Have you ever noticed that some people are always healthy and energetic while others seem to catch every little bug that’s floating around, especially during the winter months? No matter where you fall on the wellness spectrum, the inevitable cold or flu can strike, often without warning. Fortunately, a robust immune system can deal with the constant barrage of bacteria and viruses you are exposed to day in and day out. It’s your 24/7 knight in shining armor that keeps you alive and well. A strong immune system offers protection in several ways. It creates a barrier against harmful microorganisms. It carries out “search and destroy” missions to find and eliminate any bacteria and viruses that do get into your body. Plus, it prevents dangerous bacteria and viruses from reproducing.
However, as efficient as this internal defense system is, a number of things can weaken your immunity. Topping the list is age. As you grow older your ability to fight off disease diminishes, possibly because your body is less able to produce immune cells. But your daily habits matter too. Luckily, these are factors you can control.
Be Well Fed
A strong immune system starts in the kitchen. Studies show that a diet filled with fresh, antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats can help ward off everyday ailments, as well as more serious conditions. Yet the typical American diet is often deficient in the very nutrients needed to support a strong immune system.
Swapping out unhealthy ultra-processed foods for more nutritious fare can enhance a sluggish immune system. For instance, one 2022 study reported that the bioactives in fruits and vegetables benefit the immune system and reduce your susceptibility to and the severity of viral infections. Healthy fats are important too. Omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in salmon and other cold-water fish, help not only keep inflammation in check but also regulate the immune response. And the polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) modulate immunity and may help ward off inflammation. Plus, EVOO has powerful antimicrobial and antiviral properties to help fight seasonal germs. Just make sure to use a high-quality EVOO rich in immune-supportive polyphenols.
One nutrient that’s often overlooked is protein. Yet, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Nutrients, lean protein provides the amino acids your immune system needs to support the production of antibodies (blood proteins that counteract pathogens). One tasty way to increase the protein in your diet is by blending up a whey protein smoothie. Whey is high in lactoferrin—a protein in milk that regulates how bone marrow functions, activates NK cells, and enhances the body’s antibody response. Whey also keeps the inflammatory response within healthy levels.
Stock Your Winter Wellness Kit
What you eat can go a long way towards keeping your immune system in fighting shape. But relying on food alone often isn’t enough, especially during the cold winter months. The following herbs and nutrients help create the arsenal your immune system needs to function optimally year-round.
Andrographis helps prevent infections thanks to its powerful anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and immune-boosting properties. During one placebo-controlled clinical trial of 223 cold sufferers, andrographis reduced cough, congestion, fatigue, fever, headache, and sore throat. Another study that pitted andrographis against acetaminophen found that the herb was just as effective as the over-the-counter drug for easing symptoms. What makes andrographis such an immune champion? Its active compound, andrographolide. Look for a supplement that features the leaf extract of the herb and boasts high potency andrographolides. One proprietary form of andrographis, listed on labels as EP80, delivers 80 mg of andrographolide, which is the highest potency currently available.
Black Elderberries provide a wealth of benefits, including antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, and immune-boosting properties. In one 2016 trial of 312 airline passengers that appeared in the journal Nutrients, Australian researchers found that those taking an elderberry supplement experienced fewer colds than those taking a placebo. And if they did come down with the sniffles, those in the elderberry group got well faster and had milder symptoms. More recently, preliminary research out of Germany suggests that one particular variety of Austrian black elderberry, known as Haschberg, not only reduces the duration and intensity of the flu but may also inhibit the replication of the coronavirus. Whether you’re looking for protection against the common cold, flu, or something more serious, check to make sure your black elderberry supplement is standardized to at least 12 percent anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant in the berries that’s responsible for its strong anti-viral effects.
Propolis guards against pathogens and other threats that can make you sick thanks to its potent antibacterial, antibiotic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral activities. Research shows that it’s powerful enough to protect against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a common—and dangerous—antibiotic-resistant staph infection. Other studies suggest that propolis can help resolve upper respiratory viral infections due to its antiviral and anti-inflammatory capabilities. When searching out a supplement, look for one that contains a concentrated proprietary form of bee propolis extract (listed on labels as EP300) for the most protection.
Umckaloabo may have a funny name, but it provides serious immune support. Research shows that this South African herb effectively treats a wide range of upper respiratory infections, including bronchitis, sinusitis, and even the common cold. In one study of 105 adult cold sufferers, Umckaloabo significantly reduced the severity of their symptoms, including cough, headache, nasal congestion, muscle aches, scratchy throat, and sneezing. These benefits may be due to the herb’s ability to reduce inflammation in the lungs and airways. Look for a supplement that contains the root extract standardized to more than 0.3 percent umckalin (the active compounds in the herb) and more than 12.5 percent polyphenols.
Pairing a nutrient-rich diet with targeted herbs can level up your immune response and lower the odds of catching that seasonal cold or bout with the flu. Plus, fortifying your defenses can also provide extra protection against a potentially serious upper respiratory ailment like bronchitis, pneumonia, or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). And that can translate to a healthier, happier winter.
Indulging in too much alcohol impairs more than your judgement. According to investigators at the UMass Chan Medical School, it also undermines your immune system’s ability to fend off pathogens. Here’s why: When immune cells are exposed to alcohol—even for short periods—they produce significantly lower levels of key chemicals like type 1 interferons that help recruit immune cells when an antiviral response is needed, and TNF-a—immune-system warrior cells that fight off pathogens. For a more powerful immune response, limit your alcohol intake to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
Maximize Your Immunity with a Multi
Even if you eat a healthy diet, it’s likely you’re low in at least some of the nutrients needed for a hardy immune response. A multivitamin-multimineral supplement to the rescue! Not only does a comprehensive multi help fill in any nutritional gaps, but researchers at Oregon State University note that the micronutrients in multivitamins—especially vitamins A, D, C, E, B6, B12, copper, folate, iron, selenium, and zinc—play vital, often synergistic roles at every stage of the immune response.
One study that appeared in the journal Nutrients found that baby boomers taking a multivitamin and multimineral supplement experienced shorter bouts of illness and less severe symptoms than those taking a placebo. Other studies suggest that a daily multi can also help prevent infections from taking hold. But to get this type of protection, look for a comprehensive multivitamin-multimineral supplement that contains bioactive, easily digested vitamins and highly absorbable amino acid chelated minerals.
Habits for a Healthier Winter
Be active. Exercise helps flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways. It also improves your immune response by enhancing the formation of antibodies and increasing the ability of white blood cells to search out and destroy pathogens. Along with incorporating more activity into your daily life, endeavor to get at least 150 minutes of a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise each week.
Chill out. Chronic everyday stress has been shown to diminish the immune response and contribute to systemic low-level inflammation. Adopt activities, like meditation or yoga, that are clinically shown to help you stress less.
Get enough sleep. People who are sleep deprived develop fewer antibodies and NK cells. They are also more prone to chronic inflammation and premature death. Strive to get seven to nine hours of good quality sleep nightly.
Wash your hands. Frequent handwashing has been shown to reduce the odds of both bacterial and viral infection by as much as 21 percent. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds using soap and warm water frequently throughout the day, especially before and after handling food, before meals, after going to the bathroom, and any time you’re around someone who is sick.