There’s no surefire way to avoid catching a cold or virus, and our immune system is our best natural defense against illness. Like a small army ready to fight off invaders, the more we build up and strengthen our immune system, the more likely we’ll successfully fend off those invaders when they strike—and they are constantly striking, we just don’t always get sick.
The immune system is not a single system, but a carefully orchestrated collaboration between many of our internal systems, including our nervous system, gastrointestinal system (that good ol’ gut microbiome), endocrine system, and lymphatic system. We can tend to each of these individually to ensure the overall system functions as well as possible. I say ‘as well as possible’ because we can’t always prevent illness, but we can give our bodies the best chance to defend themselves!
As members of the food allergy community, we know how important overall health and wellbeing is! Below are four ways to help support your immune system this winter:
Cut back on sugar (especially the artificial kind!)
I know, I know. Comfort food and sweets taste particularly good right now. But sugar leads to inflammation, which clogs up your system and doesn’t allow your body—and in turn, your immune system—to function at its finest. Stick to naturally-occurring sugars in your snacking and baking like fruit, honey, and maple syrup, which each have their own health benefits.
As previously mentioned, the gastrointestinal system plays a key role in immunity, and sugar is not a friend of the microbiome. In addition to stoking inflammation in the body, it serves as food for unwelcome visitors in the gut (e.g., fungi, parasites) which, in turn, distract your body from focusing on other invaders. So definitely enjoy a cookie or two, but be mindful of your sugar intake, especially when your body’s immune system is in more vulnerable situations (so don’t eat a whole box of cookies on an airplane!).
Easier said than done, right? Our nervous system plays a role in our immune health, and our body just doesn’t function optimally under immense stress. When your autonomic nervous system (a.k.a. your “fight or flight response”) is constantly active, like it is for many of us these days, your body sends its energy to the systems needed to protect you from perceived stressors—the in-the-moment tools needed to survive an attack. Instead of focusing on fighting off illness (who cares if you are about to get a cold if you are trying to survive a bear attack!), our body pumps up cortisol for the bear fight and siphons energy from those systems we need for day-to-day health. Certain things are simply out of your control, and not worthy of your “a bear might attack me!” bodily response.
Some ways to focus on stress reduction include:
Performing a daily meditation (even 5-10 minutes is beneficial!)
Movement (yoga, a walk, or something more vigorous), which supports your lymphatic system
Spending time in nature
Taking deep breaths when you recognize stress
I also recommend soothing nervous system teas, like chamomile or lemon balm. Be sure to look up herbs and tea blends before taking them to ensure they are not contraindicated with any medications, health conditions, and allergies you have.
Incorporate lots of spices
This one is fun and easy—when you’re cooking, use a lot of spices! Culinary spices have so many medicinal benefits, and while I could write an essay on each one of them, spiking your food with a healthy dose of thyme, oregano, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, and beyond will support your immune system in a variety of ways.
And don’t forget about garlic! Garlic is a powerful and potent immune system booster, and it’s delicious too. To get the most potent medicinal benefits with garlic, chop it up and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before eating raw. You can also make garlic-infused honey, which is great for cold and flu season—chop up some garlic (I like to add ginger too, another anti-inflammatory powerhouse!) and mix it into a small jar of honey. After 5-10 days, you will have potent medicine! Spread it on toast or eat it by the teaspoon for a medicinal kick if you feel a tickle in your throat or any signs of illness (or you can use it preventatively as well). And you’ll get your (natural) sweet kick in there, too!
Eat nourishing soups and broths
Lastly, enjoy warming and nourishing soups all winter long. I whip up a super medicinal broth by using veggie scraps I save in the freezer (onion peels, carrot ends, etc.) and then add a few cloves of garlic, half of an onion, spices like thyme and oregano, fresh ginger, and anything else medicinal I have on hand like mushrooms (which are wonderful for your immune system), kombu (a mineral-rich seaweed), herbs from my apothecary (like nettles and calendula), and water. Cook it on the stovetop for a few hours or in the Instant Pot for about an hour for a medicinally-rich broth.
Another option is to make or buy bone broth, which is soothing to the gut. Or mix and match both! Either way, broths are a wonderful, delicious, nourishing way to get a healthy infusion of vitamins, minerals, and immune-boosting support during a long and cold winter. Some research shows that being cold negatively affects your immune system, so staying warm can’t hurt either (hot herbal teas are helpful here as well).
There are numerous ways to support your immune system, and these four tips are an accessible and affordable place to start. While we can’t always prevent illness, you can support your immune system to be more prepared to fight off whatever comes your way!
Sara Weinreb is a writer, business strategist, herbalist, and founder of IMBY—a virtual community center designed to advance a more just and equitable future. Sara’s writing has been featured in Forbes, healthyish, mindbodygreen, and USA Today, among others. In addition to founding an ethical fashion company, Sara has consulted for Eileen Fisher on their woman-owned business grant program, ABC Carpet & Home on their environmental and social impact initiatives, and has advised hundreds of entrepreneurs on building mission-driven businesses and design-thinking curriculum. When she’s not writing or shopping in the bulk section of health food stores, you can find Sara on the yoga mat, making herbal elixirs, or attempting to keep her growing collection of plants alive. A New Yorker, Sara recently relocated to Denver in search of more space and a slower pace of life.