Those Autumn Winds: Supporting Your Immune System

My last cold had me flat on my back for three days, hacking for seven, and speechless with varying degrees of laryngitis for six.  Of course, my last cold was in December of 2009 – so I really shouldn’t complain.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I can go a good year or two before a cold virus will hit me with a wallop.  Most folks will muddle through a cold every three or four months (and if you don’t believe that I’m knocking real hard on some wood right now – guess again!).

Besides good luck and good genes, my good health boils down to my being vigilant.  Not hyper-vigilant, but reasonable.  Especially this time of year.  As the days grow shorter and the weather turns cool we’re apt to spend more time with others indoors. And as we all learned in school, the virus responsible for the common cold is spread through airborne respiratory droplets.  It can remain alive on hard surfaces like countertops and desks for hours.  In other words our comfortable, centrally heated homes are more like oversized Petri dishes.

Ok.  I’m exaggerating.  But only just.

But factor in environments outside of our control like schools, offices and shops it’s a wonder we’re not all walking contagion zones, all red-nosed and dripping.

So what keeps us healthy? Hazmat suits?  Nope. It’s our ever-faithful immune system.

We usually don’t think about our immune system until something goes wrong. But consider this:  We run for cardiovascular health, lift weights to support our skeletal system and eat right to keep things running smoothly in our gastrointestinal tract.  What do we do to support our immune system?

Show Your Immune System Some Love:

Times are tough.  We want to stay healthy without breaking the bank along the way. But how do I figure out what my immune system needs without spending too much money on herbs and supplements?

My approach is to keep things as simple as possible. There are plenty of reasons why the immune system becomes compromised.  My first job, therefore, before I load up on supplements and herbal remedies, is to determine if my lifestyle is putting my immunity in jeopardy. If I want my immune system to defend me against pathogens, then I have to defend my immune system.  To stay healthy I begin with the tried and true – the stuff we’re reminded of each year around this time:

  1. I remember to wash my hands.  Up to 80% of infectious diseases like colds and flu are transmitted by touch. Simple hand washing with warm, soapy water is enough to rid our skin of viruses and bacteria picked up from computer keyboards, the cell phone or doorknobs.  If soap and water are not available an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is effective provided it is at least 60% alcohol.
  2. I do my best to get a good night’s sleep.  Burning the candle at both ends has never worked for me.  My goal each night is seven hours of quality sleep.  To achieve that, I turn off the television, lower the lights, and trade the temptation of Facebook for a soothing story (from a real book with pages!).
  3. I try to reduce stress levels.  I know.  You don’t have to tell me:  easier said than done.  Our spirits cannot match the pace of the 21st century.  But increased stress reduces our body’s ability to produce white blood cells.  And white blood cells fight infection.  So close your eyes and take a few deep yogic breaths.
  4. I watch my diet.  I have a confession to make.  Until recently I didn’t cook.  Most of my meals came from the community refrigerator otherwise known as Whole Foods.  Even then, and more so now that I am meal planning, I read labels.  I look for foods low in sugar.  I purchase locally grown and organic food when possible. And I try to eat seasonally. As we move into autumn my diet is shifting from green salads to roasted root vegetables, soups and stews.  Oh, and I make a point of staying well hydrated by drinking plenty of fresh water and green tea.
  5. I accentuate the positive.  We all know there’s a mind/body connection.  While it’s not always possible to eliminate the negative, research has shown that our immune system functions much better when we are happy and optimistic.

Is That a Tickle I Feel or is That Virus Just Happy to See Me?

Just because I don’t catch too many colds doesn’t mean I’m not prone to the occasional sore throat. As a full-time teacher, I talk.  Incessantly. So when a virus settles on me, it settles in my throat. My throat is the gateway to any pathogen looking for a place to roost.  But the very moment I even suspect a tickle I pull out all the stops to knock that pesky bug flat before it has a chance to do the same to me.  This is what I do:

  1. Salt Water Gargle:  Yes, Virginia, it does work.  A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine enlisted 400 healthy volunteers.  For two months a percentage of subjects gargled with salt water three times per day.  At the end of the study it was determined that those who gargled had a 40% decrease in upper respiratory tract infections.  Furthermore, if they did become ill the salt-water gargle appeared to reduce the intensity of symptoms.  So there.
  2. Echinacea and Zinc Lozenges: My favorite three-dollar roll of lozenges is my go-to product even if there’s a chance the tickle I feel is a figment of my imagination.  I think the jury on Echinacea will always be out – some of us swear by it, some of us swear at it. There is, however, a bit of backbone in the evidence reporting the efficacy of zinc.  Studies indicate that zinc may help reduce the duration and severity of a cold.  The key is to take the lozenges within twenty-four hours of the onset of symptoms.  Like I said at the start, vigilance is key.
  3. Neti Pot or Saline Nasal Irrigation:  Remember when you were little and got “a nose full” at the local pool?  That’s what using a neti pot feels like.  I find it useful at the first sign of a cold as well as toward the end, when my nasal passageway feels done in.  It’s an acquired practice, though. There are folks who swear by their “daily flush.”  I, however, limit its use. Is daily colonic irrigation a good idea?  Probably not.  I rest my case.

The Perfect Storm – When Optimistic Hand Washing isn’t Enough:

At some point, unfortunately, it’s bound to happen.  There’s a deadline at work and a virus making the rounds at your child’s pre-school.  The stress is overwhelming; you’re not paying attention.  You didn’t notice the tickle.  You missed your window of opportunity.  Too bad, because within a day or two it’s not a tickle, it’s a cold. And you’re flat on your back.  What do you do?  Let’s begin with what not to do:

  1. Don’t “push through it.”  It’s not fair to your co-workers and family and it’s not fair to you.  During my last cold I curled up on the couch for three days and watched “ER.” The Clooney years.
  2. Don’t ask for antibiotics unless a doctor diagnoses a bacterial infection.  Remember – a virus causes colds.  Not bacterial.  Why take antibiotics if they’re unnecessary?
  3. But don’t avoid the doctor because you think, “it’s just a cold”.  If your symptoms worsen, if there’s a fever, or even if you just don’t feel “right” – see your doctor.

And in the meantime take plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest.

The Bottom Line:

Everyone has their own solution for supporting the immune system and fighting colds.  To prove my point, I asked three people what they could not do without when struggling with low immunity and illness.

Patty, a nurse in Texas said, “2000 milligrams of Vitamin C in powder form. I also mix ¼ cup Apple Cider Vinegar with 8 ounces of grape juice and take that daily.”  She told me this routine clears sinuses and relieves head colds.  “I also take Vitamin C regularly as part of my routine.”

Sudeepto, a solar physicist in California told me,  “Rest, steam and hot tea with Tulsi, ginger, lime and honey.”  Tulsi – also known as Holy Basil but not to be confused with Thai Basil – is a medicinal herb used in Ayervedic medicine.

Finally David, a medical herbalist in County Donegal, Ireland shared this:  “My three herbs for a strong immune system are Reishi, ginseng and Echinacea. Along with its general ability to strengthen the immune system, Reishi relieves chronic sinusitis. I believe it helps prevent the common cold and flu. I choose Reishi when ginseng is contraindicated – for instance in people who are hypertensive or anxious. In general, however, ginseng is excellent in cases of fatigue and low immune systems. Finally, Echinacea stimulates immunity but does not build immunity.  It’s like the gas pedal on your car.  It only has an effect if there is gas in the engine.  But it’s terrific at stopping infections at their initial stages and good at clearing infections.”

The real bottom line?  There is no cure for the common cold.  It’s a virus that we can do our best to avoid or wait for it’s to run its course if it finds us.  There are, as we’ve seen, lifestyle choices and commercial products that will boost our immune system and alleviate symptoms.  It will take a little exploration, but I’m certain you will find the ones that work for you.

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A version of this blog post originally appeared in Yoga Living Magazine

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