Immune support for cold and flu season
Spring is just around the corner, right? As I write this, the latest forecast calls for another round of snow… In our local clinic, many people are still coming in with colds and flus. Although cold weather itself does not make us sick, it can lower immune response. This is also the time that influenzae virus is more widespread in the Northwest. All of us fight off countless germs as we go about our day. Germs are always looking for ways to get into our body, where they grow and replicate. Although many bacterial species are beneficial, others cause sickness if they overwhelm the body’s immune system. When bacteria and viruses are able to slip through— either through a cut or as inhaled droplets — they then have to contend with our immune system.
Made up of many types of white blood cells, the immune system responds to a variety of threats. White blood cells have their start in the bone marrow. Because white cells have a fairly short lifespan of a few days to a few weeks, the bone marrow is constantly pumping out new cells. From the bone marrow, they travel to different organs to lie in wait for incoming attacks.
Immune response: on the offensive
All white cells have a similar purpose: neutralize threats to the body. White cells travel around the body in the lymphatic system. Lymph channels are like a series of interconnecting highways for immune cells. The lymph also works like a filter, straining out dead cells and bits of germs. You’ve probably noticed swollen lymph nodes when fighting a cold. This is a completely normal sign that your lymph system is working.
When white cells find a germ, a number of things happen. Germs have molecules on their surface that tell the immune system they are foreign. Certain white cells called T cells are expert at reading these signals. T cells are like scouts, and when they find a germ they call for reinforcements. In response, B cells travel to the infection and release antibodies that stick to germs. The antibodies are like frosting, making the germs appetizing to another type of white cells called phagocytes. Phagocytes come gobble up the frosted invaders.
This process can take a few days and require all the resources of the immune system. We get symptoms from toxins released by germs, and also from the inflammation involved.
Boosting the immune system with natural medicine
The immune system can always use some extra support when fighting an infection. Keeping stress low is the first step. When we are stressed, cortisol enters our circulatory system. Cortisol is an immune suppressant, and blocks the growth of white blood cells. Taking some time off work, resting, hydrating, and keeping warm will go a long way to support the immune system. Coffee increase cortisol as well, so opt for caffeine-free herbal teas that encourage immune health. Ginger, echinacea, chamomile, lemon balm, and peppermint are all immune supportive herbs. In particular, echinacea is shown in research to ramp up white cell counts. As an herbal medicine, it’s most effective taken at the first sign of infection and dosed throughout the day. Astragalus is another herbal medicine that supports the immune system. Used for hundreds of years in Chinese medicine, research suggests that astragalus decreases time spent fighting a cold. For viral colds and flus, herbs like lemon balm, black elderberry, and ginger are safe and effective antivirals.
Beyond herbal medicine, sound nutrition gives the body a solid foundation. Foods high in micro-minerals like zinc and magnesium encourage healthy white cell production. Micro-minerals are abundant in dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, eggs, chicken, fish, and whole grains. Avoid fried foods, sugar, and refined foods while focusing on soups and steamed or baked veggies and protein. Junk foods will make the immune system sluggish. Sugar in particular will add fuel to the fire by feeding bacteria and helping them thrive. Weave in foods high in probiotics, like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut. Probiotics improve immune regulation and boost T cells.
In additon, two supplements for immune support are Vitamin C and Vitamin D3. Vitamin C boosts the immune system, decreases symptom severity, and shortens time spent sick. Vitamin C is safe for children and adults with appropriate doses. Lastly, take vitamin D3 through the winter. Low vitamin D weakens the immune response. In the northwest, we do not get enough from sunlight during the fall and winter.
By combining common sense nutrition, rest, hydration, and a few herbs and supplements you can work with your immune system to fight off an infection.