Building Strong Immune Health
Do you sometimes feel helpless during flu season in the winter months? How about this year, when the media is reporting the most severe flu season in a decade? Influenza has been a hot topic this year, and rightfully so. I speak to anxious parents every day that I'm at work lately, about whether their child may have influenza, and what they should do about it, if so.
This season takes me back to 2009/2010 when the H1N1 scare happened. My son was 4 months old, and my daughter was 2 1/2. Just ask people who knew me then! Wow. I am sorry to say that the anxiety I had about that flu season kind of consumed me, especially being a new mom. Here I had these precious children, and I just felt inadequate in my ability to protect them. Imagine my relief when spring came, none of us having gotten influenza. Fast forward to a few years later when I got influenza myself. It was so miserable. Even though I was going through some difficult times with my health in general back then, I do remember seeing the big picture and recognizing that my body had done a good job of fighting off that illness. It didn't hurt that I was in my 30's, a time in life when the body bounces back pretty well.
Back to THIS year. While I have seen the severity of this flu season firsthand at the pediatric clinic where I work, and while I do not take the threat of influenza lightly, I am happy to say that I am at a point in my life that the fear and anxiety surrounding flu season isn't affecting me quite as much. I think about it, and I am a little hyper about my kids washing their hands when they come home from school, but I finally feel like I have some useful and effective tools in my box to help prevent flu, and to help us get through it if it does happen.
How did I get to this point? Well, some of it had to do with gaining a better understanding of how the immune system works, and what types of things we can do to strengthen it. Gosh, you'd think as a Registered Nurse I would have already known these things! Not to knock my heard earned degree and years of experience, because it did teach me so many things, but the focus is usually on how to treat illness when it happens.
Major Parts of the Immune System
Don't worry, I won't get into an extended lesson on the immune system, but visualizing its major components and understanding the basic mechanisms may be helpful to you.
Our skin and mucous membranes offer a barrier as a first line of defense. If something sneaks through these barriers and we do get sick, our immune cells immediately go to work. T-cells have receptors that help recognize a virus, and the T-cells themselves help to attack the virus. Our cells also produce interferons, which help prevent the replication of viruses. Antibodies are also an effective immune response. The antibodies bind, or stick to, viruses before they even get a chance to infect a cell.
What about fevers? Well, fevers occur when the body's immune response is stimulated, and can help the body gain advantage over viruses or bacteria by creating a less favorable environment for replicating themselves (I like to think that our body is "cooking" the virus or bacteria).
Prevention of Illness
Our bodies really do have wonderful defense mechanisms built in, and these will work even more effectively if we take good care of them. If any of these parts are damaged, obviously they will not work at full capacity. That's why eating well, not smoking, and getting plenty of sleep are all so important in promoting health of the immune system. Note in the picture, for example, that our gut is designed to attack pathogens. When my own gut was damaged, I saw firsthand how its ability to do that was greatly diminished.
So, how have I been able to gain some confidence in supporting the immune system?
This is the number one way to prevent illness, hands down. It should go without saying, but honestly, I felt it was so important to mention before I get into all of these other ways to support immune health, because you could do all of those things so well, but if you don't wash your hands, well, you'll be at a major disadvantage.
It's worth mentioning that anti-bacterial soap is really NOT what you want. It is putting us at risk for antibiotic resistance, and may be causing superbugs to develop. Even the FDA is no longer recommending it! (see this link for more information). Also, washing your hands with a regular soap and warm water for at least 30 seconds beats hand sanitizers in their ability to clean.
I like this soap for its effectiveness and its non-toxic, environmentally friendly ingredients. And of course, I do carry hand sanitizer when we are out and about and don't have access to a sink. This one is my favorite!
2. Diet, Hydration, and Sleep
Eating a whole foods based diet, and greatly limiting processed foods including sugar, is effective on many levels. First, processed foods and sugar diminish the body's ability to create antibodies for several hours after eating them, basically tamping down the immune system. On the other hand, eating lots of greens and whole foods high in antioxidants helps keep our immune cells functioning properly. Second, optimal nutrition helps keep our gut healthy! Eating a poor diet causes damage to the gut lining, and decreases the beneficial bacteria in our gut. This damage not only affects our digestion, but effectively a large part of our immune system, as over 70% of our immune system lies in our gut! Read more about how the gut gets damaged in one of my earlier blog posts, here.
Hydration and Sleep are just basic to good health. We should be drinking 1/2 of our body weight of water, in ounces, per day. And lack of sleep is a sure way to increase our risk of getting sick, so aim for 8 hours every night. We all need these reminders!
It seems like everyone is pushing supplements on us these days, and it is easy to wonder if they are all they are cracked up to be. Actually, sometimes they aren't! I have found, though, that taking the right kinds of good quality supplements can make a huge difference in my overall health. I hear people express frustration that they have to remember to take supplements, or questioning whether we actually need them or not. I get it! It IS frustrating, not to mention expensive. But, getting sick is even more expensive and frustrating. Here are some of my favorite supplements when it comes to supporting immune health:
There are so many studies out there, verifying the need to maintain proper Vitamin D levels. I even read recently that good D levels help to significantly reduce the risk of getting influenza! This is worth paying attention to. Have yours and your family members' D levels checked, and supplement accordingly. Here is a great D3/K2 option. K2 has been found to help with D absorption, and is a vitamin that is also commonly lacking in our diets.
Zinc is extremely important in regulating immune cells, and deficiency is linked to multiple different types of immune cell dysfunction. Proactively, zinc can actually decrease mucous and bacteria build up in the nasal passages, and has antiviral activity in nasal epithelial cells. This is the one I take.
Vitamin C is well known for its ability to help the immune system fight off illness, because of its high antioxidant content. You can take about 1000 mg per day when trying to prevent illness, and increase to about 4000 mg per day during times of illness. I like this whole foods based Vitamin C, because it is easy for the body to absorb and does not cause stomach upset.
There has been some confusion out there about whether we actually need multivitamins or not. Many options out there are just not worth your money, because they contain versions of vitamins and minerals that are just plain difficult for the body to absorb and utilize. Also, keep in mind there is not usually a one-size-fits-all approach to our individual nutrition needs. On the other hand, food growing practices and soil quality have definitely changed in recent decades, making it more difficult to get the nutrients we need from our food than it used to be. So, a multivitamin could have a place in a healthy diet, especially when the micronutrients in the multivitamin are formulated to be easy to absorb and in quantities that are optimal for good health in most individuals. While I do not take a multivitamin because my supplement needs are so specific, some people may find it easier to turn to one supplement versus many separate supplements. In that instance, this is a good option.
There are also many good quality whole foods supplements out there to help boost our greens and produce intake. I do take green powders and juice supplements, and honestly I really love them. I give them to my kids, too, because it is hard to get them to eat all the greens they need.
A good quality probiotic can help immensely in building strong immune health. They can help restore beneficial gut flora to optimal levels. They also help rebuild the gut lining that may have been damaged by a processed diet, or ongoing use of NSAIDS, antibiotics, or other medications. Fermented foods like homemade yogurt, raw sauerkraut, and kombucha also help in restoring gut flora. Our family tries to do both, but honestly, we probably do not eat enough fermented foods, so that's where the probiotic comes in. I tend to rotate my probiotics, but it's important to get high quality probiotics because otherwise the efficacy may not be there, effectively causing you to throw your money down the drain. Remember, since so much of our immune system lies in the gut, keeping the gut healthy is a huge part of strengthening our immunity.
4. Essential Oils
Adding my high quality essential oils into the mix has been SUCH a game changer. They work with the body to help encourage the body to more effectively do what the body is designed to do. In addition, many essential oils have antimicrobial properties. There are so many options out there, but these two are my favorites:
On Guard blend is formulated to protect against seasonal and environmental threats, and contains essential oils known for their positive effects on the immune system. My husband and I take a drop internally, and I apply it to the bottoms of my kids' feet. We do this for daily immune support. This type of blend can also be used on surfaces of the home as a non-toxic cleaner. On Guard has been studied for its in-vitro effects against harmful microbes, so diffusing it in my kitchen is something I love to do. Plus, it smells great!
Frankincense is an essential oil I pretty much mix into almost every oil I use on an ongoing basis, because its positive effects on the immune system, as well as its amazing anti-inflammatory benefits. You can think of ongoing inflammation as a big distraction for the immune system. When we reduce inflammation, the immune system can focus better on what it is supposed to focus on: keeping us healthy.
Even When We Do Everything Right, We Can Still Get Sick
Of course this is true! If you have kids, you know they go through periods of time when they just seem to keep getting sick. As adults, obviously we get sick, too. Getting sick actually helps strengthen our immune system, too! Think of it as what strength building exercises are for the muscles. Every time we get sick, our immune cells create antibodies specific to the virus we have. This is an important process in building the immune system, because then when we are exposed to the same virus later, our body immediately recognizes it and sends those ready-made antibodies to fight it off. This happens all the time without us knowing it, and prevents that same virus from causing us to get sick again and again. Even if it is a virus we have not had, but is maybe similar to something we have had, the body will know what to do much more quickly.
Plus, sometimes we just go through times of increased stress or difficulty sleeping, and other factors we may not have control over. So, sometimes it is just going to happen. However, we can still be proactive in helping our bodies fight off illness more quickly, and often, without complication! This is where I feel I can rest easier these days, knowing I have all these great tools.
Our Plan During Times of Illness:
During illness, we continue all of the previously mentioned methods, but increase our consumption of Vitamin C. In addition, we add things like raw manuka honey, elderberry syrup, homemade bone broth and, depending on the illness, symptom specific treatments (read my blog post here on managing respiratory illness).
Essential Oils for Boosting the Immune System
In a nutshell, essential oils you can use for more intense immune support during times of illness include: Frankincense, Lemon, Oregano, On Guard, and Melaleuca. Others you could try: Thyme, Rosemary, Clove, Cinnamon, Spikenard, Copaiba, and any other citrus oil.
For my kids, I would typically combine about 10 drops of each of these in a roll on bottle, as shown, then fill the remainder of the bottle with fractionated coconut oil. I would apply this combo to the bottoms of their feet 3-5 times per day during illness.
Adults can use a combination of these in an empty veggie cap, to take them internally during times of illness. You essential oils MUST be pure and trusted, and have supplement facts on the bottle if you take them internally. I would personally stick to 1-2 drops of Oregano and 1-2 drops of Frankincense in a veggie cap, taken twice per day. These oils are very powerful, and I would not necessarily recommend taking more than that internally in one day. For the remaining oils, roll on the bottoms of the feet often throughout the day.
Parents want to be able to DO something for their children during fevers, because they make them uncomfortable, and they think they are doing something proactive by making the fever go away. But once you gain the understanding that a fever is a favorable immune response that can HELP the body fight illness, you may not always want to treat a fever (within reason). I've mentioned before that at my clinic, we encourage parents to watch fevers from 100-102, and treat from 102 and up. A fever of 105 or greater needs immediate attention from a healthcare provider.
In the meantime, try diluted peppermint essential oil. Apply topically to the forehead and back of neck to provide a cooling sensation that can help give relief during a fever, without actually suppressing the fever. A roll-on with about 1/3 peppermint and 2/3 fractionated coconut oil works well.
You are NOT Helpless During Flu Season!
Everyone needs to do what works for them, and some of what I've recommended may work for you while others may not. Pay attention to your body's needs, and always consult a trusted healthcare professional if you feel you are in over your head during a time of illness.
I love knowing that I don't have to sit back and helplessly wait to see what may or may not happen. I love feeling OK about living our lives during flu season without being in constant fear. Us moms need all the help we can get, don't we?
*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. The products mentioned in this blog post are not intended to treat, cure, or prevent disease. Always consult a trusted healthcare professional if you have concerns about your health.