Nutrition, Exercise, Mindfulness and Sleep
With winter upon us, there’s no better time to start thinking of ways we can ward off sickness and boost our immunity. A recent survey conducted by the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) of 1,500 Canadians revealed that more than half (54 per cent) of Canadians get sick most often in the winter. The same survey also showed that the vast majority (91 per cent) of Canadians believe their overall health impacts their level of happiness.
CHFA has established four pillars to help you explore natural ways to boost your immunity and keep your immune system in fighting shape.
By focusing on these pillars, you can help your immune system to be vigilant against invading bugs and keep yourself in tip-top shape this winter and beyond. The four pillars are:
- Mindfulness; and,
Pillar 1: Nutrition
Getting proper nutrition is important all year-round, but especially during cold and flu season when our immune systems are working overtime. That’s why it’s essential to eat a balanced diet rich in healthy and organic whole foods as much as possible, and to supplement with NHPs when necessary.
Our immune system consists of organs, tissues and millions of cells throughout the body that, together, create a protective network. These cells rely on a healthy diet for proper functioning and can become underprepared if we do not provide the basic building blocks they need to do their job. Lack of proper nutrition has been linked to decreased immunity and increased risk of illness.
Our immune system not only depends on macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrates and fat to build antibodies, we also need micronutrients like folic acid, vitamins A, C, E, B6, and minerals including copper, zinc, selenium and iron. This diverse collection of nutrients helps the body to identify invaders, break them down and dispose them.
The survey showed that 46 per cent of Canadians still turn to vitamin C supplementation to help get through the cold and flu season. And that’s a smart move, since vitamin C has been shown to reduce the length and severity of a cold. It’s also been shown to improve your overall mood after an illness. While most people choose oranges for their vitamin C fix, there are other seasonal choices that are a great source of vitamin C, such as kale, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts.
However, with our hectic, grab-and-go lifestyles, we know it can be hard to get all the nutrients we need from our diet alone, which is why taking a supplement may be a good option. Unfortunately, despite being universally recommended as a supplement, only 37 per cent of survey respondents reported taking vitamin D to keep them healthy during the cold and flu season.
Here are a few other foods and NHPs you may want to consider to improve your immune health:
- Nuts: Include nuts in your diet, which provide you with a perfect blend of immune-boosting nutrients, including protein, vitamin E, zinc and selenium. Cashews and pecans in particular are some of the higher nut-based zinc sources, while Brazil nuts are high in selenium.
- Kimchi: This fermented cabbage dish from Korea is rich in vitamins C and E, carotenoids, and antioxidant enzymes. It’s also a healthy whole-food source of probiotics, the good gut bacteria that keep your immune system in check.
- Garlic: This member of the allium family has been shown to reduce cold symptoms and improve immune cell activity. Over a third of Canadians (37 per cent) reported eating garlic to stay happy and healthy during cold and flu season.
- Probiotic supplements: Lactobacillus probiotics in particular have been shown to improve the immune systems of both our gut and our entire body.
- Mushrooms: Reishi mushroom extracts contain bioactive compounds called “lectins” that increase the activity of our white blood cells.
This NHP Week, visit your local CHFA Member health food store to find nutritious, local and organic foods, and NHPs to bolster your immune health.
Pillar 2: Exercise
Almost half of Canadians (40 per cent) turn to exercise to improve their well-being when under the weather. Our bodies were designed to move. Modern life may not allow us to stay active all day, but even a little bit of exercise can go a long way in boosting your immunity. Engaging in 30 to 60 minutes of daily, moderate exercise can actually improve your body’s immune response.
Research suggests that exercise can protect your immune system from certain illnesses by flushing out bacteria from your lungs and airways, improving circulation, causing mild fluctuations in body temperature to fight infection and releasing stress-reducing endorphins. In fact, a recent study found that daily brisk walks can cut your number of sick days by more than half, so get a quick break in during your workday and get outside!
To improve exercise and immune health, consider the following NHPs:
- Krill oil: When coupled with exercise, krill oil supplementation can help increase white blood cell production, which helps sustain immune function.
- Protein: Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), the building blocks of protein, help improve muscle recovery after exercise and improve immune cell growth and development.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D supplementation in athletes has been shown to limit infections. So if you’re engaging in winter sports this season, consider vitamin D supplementation for immune health and overall well-being.
- Echinacea: This herbal supplement has been shown to improve the immune function of high-intensity or endurance athletes, such as marathoners, triathletes. It can also decrease the number of chest colds you may experience.
It all works together: your immune system is one big puzzle, with each piece working with the others to create a strong immune defence to keep invaders out. Exercise is often overlooked, yet an important part of maintaining a healthy immune system.
Pillar 3: Mindfulness
It’s easy to feel the physical effects of stress when life throws you off course. Stress can lead to restlessness, lack of sleep, poor diet and anxiety, all of which can have serious implications on our health and happiness.
When asked, “What factors negatively impact your general health and happiness?”, more than half of Canadians reported stress and a lack of mindfulness (57 per cent).
In fact, stress can have a number of negative impacts on the immune system. Stress caused by brief pressures (such as exams or year-end deadlines at the office) can suppress the part of the immune system responsible for killing and breaking down invading pathogens. However, chronic stress (such as workplace or family pressures) can suppress the entire immune system, including the part that helps our body identify nasty bacteria or viruses. This stress increases the cortisol levels in your system, which makes you not only more susceptible to becoming sick, but also more likely to make others sick by spreading cold and flu viruses for longer.
A growing trend to de-stress is practising mindfulness. There’s research connecting the benefits of stress reduction through practising mindfulness with the health of our immune system. Practising mindfulness has a number of positive impacts on the immune system, including reducing inflammation markers and stress hormones, and has also been shown to increase some immune cells and improve activity in the areas of the brain responsible for co-ordinating the immune system.
Incorporating mindfulness into your lifestyle can actually help to minimize the occurrence, length and severity of the flu or common cold. Some aspects of mindfulness can be simple to include in your everyday routine, such as paying attention to your breathing, tuning into your body’s physical sensations and practising mindful meditation.
There are also NHPs that can also help manage stress, including:
- Valerian: This root is available as an herbal tea and supplement. It is commonly used for its sedative and anxiety-reducing effects.
- Omega-3s: Fish oil supplementation has also been shown to reduce stress symptoms.
- Probiotics: A large volume of evidence supports the view that the immune system is a key communication pathway between the gut and brain, which plays an important role in stress-related behaviours. The microbial content of the gut plays a key role in immune development.
Taking note of your need to be present in the moment is always important, but it turns out that being mindful also works as a defence during cold and flu season. This NHP Week, try exercising mindfulness to help keep your stress levels down and your immunity up.
Pillar 4: Sleep
They say you should always get your beauty rest, but sleep is far more important than just skin deep. When asked, “What do you do to improve your well-being when you are feeling under the weather?”, 76 per cent of Canadians reported sleep as their number-one answer.
In response to the question, “What factors negatively impact your general health and happiness?”, once again, sleep tops the list with three-quarters (73 per cent) saying that lack of sleep negatively impacts their general health and happiness.
While we still do not have a definite answer to the question of why we sleep, the past 15 years of evidence has grown stronger in showing that sleep plays a critical role in enhancing our immune defences and that our immune system may actually be correlated with our sleep patterns. For example, getting insufficient sleep has been linked to obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular problems. In fact, sleep deprivation can impact the activity of our immune cells, making it difficult for your body to identify and fight cold and flu bugs. Yet many of us are not getting enough. The percentage of adults who sleep less than six hours per night is currently greater than at any other time on record.
A lack of sleep can also affect your diet. Sleep deprivation alters “hunger” hormones (leptin) and increases the desire to indulge on sugary and salty foods, which can negatively impact the careful nutrient balance needed for a healthy immune system.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it can be very difficult to get enough sleep with work deadlines looming and other worries on your mind. Here are a few natural remedies to help you get better sleep in order to support a healthy immune system:
- Vitamin D: Those with lower levels of vitamin D were found to have shorter sleep duration. If you fall into this category, you might want to talk to your health care practitioner about vitamin D supplementation, especially during the colder months, to help promote longer, healthy sleep durations.
- Magnesium: This mineral has been shown tocalm the nervous system, induce relaxation, reduce blood pressure, and even increases energy during the day —all important factors when trying to get some rest.
- L-theanine: This amino acid found in green tea promotes relaxation and better sleep by reducing anxiety that might be keeping you up at night.
- Melatonin: This nerve hormone is well known in the natural health world for increasing total sleep time and reducing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.
Your body responds to lack of sleep in a similar way as it does to acute stress, and in some studies it only took one sleepless night to see negative implications. If you’re having trouble winding down at night, visit your local CHFA Member health food store during NHP Week to find the natural remedies listed above and many more.