It’s cold and flu season again, that time of year when many of us are going to do battle with a bug. In December and January a particularly powerful virus swept through California knocking many of us off our feet for up to 3 weeks. This spring we could be in for more of the same. In fact, every year nearly half the United States population will catch a cold and 40% of us will develop influenza (the flu).
Some of us seem to suffer an endless string of illnesses from November to April while others sail through these rough waters completely unscathed. The degree to which we become sick can also vary from person to person. Expose three people to the same set of germs. One develops pneumonia, one experiences a mild cold and the third won’t be bothered at all. Why is that?
There is little doubt that viruses are responsible for colds and flus. Although western medicine has been unable to effect a cure, alternative health-care practitioners now believe that once you’re exposed to a virus the end result (whether you get sick and how sick you get) will depend upon your body’s ability to defend itself. In other words, the strength of your immune system determines the severity of your cold or flu.
The immune system, more than any other part of the body, dictates your state of health. The bone marrow, spleen, liver, thymus, lymph nodes and white blood cells are its main players, but every part of your body gets into the act to keep your defenses strong.
In seven years of practice I have observed that immune response is influenced more by the quality of diet and the stresses and strains of lifestyle than by any other factor. Put the following four steps together and be one of the few left standing the next time everyone else is dropping like flies.
Step #1: Feed Your Immune System
The standard American diet is overly processed, refined and overcooked. As a result, it lacks many of the nutrients we need to maintain a healthy immune response. For example, vitamins A, C, E, beta-carotene and the mineral zinc, all vital nutrients for a strong defense, are in short supply in the average American’s diet. Low protein intake and deficiencies in essential fatty acids (found in nuts and seeds), B-vitamins and the mineral selenium also contribute to suppressing your immune system. Eating a diet high in “live” foods, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, pure water and a modest amount of animal or vegetable protein is important.
Unfortunately, there are many more factors that suppress immune function than enhance it. One of the most powerful of these is sugar. Each year at Halloween, my daughter eats some of the candy she has collected and each year she catches a cold within 24 hours. This is not, as she would like to believe, a coincidence. Nor is it a coincidence that the cold and flu season follows on the heels of two months of holiday parties and their requisite sugary food intake. Increased consumption of sugar, including “natural” sugars like honey and concentrated fruit sugar as well as the sugars in alcohol, wallops our immune response.
Sugar competes with vitamin C for transport into our white blood cells, weakening the white blood cells’ ability to fight infection. A sugar sweetened soda or piece of cake you nibble at the office party can stun your immune system into inactivity for as long as five hours. Even orange juice, long venerated for its health-giving properties, can be a problem. The concentrated sugar in quarts of this fruit juice consumed during a cold can have the same immune-suppressing effect as eating table sugar right out of the bowl.
Foods that cause difficulty in digestion can also put a stress on your immune response. The digestive and immune systems share a common source of energy and enzyme reserve. Proper food combining frees up a tremendous amount of energy your body can use to defend you. Separate animal proteins (chicken, meat, turkey, fish, eggs, etc.) and starchy foods (breads, pasta, potatoes, rice, etc.), because they do not digest easily together.
Meats and animal products in general are notoriously difficult to digest and should be reduced this time of year. During cold and flu season, try to limit your intake of animal foods to three or four times a week. Poultry is better than red meat, and fish is best of all. Whenever possible, purchase “clean” meats at a health food store. Animal products sold in other stores may contain bacteria, hormones, pesticides and antibiotics that put an extra strain on your immune system.
Non-food additives such as synthetic colors, synthetic sweeteners, flavorings, preservatives and synthetic oils such as margarine can stress your digestive and filtering organs and hamper immune response as well. Do your best to eliminate them from your diet.
Food allergies and sensitivities also seem to have an effect on our tendency to catch a cold or flu. Chronic congestion in mucous membranes is a breeding ground for the viruses that are responsible for upper respiratory infections. Alternative practitioners have linked two of the most common food allergens, wheat and dairy, to increased mucous production. Whether this increase is a direct result of eating these foods or our body’s response to them is debatable, but either way the result is increased susceptibility to viral infection.
During cold and flu season, try reducing or, better yet, eliminating wheat and dairy from your diet. Make a list of all the things you eat on a daily basis that contain wheat, dairy or their derivatives. You’ll be shocked at the amount of this stuff you put into your body.
Step #2: Improve your Elimination
When you ask a medical doctor, “How long can I expect to be sick with this cold?” he or she is likely to say the following: “If you don’t take care of it, it’s going to last seven days. If you do take care of it, it will last a week”!
Although the western medical establishment takes a relatively fatalistic view of colds and flu, many natural health care providers believe that catching a cold is one of the ways the body does its housecleaning. This line of thinking holds that when the body is laboring under the weight of its own debris, or toxins, it will actually attract a virus to create the cleansing effect of a cold or flu. In my observations, the level of toxicity a person carries has a profound effect on the frequency and length of time he or she is sick. Most of my clients who have been through a cleansing process get sick no more than once a year and remain sick for three or four days. Compare this to the seven to 21 days many Americans are down with a bug and the value of internal detoxification becomes clear.
Regular elimination, meaning two to three bowel movements daily, is one of the most powerful indicators of a person’s overall state of health. Pathogenic bacteria and viruses are attracted to standing waste in the body. Years ago, one of the first things a mother would do for a sick child was give him or her a cleansing enema. Like magic, the fever and symptoms would improve almost immediately.
To boost your immunity, put yourself on a good internal detoxification program. After you’ve “cleaned house,” stay away from foods that are clogging and congesting such as white flour products, dairy (especially cheese) and high-fat foods.
Step #3: Manage Your Stress
Have you ever noticed how after a particularly stressful event, such as moving or changing jobs, your resistance is diminished? During stressful times, hormones are released by the body that can shrink the thymus gland, weakening your immune response. The more stress you are under, the greater your chance of viral infection.
In one study, 420 people were rated for stressful occurrences over the course of a year. The group was then exposed to one of five cold viruses and tested for antibodies in 30 days. Ninety percent of those under the greatest amount of stress became infected, as compared to 74% of those under the least stress. In another study of 100 people, those who experienced high levels of anger and tension were four times as likely to develop a viral or bacterial infection as those who did not feel these emotions.
Step #4: Get Enough Rest
Sleep is one nutrient for which there is no replacement. Nor is there a supplement that will make up for a lack of it. The immune system functions best when the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant. This happens when you are relaxed, resting, meditating and especially when you are sleeping. There is a natural ebb and flow of energy in the body’s organs and systems over the course of a day. The immune system gathers strength during the dark hours when we are at rest. When you are ill, the biggest regeneration of viral-damaged cells occurs between midnight and 4:00am.
Most of us require between six and eight hours sleep a day. If you’re not getting this much or if you rely on an alarm to wake you, there is a good chance you are sleep deprived. To make sure you are giving your body the amount of sleep it needs, try going to bed five minutes earlier each night until you are able to wake up before the alarm goes off.
Safeguard Your Health With “Bodyguard” Nutrients
The following nutrients can help you boost your immune function:
Vitamin C. This enhances white blood cell function and increases interferon production (proteins released by white blood cells that fight viruses).
Vitamin A and Zinc. These help strengthen the immune system and speed tissue healing. They kill viruses directly and help heal mucous membranes that get inflamed with a cold. They increase T-cell activity and the function of white blood cells. Along with vitamin C, they activate the thymus gland.
Vitamin E and Selenium. They improve antibody production and response and cell membrane integrity.
Echinacea. This mobilizes the lymph system, the source of much of our immune response. It reduces inflammation anywhere in the body. Use it for short periods of time and don’t use it with HIV or with auto-immune disorders.
Astragalus. This is toning to the immune system. It balances the energy of all the internal organs and combats fatigue by nourishing the adrenal glands. It can be alternated with Echinacea.
B Vitamins. These counteract the effects of stress on the central nervous system, which is essential to the healing process.
Free-form amino acids. The sulfur-containing amino acids, L-cysteine and methionine are free radical trappers. Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant and immune system enhancer. Taurine is used as a shield by white blood cells when they go into battle. Ninety percent of all the taurine in the body is in the white blood cells.
Magnesium. This increases the number of white blood cells, especially T-cells.
Garlic. This possesses strong anti-microbial and antiviral activity. Allicin, the active element in garlic, is deactivated in heat. Garlic should be eaten raw or in deodorized capsule form.