Natural ways to support the immune system this winter

I don’t know about you, but I am really ready for spring. I miss the feel of sunshine on my skin, this winter’s snow has ruined too many of my good shoes that were just too young to die, and I think if I hear the word “vortex” one more time I might cry. Plus, it seems that at this time of year, every other person is either sick or recovering from a horrendous cold or virus.

While we can't change the seasons, there are a few things we can do to naturally build our immunity. In that vein, I thought I would share some ideas on how to boost our body's defenses through the final stretch of winter:

Get your lymphatic system moving

Our lymphatic system, which is essential to supporting immune function, does not have its own pump as our cardiovascular system does. Hence, it relies on our physical movement to function effectively. No/low movement = sluggish lymphatic system = underperforming immune system. Moreover, from the perspective of Chinese medicine, a lack of exercise can result in what is called low protective energy (or qi), as sufficient movement is essential to building the defenses needed to protect our body from disease. On terribly cold days, I resort to exercising at home with this program, which is pretty cool.

Another way to stimulate the lymphatic system is through dry-brushing the skin daily before showering (I will post something about this soon).

Don’t fight nature’s cycles

Winter is a time when nature slows down and retreats; it is a perfect period for inwardness, contemplation, and self-care. At this time of year, it is best to emulate the sun’s winter cycles by getting to bed early and rising later. Extra effort should be invested into decreasing unnecessary stress, which is linked to increases in the common cold and other viruses (plus a plethora of other more serious ailments). In Chinese medicine, stress and anxiety is thought to deplete one's protective qi.

To the best of your ability, try to use the last few weeks of winter as an opportunity to find balance and regroup. As always, nature is often our best teacher.

Check your diet

Enjoy whole foods which have not been denatured and are full of nutrients that boost the body’s defenses. Processed foods as well as refined sugars must be avoided as they are depleting. An excess of salt has a tendency of "working against the qi's outer defense of the body", and should therefore be avoided in most cases (Pitchford, 2002).

Helpful foods to include in your diet at this time of year are are broccoli, turnips, parsnips, garlic, lemon juice, grapefruit, carrots, turmeric and ginger.

If you find you are beginning to feel under the weather…

...cut out dairy, animal protein, sweets and excess salt until you recover from your cold as these foods can be mucous and acid-forming. Instead, a predominantly liquid, plant-based diet is more healing (think soups full of fresh vegetables and whole grains).

Your external environment is important

Chinese healing philosophies tell us that maintaining a neat, serene environment is essential to support our immunity (our outside environment often reflects our inward state). Sunlight and fresh air are also key, so make sure to open those windows on days that the weather is tolerable to allow the air to circulate.

Also,  at this time of year when everything outside looks gray and blah, I like to play make-believe and create a spring-like ambience in my home with lots of gorgeous flowers to keep my spirits high. Right now, I have three vases of beautiful blooms in the living room alone.

And of course, maintaining a healthy routine year-round and sticking to a clean, wholesome diet is always the body's first line of defense against disease.