From the very first chill in the air, we know that we need to support our immune system to avoid getting sick in winter.
It’s been said that the average person will have 200 colds in their lifetime. That amounts to about 4-5 years of coughing, sneezing, headaches and fevers. But why do we tend to get sick more often, and why are our immune systems weaker in winter? What is it about these months that makes them breeding grounds for colds and flu?
Changes over the colder months
I’m sure you’re wondering whether there are simply more bugs in the air in winter, and you aren’t totally wrong. Although there are many different types of flu viruses, the strains we tend to pick up most often come from the Rhinovirus family. Rhinoviruses tend to prefer colder climates relative to the warmer months.
It’s not only the bugs that are more active in winter, our immune system tends to be less active and thus weaker in winter. Studies have also confirmed that our immune systems are stronger over the summer months, and it has been suggested that the sun plays a role in this. Our immune cells respond to environmental cues like the amount of sunlight, as well as to our circadian rhythm (our body clock). Because there are fewer hours of sunlight during winter, this affects our circadian rhythm, which in turn impacts our immune cells.
There are other indirect effects of fewer hours in the sun. With less sunlight exposure to our skin, we end up with less Vitamin D production. Vitamin D is a known modulator of the immune system and a deficiency can negatively impact your health. There are also some studies looking at our genes being turned off and on by varying environmental changes such as winter and summer, but more research is needed before we can draw solid conclusions.
Colder weather also leads to changes in our nasal cavity. With a lower humidity in the air, colder temperatures outside make it difficult for our nasal passages to produce adequate moisture. This can cause our mucus to dry out and thicken, our membranes inside the nose to become more fragile, and the lining of our membrane to actually crack. These changes can lead to irritation as well as increased invasion by germs.
Combating these changes
There are a few steps we can take to make sure we stand the best chance against getting sick in winter. We need to tackle it from both sides, combating environmental changes that we have no control over, and then also providing the right nutrients to bolster our immune system from the inside out.
1. Combat Environmental Changes
We cannot control the fact that the air will be drier, the temperature cooler, and the hours of sunlight fewer. We can however do the following:
- Dress appropriately for the cooler weather (this is an obvious one)
- Try even more so than usual to get some time in the sun despite the cooler weather
- Consider a humidifier if you really struggle with your nasal passages being irritated by the cold, dry weather. Alternatively consider using a nasal spray that adds moisture regularly.
2. Bolster Your Immune System
If you can’t avoid the bugs being more prevalent, you need to make sure that your immune system can fight them off. Here are the most important steps to take:
- Think Food First: Up your intake of phytonutrient-rich foods (think brightly colored fruits and vegetables like berries, red peppers, and dark green leafy vegetables). Coupled with this, make sure to avoid refined sugars as these can contribute to an immune system that is weaker in winter. Soups, juices and smoothies are great ways to increase your intake of phytonutrient-rich foods.
- Hydrate: Make sure to still drink your 8 glasses of water per day, especially if your mucus membranes are going to struggle with the drier weather. You want to make sure they get sufficient support.
- Take it Easy on the Exercise: Exercise is always important. However, during winter pushing your body beyond its limits may lead to a weakened immune system. Stick to lower intensity workouts or allow for sufficient recovery between workouts.
- Supplement Wisely:
- Vitamin D is important if you are not able to get time in the sun. Get your levels checked and supplement with a Cholecalciferol (D3) supplement if you are low.
- Vitamin C and Zinc are great to support recovery from a cold. They haven’t been proven to prevent you getting a cold, but they will certainly improve your recovery time if you do pick one up.
- Probiotics can be instrumental in the health of your immune system. Regularly taking a high quality probiotic may help prevent you picking up a cold in the first place.
- Phytonutrient supplements such as Curcumin, Garlic, Ginger, Mushrooms and Propolis can provide you with doses more concentrated than you may get from your food. Enquire at Lifestyle Health regarding which brands may be the best for you.
- Herbal supplements such as Echinacea can also be supportive.
Stay Healthy this Winter
Winter is often a glorious break from the high heat and humidity of Summer. Especially on the North Coast where it never gets too cold. However it is still normal for our immune systems to be weaker in winter. Make sure to protect yourself and your family from getting sick this winter with the simple steps mentioned above. You may still pick up a cold or two, but at least you will be well prepared to bounce back quickly.
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