exposed to natural or artificial UV light during drying, mushrooms provide the best non-animal food source of vitamin D, in the form of D2. Those referred to as medicinal mushrooms, including Reishi, shiitake, turkey tail, and chaga, have additional therapeutic properties. They help support the immune system, regulate mood, and reduce inflammation. They also make a great addition to hot chocolate when purchased in powder form.
Fermented foods are another immune-boosting category to add to your winter menu. These include sauerkraut, kimchi, sourdough, and kombucha, to name a few. The beneficial bacterial properties of fermented foods help to support our own gut bacteria, also referred to as the microbiome. These bacteria help to regulate our immune system and allow for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients.
These bacteria also love to feed on leafy greens, known as “pre-biotics”. Most of us don’t crave a cold salad during the winter, so try lightly steaming your greens as a side to your dishes or add them to warm winter soups. This can also be done for breakfast as a way to get your greens without drinking a cold smoothie. Aside from greens, all fruits and vegetables provide benefit to our immune system, so try to rotate your grocery list in order to get the most variety and colour.
Just like bacteria exist in symbiosis with our own cells, nutrition exists in symbiosis with our lifestyle. There are many factors that help us to digest and absorb our food. Stress is a major one! Eating mindfully is one way to support digestion and nutrient absorption. Take 5 minutes before each meal to focus on your breath or use any relaxation technique you prefer. The key is to relax and to focus on eating so that your body can focus on digestion. Eating at regularly scheduled times each day will help you to achieve this state of ‘rest and digest’.
Prevention is a relatively inexpensive way to support your immune system and reduce your chances of suffering during cold and flu season. Food can be medicine, but how we eat (aka stress and other lifestyle factors) impacts how this medicine is delivered. Try using the above techniques to get the most from your food. Your immune system will thank you this winter!