• Dr. Karly McMaster, ND

5 Ways to Support Your Immune System Through the Holidays

Updated: Dec 12, 2019

Part 1: Pillars of Health


The holidays are inevitably a stressful time of year for most people. With the increased stress and change in climate, our immune systems often need some love to prevent the common cold and flu. As a naturopathic doctor I am always evaluating a patient's foundation or "pillars" of health. These are the aspects that support our overall wellness and are crucial in optimizing your health and healing. It's easy to overlook these principles during the holiday season, but these 5 pillars of health will help to support your immune system through the winter months:




1. Nutrient-rich foods


Have you ever heard to "eat the rainbow"? That's because foods that are rich in nutrients and vitamins are often deep colours like greens, purples, reds. For example: spinach, kale, beets, cherries, blueberries, carrots, and tomatoes. Not only do the colours make your plate beautiful, but your immune system will thank you for all the nutrients you're feeding it! Foods that are high in vitamins and nutrients give your body what it needs to fight off infections and recover more effectively.


In addition to eating nutrient dense foods, it's important to limit your intake of refined sugars. While my general motto is "everything in moderation", too many holiday treats can increase your risk of infections. This decrease in immune function is due to impaired phagocytosis, which is when certain immune cells recognize a pathogenic bacteria and essentially swallow it. These immune cells can then show your immune system the bacterial invader so more cells can be on the look out to protect your body from that infection and this whole process is weakened by the consumption of refined sugars.


Remember that cooking methods are also important in maximizing the amount of nutrients you absorb from your foods! Nutrients can be changed depending if they are in the raw or cooked state, ie. steaming or baking retains more nutrients in your food compared to boiling or frying.


Fun fact: Did you know that raw spinach contains a molecule called "oxalates" that bind to the iron in the plant making it more difficult to absorb. If you steam or blanch the spinach the oxalate releases the iron, which allows you to absorb it!



2. Hydration


Hydration may seem to be one of the most straight-forward pillars of health, but it's still very challenging for many people to get adequate daily water intake. General recommendations of water intake depend on body weight, physical activity level, environment, intake of dehydrating substances (coffee, black tea, soda, alcohol), and individual health requirements (pregnancy, breastfeeding, kidney disease, etc.). The fact is, our body weight is made up of about 60% water and every cell relies on water for basic functioning.


Despite its importance in overall health, there is limited research on whether hydration status directly effects the immune system. However, hydration does directly affect mood, cognition, energy, digestion, detoxification, blood pressure, and headaches. For this reason, hydration is still an important pillar of health.


When your body is fighting an infection, it may increase its metabolic function, and you might be losing more water due to fever, vomiting, or diarrhea. While water doesn't necessarily prevent illness or improve your recovery time, it is crucial to balance electrolytes in the event that you are losing excess fluids to prevent your condition from progressing.



3. Rest & Recovery


Even though your "to do" list might be a mile long around this time of year, it's important to let your body have time to rest and recuperate. Getting enough sleep is crucial to your body's natural healing process. When you are constantly busy or living in "fight or flight" mode, cortisol, your body's stress hormone, kicks into overdrive. This can make it really difficult to have regular sleep patterns and also affect our immune system. Typically, cortisol should be low at night and this decrease works in rhythm with other hormones (growth hormone and melatonin) that have an overall "pro-inflammatory" effect in the body. That means that while we sleep our body's immune system is working hard to fight off infections by increasing the production and distribution of immune cells. Therefore, if cortisol is elevated, our immune system function is decreased and we are at higher risk of infection.


Finding time to rest and manage your daily stressors during the holidays not only prevents the likelihood of getting sick, but also allows your immune system to more effectively fight off infections. So whether you relax in the tub, take a break at work to focus on your breath, settle in with a cup of tea and book, or hit the pillow an hour early, make sure you are getting your rest and managing stress this holiday season!


What are your favourite ways to rest and recover?



4. Exercise


Movement plays a vital role in our overall health including, but not limited to cardiovascular health, digestive health, mental health, and detoxification pathways. Therefore, it's not surprising that exercise also influences our immune system. Studies have shown that regular, moderate exercise increases secretory IgA, your body's first-line defence to bacterial invaders. Secretory IgA is present in our saliva, lungs and throughout the digestive tract and acts to prevent attachment and colonization of foreign bacteria.


Studies have shown a U-shaped response to the amount of physical activity in relation to illness. Both a sedentary lifestyle and over-training have shown increased susceptibility to illness, primarily upper respiratory tract infections. Thus, it's important to remember that regular, moderate exercise is key to optimize your immune function.


While it may be more difficult to find the motivation to exercise now that the weather has changed, it's a great time to try out new indoor activities like swimming, yoga, or group exercise classes. Keep reading for more information about why being in nature has bonus effects on the immune system!



5. Connection


Humans have an innate desire to belong, be loved, and feel secure, all of which contribute to our sense of connection to the world. Threats to human connection and feelings of loneliness actually affect immune function. For example, carriers of the herpes simplex virus who reported loneliness had higher viral load (antibody titres) compared to carriers reporting more human connection. Additionally, inflammatory markers, such as TNF-alpha, IL-6, and IL-1 have been shown to be elevated in patients who self-report loneliness compared to socially connected patients. Thus human connection has direct effect on immune regulation and inflammation.


The holidays can be particularly difficult for people who have experience loneliness, so it's important time to reach out to people around you and check in on them! Additionally, many towns hold community Christmas dinners and events open to everyone. For local people who are interested, check out the "Jingle and Mingle Community Christmas dinner" in Ladner, BC. Click here for more info: https://allsaintsladner.org/calendar/2018/12/25/community-christmas-dinner


Fun fact: Did you know, connection to nature also has beneficial effects on the immune system? Not only has being in nature shown to increase NK cells (part of our innate immune system that fights infection), but these effects have been shown to last for 30 days after being in nature.


Where are your favourite places to walk in nature?



In summary, the Pillars of Health includes nutrition, hydration, rest, exercise, and connection. While these 5 factors are important to remember during the holiday season, and can help to optimize your immune system, they are just as important all year round to your overall health!


Stay tuned for Part 2: My 5 favourite remedies for cold and flu season!



References:

  1. Akimoto, T. (2003). Effects of 12 months of exercise training on salivary secretory IgA levels in elderly subjects. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 37(1), 76–79. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.37.1.76

  2. Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Born, J. (2011). Sleep and immune function. Pflügers Archiv - European Journal of Physiology, 463(1), 121–137. doi: 10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0

  3. Gaby, A. (2017). Nutritional medicine, second edition. Chapter 3. Concord: Fritz Perlberg Publishing.

  4. Jaremka, L. M., & Sunami, N. (2017). Threats to Belonging Threaten Health: Policy Implications for Improving Physical Well-Being. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 5(1), 90–97. doi: 10.1177/2372732217747005

  5. Li, Q. (2009). Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), 9–17. doi: 10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3

  6. Mcgregor, B. A., Murphy, K. M., Albano, D. L., & Ceballos, R. M. (2016). Stress, cortisol, and B lymphocytes: a novel approach to understanding academic stress and immune function. Stress, 19(2), 185–191. doi: 10.3109/10253890.2015.1127913

  7. Mitchell, J. B., Dugas, J. P., Mcfarlin, B. K., & Nelson, M. J. (2002). Effect of exercise, heat stress, and hydration on immune cell number and function. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(12), 1941–1950. doi: 10.1097/00005768-200212000-00013

  8. Popkin, B. M., Danci, K. E., & Rosenberg, I. H. (2010). Water, hydration, and health. Nutrition Reviews, 68(8), 439–458. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00304.x

  9. Walsh NP, Gleeson M, Shephard RJ, et al. Position statement part one: immune function and exercise. Exercise Immunology Review. 2011;17:6–63.

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