As the weather turns colder and we move inside in closer quarters, risk for airborne transmission of germs increases, and public health officials warn us about flu season. Winter 2020 will look different as we continue to battle COVID in conjunction with flu season. Scientists are calling this special winter a “twindemic,” meaning a potentially severe flu season and a COVID surge that could tax our health system. But you can stay healthy with immune boosting foods, self care, and the proper supplemental support. Here’s how to prevent illness this winter.
How to Prevent Illness: Diet
The changing of seasons, especially from autumn to winter, is a key time to support immune health. I talk about main points to boost immune health in this post, but let’s cover some dietary strategies to support your immune system. Remember: just because you are exposed to a virus or a pathogen does not mean you will get sick! If your immune system is in tip top shape, you have the ability to fight off infection.
You need a variety of antioxidants and phytonutrients to keep yourself healthy, The antioxidants are vitamins A, C, E, and the minerals zinc and selenium. Here are my top picks for immune boosting nutrients:
- Think brightly colored vegetables & fruits for antioxidants: a variety of berries, leafy greens, citrus, orange (sweet potatoes) and purple (purple cabbage, potatoes, cauliflower, etc)
- Red meat and oysters are the richest sources of zinc which is one of the most important nutrients for immune health. Make my beef stew to get plenty of zinc + phytonutrients.
- Green tea is very high in polyphenols that are good for immune and gut health. May have anti-viral properties. (source) I love this green tea and drink it daily.
- Liver is very rich in vitamin A that your body needs for mucous membrane health. Also a great source of B vitamins for stress relief, vitamin D which is crucial for immune health, and zinc. An all around superfood! More on how to incorporate liver here. You can also take desiccated liver pills. This is a good brand.
- Brazil nuts are high in selenium! All you need is 5 daily.
- Chicken bone broth is a magical healing elixir that boosts killer T cells. Here is my post about its benefits to gut and immune health + how to make it or order it if you don’t want to make it yourself. Make my immune boosting soup to stay well or recover more quickly!
- For vitamin C, get broccoli, red pepper, kiwi, and citrus. Avoid orange juice however; it is very high in sugar.
- Probiotic-rich foods like raw sauerkraut and fermented beverages such as kefir are good for gut health, and your immune health is tightly connected to gut health.
- Shiitake, cordyceps, and reishi are excellent to boost immune health and may inhibit viral growth and kill cancer cells. You can drink these teas in a tonic (I like Four Sigmatic brand) or take them in a supplement blend.
- Garlic has antiviral, anti-microbial, and anti-tumor capabilities. I use it as part of my candida protocols to kill yeast. It only works if it’s not heated, so you need to eat it raw or take a supplement that hasn’t been heat processed.
- Coconut oil has anti-viral properties and is great to cook with, or melt together with dark chocolate to make an energy and immune boosting truffle snack. Here’s my post on coconut oil’s benefits.
How to Prevent Illness: Supplements
Please read this post that I wrote specifically about how to protect yourself against viruses. It has my complete anti-viral protocol. Here’s what I am specifically taking to protect myself fro the twindemic and what I recommend to prevent illness:
- I take this multi to cover nutritional bases
- Vitamin D. You want levels at least 40, and more optimally 60.
- Melatonin before bed. Very powerful antioxidant. Read my post on it here.
- This electrolyte mix that contains vitamin C and quercetin (which has anti-viral properties). I drink it daily.
- This throat spray is a must-have for any cold and flu season! Use at the first sign of tickle or respiratory illness.
How to Prevent Illness: Lifestyle
People are indoors in close contact in the winter, breathing heated indoor air that dehydrates mucus membranes, preventing the body from effectively defending against infection. Your mucous membranes (lining your nose, mouth, gut) are your first lines of defense against viruses transmitted via aerosol droplets (like COVID). You can help keep mucous membranes moist and healthy by getting plenty of vitamin A & zinc. Liver is your best source for both-in-one. Also consider a humidifier if you live in a dry climate. You can add essential oils that may naturally disinfect the air. Thieves oil is a good one.
The science is in: masks work to prevent COVID. This recent article summarized the evidence on masks: “…the science supports using masks, with recent studies suggesting that they could save lives in different ways: research shows that they cut down the chances of both transmitting and catching the coronavirus, and some studies hint that masks might reduce the severity of infection if people do contract the disease.” So wear your masks if you’ll be around groups in public.
Wash hands of course, and clean and disinfect surfaces. We know that in the case of COVID, it spreads mainly via aerosol droplets and doesn’t live on surfaces very long, but it’s never a bad idea to keep things clean and sanitize after you’ve been in a public space. BIG caveat to this is please avoid chemical bleaches and use hand sanitizer as sparingly as you’re able. I use Mrs Meyers and Method cleaning products. Hand sanitizer and harsh cleaning agents destroy your microbiome on your skin and in your gut. And we need those microbes to keep us healthy!
Also remember to keep a safe distance during COVID times. You may prefer to establish a quarantine pod with your close friends and/or family. That means that you all take proper precautions when not together and socialize only within your pod.
The single biggest factor in supporting immune health, hormone balance, healthy weight, detox, and brain health is SLEEP. I talk about sleep a LOT throughout my posts on general health and wellness. You need at least 8 hours of sleep per night. If you are a poor sleeper, meaning you have trouble falling or staying asleep, check out this post and this post. Sleep keeps you young and healthy and is vital for preventing illness and disease.
I also sound like a broken record with stress relief, but stress wears down your immune system and can even impact your digestion. Stress could be emotional, relationship, too much work, junk food diet, poor sleep, and chronic pain. Read how to support yourself through stress here. I highly recommend taking adaptogenic herbs and/or medicinal mushrooms that boost immunity and support adrenals like this blend.
Meditation also gets a nod for both self care and stress relief. Just 5 or 10 minutes in the morning or before bed can really help.
I am a big advocate for sauna, hot and cold plunge, acupuncture, and massage, but we may not have access to such luxuries during a twindemic. Instead, do a digital detox where you unplug from devices for an entire day or half a day. Social media and the internet can be toxic places that cause mental stress. Also make sure to take a walk in the woods or in nature. Forest bathing (read more about that here) also lowers stress hormones! I forest bathe daily no matter the season.
What has helped you prevent illness and stay healthy?
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.