By Julie Fergusson – Red Seal Naturopath
As we approach the cooler months where temperatures drop, nights get longer and sneezes, sniffles, coughs, sore throats and runny noses become rife. In New Zealand the Cold and Flu season starts about April and runs all through winter.
Are there some things that can reduce your risk of catching a cold or flu?
- Did you know that there is a Vitamin that can help lower risk of respiratory problems?
- That your digestive system is the link to your immune system?
- That lack of sleep means you are more prone to colds and flu?
- That there are essential oils which can help you breathe better when you have a cold and flu as well helping reducing their spread?
We are still learning what makes our immune system strong. But generally it is colds and flu that often challenge us the most. Our immune system is complex and offers different levels to protect and fight against foreign invaders. It involves organs, cells and proteins that all work together to help defend our bodies.
Fundamentally we know that there are things that can help keep our immune system stay strong: A healthy diet with plenty fresh fruit and vegetables, relaxation, hydration, exercise, a warm dry environment, lowered stress levels and a good mental attitude. But there are a few others that we can add to the list:
The Sunshine vitamin
Many people are shunning the sun due to fear of melanoma and as a result the ‘Sunshine Vitamin’, Vitamin D, has increasingly become a deficient in many people. The sun helps protect our immune system by stimulating the production of Vitamin D. Generally 5-15 minutes per day of sun exposure on bare skin will give us enough Vitamin D, but many people lose out on the benefits because of limited sun exposure, sunscreen, old age, or deeply pigmented skin.
Vitamin D has also been linked to respiratory health. Good levels of Vitamin D appear to reduce pulmonary inflammatory responses while helping innate defence mechanisms against respiratory invaders. Populationbased analysis has showed a connection between circulating Vitamin D levels and lung function.
Symptoms of deficiency can increase risk of cardiovascular disease, impaired brain health in older adults, cause or worsen severe asthma in children, and has been linked to four different types of cancers. Researchers have also connected low levels of Vitamin D with achy joints.
- Vitamin D absorption needs fats in your diet. So those people on fat reducing diets or taking medication that change their cholesterol levels may being impairing their Vitamin D levels.
- Help your Vitamin D levels by including nuts, avocados, walnuts, flaxseeds, trout, tuna, herring, salmon, and egg yolk into a meal.
- Consider taking Vitamin D supplement or cod liver oil.
- If you think you are Vitamin D deficient a blood test can help determine your levels.
Our Internal Guardsmen
Naturopathic medicine focuses a lot of attention on the digestive system believing that a healthy digestion is the fundamental foundation to a healthy body. The bacteria in our gut are complex and constantly changing and informing our immune system so that we can live in harmony. However our western diet, medications such as antibiotics and NSAIDs, stress, sugar, pesticides, alcohol, gluten, GMO’s and lack of sleep can destroy this balance within us.
Our intestincal tract controls about 70 per cent of our immune system yet often gets overlooked. The gut is a complex and changing environment with hundreds of different bacteria; some of them do helpful things like break down carbohydrates in the intestine and produce infection-fighting antibodies and vitamins, while other destructive bacteria secrete toxins and promote disease. Overall, the gut is key to our immune system.
In healthy guts the good bacteria outnumber the bad and when this is in balance, we are not even aware of the role that they do. However, when the bad out numbers the good we can have issues such as fungal infections, stomach upsets, constipation, diarrhoea, eczema, and flatulence. There are two important things we need to help keep our intestinal tract robust – Prebiotics and Probiotics.
Prebiotics are like a fertilizer for the good bacteria to thrive upon. They are indigestible fibre that helps to create a good environment in the gut and cleanses the body by helping to keep our bowel motions regular. Prebiotics are found naturally in a number of foods; asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions, beans, chickpeas, lentils and supplementary fibres such as psyllium, pectin, guar gum and slippery elm.
Probiotics: Although we are still learning and identifying the role of the good bacteria in our body and the part that they play, these bacteria are not just restricted to the intestinal tract but also populate the bladder, bowel, mouth, lungs and other parts of the body. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are the most common probiotic bacteria and there are a number of strains in each of these families. Our western modern diet has unfortunately managed to process out the naturally occurring beneficial bacteria in many foods, while at the same time feeding harmful bacteria with a feast of processed starches and sugars. In contrast most traditional cultures have some form of fermented food that keep our bacterial balanced. We need regular intake of these fermented foods to ensure the balance. These include yoghurts, Kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha tea and tempeh.
A recent a course of antibiotics (or other medication), overseas travel, signs of digestive imbalance, or change of season are all good reasons to add fermented foods into your diet or take a multistrain probiotic supplement but also ensure that you are getting enough fibre into your diet.
The On/Off Switch
Proper sleep is fundamental to a healthy lifestyle. Sleep is like an on/off switch that helps us to reboot, rebuild and rebalance on a daily basis. When we fail to get enough sleep our body is not able to function well and we have lowered overall immunity. If you are not sleeping well or getting inadequate sleep then you have to ask why. Is your sleeping environment suitable? Are you drinking too much caffeine? Are you stressed? Many people refuse to listen to their body, stop and rest and give time to recuperate while sick. Sleep loss not only plays a role in whether we come down with a cold or flu, but also influences how we fight illnesses once we come down with them. Sleep is vital to our healing process and that is why sleep is one of best healing things that we can do when we are sick.
- Make sure the room where sleep is completely dark
- Get to bed in plenty of time ? Have a bath before bed time
- Listen to relaxing music or mediation to help you sleep
- A magnesium supplement can help you relax and prepare for sleep
- Herbs such as Passionflower, Valerian, Chamomile and Skullcap can help the body relax and prepare for sleep so make a good night tea before bed
- Tart Cherry can also help stimulate the production of Melatonin the hormone that controls sleep
- There are numerous medications that have side effects that include insomnia, so it is a good idea to check your medication if you are having problems sleeping
Power of Essential oils
In winter we are inevitably spending more time inside in closer contact with people who are sick and the cold and flu virus lingers around on well-touched surfaces like door handles and light switches. Essential oils have been used for centuries to fight the symptoms of the common cold. You can add them to your bathwater, diffuse them in the air or even apply them directly to your skin. Adding a few drops to a spray bottle to help wipe handles and light switches can help keep your room bacterial and virus free.
If you do have a cold or flu try adding a couple of drops on a tissue and sniff periodically to help ease breathing, a few drops in hot water for steam inhalation to help blocked sinuses, or in a bath to help relaxation and recovery.
Below are a few favourites to help with the cold and flu season:
Tea Tree oil: It serves as a killer of all types of infections: viral, bacterial, and fungal. It can be used to clear up sinus infections and other respiratory ailments including runny nose, cough and sore throat.
Lavender: It can be used for pain relief, easing muscle cramps and headaches as well as an antiseptic to treat infections.
Peppermint: This is a natural pain reliever and kills viral infections. It can clear chest congestion when steam inhaled or mixed in a chest rub.
Eucalyptus: is known to clear up mucus in the lungs and heal the throat and nasal passages. Eucalyptus is a strong antiseptic and can be used on wounds or as a germ-killing sanitizer.
Lemon Myrtle: More powerful than tea treem, it is one of the most antiseptic, antiviral, antifungal of the Australian essential oils and is helpful with colds, flus and chest congestions. Ideal as a room spray or and a few drops can help in cleaning surfaces