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By Dr. Justin Marchegiani
When most people start to get sick, they feel the flu symptoms start to come on, it’s easy to feel paralyzed regarding what to do next. The common phrase, “Hold on tight and enjoy the ride!” comes to mind, probably because you feel like you have no other choice.
More importantly, people need to be aware of what can happen the next time their immune system is compromised and they feel a cold coming on. The more the supplement and lifestyle recommendations in this article are applied, the better chance you’ll have to avoid getting sick and the common flu symptoms that go along with it.
The wintertime is unlike any time throughout the year. We have extra stressors around us all the time, especially during the holidays. These stressors include shopping; changes in weather, such as less sunlight; and increased consumption of sugar and processed foods from all the desserts and holiday goodies.
I am going to try to keep things simple, so after reading this post, you’ll have some excellent action items (AI) you can then use to apply to your health, and for those interested, some additional information on your immune system so you can better understand how things work.
Your immune system has two branches. You can think of it like a seesaw: as one goes up, one goes down. Understanding the basics will help you understand how these changes are affecting your body. If this is too much information, just skip down to the action items for the meat and potatoes.
To keep things simple, you have two sides to your immune system, Th1 and Th2
Th1: This side provides the frontline military defense for bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens trying to gain access to our bodies. These cells are typically known as natural killer cells. It’s important to note the vaccines have absolutely no effect on the Th1 branch of our immune system.
Th2: This side is primarily responsible for making antibodies (soldiers that are specific to whatever is making us sick) to the various bacteria, viruses, and pathogens that have already invaded our body. In other words, this provides the backup defense for our body when we have already been compromised. Vaccines work on this branch; more on this on a separate post!
It usually takes about one week for our Th2 side to get ramped up (i.e., it takes about one week for the backup soldiers to get called into action to help us out). That’s why the average cold lasts about one week. In summary the Th1 side is the wall that prevents things from coming in, and the Th2 side is the backup soldiers there to help in case the bad guy break through the wall
So after learning a bit more about your immune system, the suggestions I am making below should make a little more sense to you. I am going to break up my recommendations into two categories: diet & lifestyle, and supplementation. Part 1, this post, will be on diet and lifestyle, and supplementation will be covered in part 2.
Diet & Lifestyle: Actions Items
Sleep is the primary time where your immune system recharges. Our bodies are naturally on a light and dark cycle, so the prime time to tap into natural repair is right around 10 p.m. At this time our body is making human growth hormone (which helps repair our body) and is going through a process known as cellular autophagy, which is repairing our immune system. Sleep deprivation is considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the only nonsubstance carcinogen in the same league as cigarettes and asbestos. AI: Sleep before 10 p.m., and make sure it’s in a dark environment.
2. Vitamin D
With less sunlight our body has less ability to make vitamin-D on our own. So if you live in a warmer climate in the wintertime, get some healthy sun exposure without burning. For the rest it will be a necessity to rely on a vitamin D3 supplement; stay tuned to the supplement post coming later!
3. Avoid sugar
According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 100 g of sugar will inhibit your immune system by 50% for up to five hours. The specific immune cells that are inhibited are known as neutrophils, the common immune cells in the body. Your neutrophils produce certain cells know as phagocytes that gobble and eat up bacteria. If the cells are not able to do their job properly, it’s going to be very easy for bacterial infections and immune suppression to occur (2).
Research also shows that other immune cells, such as lymphocytes (our second most common immune cells), are also reduced for 30 to 60 minutes after an acute ingestion of 75 g of glucose (3).
Do yourself a favor and avoid sugar, which includes grains, starches, alcohol, and wine. In the end all of these items are broken down by your body into sugar.
AI: Healthy organic meats and vegetables, especially cooked in a Crock-Pot, can be really helpful. Try chicken soup minus the noodles; grandmas everywhere would be so proud!
4. Listen to your body
Your body will tell you when it’s starting to get sick. Your energy will start to decline, and you may start to feel a slight twinge in the back of your throat as well. “If you can listen to your body’s whispers, you won’t have to endure its cries…”
This isn’t a time to be tough and power through it. Your immune system takes a lot of energy when it ramps up the Th1 side to fight an infection. Instead of fighting your immune system, try a more gentle approach, like a lite yoga session or a walk, or even take an off day and try to get some extra rest.
“If you listen to your body’s whispers, you won’t have to endure its cries…”
5. Sauna session
Your body will naturally try to increase its body temperature to increase the effectiveness of the Th1 side of the immune system . This is why a fever can be a very beneficial thing, as long as the fever isn’t going >105 F there really is no need to worry. AI: You can mimic this state naturally with a sauna session, which can help get your immune system ready to go!
I recommend increasing your water consumption during these sick times. One-half your body weight in ounces is a good baseline, so even a little more can be helpful. Teas can be good, too; just avoid the ones with caffeine. AI: Drink up! “The solution to pollution is dilution!”
7. Manage stress
Stress comes in many shapes and sizes: emotional, physical, and chemical. The above suggestions already address the chemical and physical, but the emotional is not something we have dealt with yet. Research has shown that after a fight with a spouse, your immune system can be weakened for up to two days (1). AI: Avoid unnecessary stressful conflict with your significant other when feeling under the weather.
8. Wash your hands
This is the main vehicle in which viruses and other bad guys are transferred. Washing your hands throughout the day can decrease the spread of these pathogens.
9. Introduce fermented foods into your diet
A real easy way to do this is start consuming sauerkraut or kimchi from your local health food store. The fermentation processes, the way in which these foods are prepared, produce beneficial bacteria (probiotics), which have an important role in your gut health. Seventy percent of your immune cells are located in you gut (MALT & GALT). The healthier your gut, the healthier you immune system. Antibiotics can destroy the beneficial bacteria that we get from probiotics and fermented food. That’s why antibiotics should be a last resort.
10. Fasting can really help rev up your immune system
Fasting can help increase neutrophil activity, which in turn stimulates more phagocytes to gobble up more bacteria and potential infections. Many of the benefits of fasting seem to come from a reduction in glucose levels. I still recommend consuming protein when you’re sick, especially in the form of grass-fed whey protein, or if you are autoimmune, pea protein may be a better choice. These types of proteins are highly absorbable and very easy for your digestive system to break down.
While fasting and sipping on bone broths or various herbal teas, one of my favorites is “ginger tea.” Start off by grading some high-quality ginger, or purchase some ginger teabags, a small amount of wildflower honey, a lime or lemon rind, and a little bit of cayenne and combine to help support your immune system and even break down bacterial biofilms.
Your immune system requires high amounts of amino acids and proteins to mount an immune response (make antibodies). If you are not consuming enough protein, your immune system may be more susceptible to infection. Adding in some high-quality proteins, especially from whey or pea protein, can provide you with a valuable boost of amino acid while, at the same time, making it very easy for your digestive system to break down, absorb, and assimilate.
Antibiotics do not make your immune system stronger; they just kill the bad guys that are suppressing your immune system and keeping you sick. All of the suggestions mentioned in this blog post will increase your immune function thus helping your immune system to kill off all of these bad bugs on your own. A little help from supplements can’t hurt either! More on probiotics in part 2!
3. Bernstein J, Alpert S, Nauss KM, Depression of lymphocyte transformation following oral glucose ingestion. Am J ClinNutr 1977;30:613.