By Jamie Truppi
Last week, in my mailbox, I found a flyer reminding me about flu season and inviting me to get my annual flu shot. In my adult life, I’ve never been immunized for the influenza virus — and yet I’ve never caught the flu. I attribute this to both good fortune and a lot of effort in my family to build strong immune systems. Every year, when I learn that half the town is “down with the flu,” I empathize with the misery that accompanies the sweats, aches, painful gut symptoms, and exhaustion, not to mention lack of work productivity, missed workouts and other unfortunate downsides.
As you may know, the flu is incredibly contagious. It can take a full day after infection for any symptoms to arise, and we’re contagious for up to a week. Initial symptoms often resemble the common cold; not knowing that we have the flu, we may continue to go about our normal routine, unwittingly infecting others. Because the flu virus transmits most effectively in cold dry winter air – when we also spend more time indoors – the chance of it spreading increases.
For all these reasons and more, it’s time to give our immune systems some love and attention.
The immune system is a complex and coordinated network of cells that protects our bodies from pathogens, bacteria, viruses, parasites and other bugs – we want immune cells to function optimally to keep our bodies healthy. Fortunately, there are steps that we can take now to ensure that our immune system is prepared to fend off seasonal viruses:
Feed Your Immune System
Harvest season is an ideal time of year to feed your immune system. Seasonal foods are at their peak ripeness, offering more nutrients (and more flavor!). Tomatoes, beets, red cabbage, carrots and winter squash are high-antioxidant foods containing immune-supporting vitamins A and C. Apples, leafy greens, onions and garlic contain varying amounts of these antioxidants, plus many other immune-supportive nutrients, including vitamin B6. Purchase fresh nutritious fall produce through Kraay’s Market & Garden’s home delivery service, NourishMe in Ketchum, and Atkinsons’ Markets.
Eat Fermented Foods
Approximately 70 percent of the immune system resides in the gastrointestinal tract alongside the gut microbiome. Bacteria help immune cells develop, support a resilient immune system and improve digestion so that more nutrients are absorbed into cells. We can support a well-balanced gut by eating fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh. Yogurt and kefir are also great sources of zinc, a necessary mineral for immunity. Find Picabo Desert Farm locally made goat yogurt at Atkinson’s and NourishMe, and Redwood Fairy’s sauerkraut and kombucha, available at NourishMe in Ketchum.
Avoid Refined Carbohydrates
Removing nutrient-poor foods is absolutely essential for strengthening your immune system. While highly processed and sugary foods might be your favorites, eating too many of them leads to poor nutrient intake and, eventually, undernutrition. Any “mono” diet, really, can disrupt the gut microbiome; weaken gut function; contribute to chronic inflammation; and lead to multiple nutrient deficiencies or insufficiencies. As a result, you become sick more frequently.
Boost Immunity With Botanicals
While the majority of our nutrients will come from a whole foods diet, it’s also a good idea to keep immune-boosting botanicals on hand for extra support during cold and flu season. Astragalus is a favorite ancient herb that is high in antioxidants, and supports T-cell function and inflammatory responses. Echinacea is a North American flower that shortens the severity and longevity of colds. Elderberry of the Sambucus nigra variety is antiviral, immune-protective and reduces symptoms and duration of common viruses (try Elderberry Elixir, available from NourishMe or Kraay’s).
Zinc is a mineral that helps fight infections and heal wounds. Some studies have found that zinc lozenges may reduce the duration and severity of colds by as much as 50 percent, and may help prevent upper respiratory infections in children. The flu is one such respiratory virus. Strict vegetarians, breastfeeding women, individuals with certain digestive problems such as Crohn’s disease, and people with a poor diet and alcohol abusers are at higher risk for zinc deficiency.
Exercise – But Not Too Much
Regular exercise is key to a healthy immune system. When you work out, your white blood cells — the ones that fight infections — travel through your body faster and do their jobs better. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. Even better to exercise outside on sunny days, to soak up 10-15 minutes of sunshine on your long limbs whenever possible and as weather permits. Sunshine converts to vitamin D, a potent immune nutrient. Keep in mind, however, that intense training sessions will suppress your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to germs and infections.
Hit the Snooze Button
Ample sleep is essential for optimal immune function. Aim for eight or nine hours of quality sleep a night. Winter naturally invites us to rest more – enjoy it!
Wash Your Hands
Frequent hand washing remains one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs. Choose gentle soap over antibacterial soap or any hand gel containing triclosan, a chemical that is ineffective in preventing the spread of viruses. And as always, avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands.
Simple dietary and behavioral shifts will not only offset your risk of fall and winter illnesses, but also reduce the need for pain relievers and other cold and flu medications that burden the liver (a key organ that modulates the immune system) as well as antibiotics, which contribute to antimicrobial resistance and antibiotic resistant genes.
Here’s to a season of resilient immune systems and a healthy community!
Jamie Truppi, MSN, CNS is a functional nutritionist, edible educator and food writer. Whether working one-on-one, with groups or families, she focuses on core imbalances and guides the healing journey by starting with small shifts and whole foods. She works actively with community food system organizations, counsels online nutrition forums, teaches classes and workshops, and is a mother of two spritely young children who love zinc lozenges.