Flu Season – how can I support my immune system?
It’s that time of the year again. With people coughing and spluttering on the train or bus, unpredictable weather and long dark evenings, it’s no wonder we sometimes succumb to the flu. It puts us out of action for days and makes us feel horrible.
In this article we’ll look at how you can naturally support your immune system to give yourself the best chance of avoiding the flu.
Functional Medicine and Immunity
The onset of winter coincides with plenty of messages urging us to have a jab if we wish to avoid getting sick with the flu. While there’s a place for vaccinations in certain circumstances, Functional Medicine practitioners prefer to ensure the immune system is in tip top health so it can naturally flight off bacteria and viruses. It’s not the normal state of affairs in any body to succumb to infection so we shouldn’t assume it’s a natural effect of the colder seasons.
So the flu can be looked at in a similar way to any other imbalance in the body. If something is adversely affecting the functioning of the immune system, dietary and lifestyle measures can be adopted to put them right.
What is the flu?
It’s useful to be clear about what we mean by the flu. It’s caused by the influenza virus, and typical symptoms include chills, fever, aches and pains and fatigue. The virus can make you feel quite ill, which is what distinguishes it from a common cold. With the flu, you usually need to go to bed, whereas with a cold, you can normally struggle on. The worst symptoms often don’t last for more than around five days, however, but in some people, secondary bacterial infections can develop.
The flu virus is constantly mutating, so a new strain won’t be recognised by the immune system’s acquired memory. Because it’s caused by a virus, antibiotics are ineffective against the flu.
Our bodies are designed to resist viruses, but to do this the immune system must be functioning well.
How Can I Support my Immune System?
- Get enough vitamin C. This is a water–soluble vitamin which means it can’t be stored in our bodies, so we need a constant supply. It’s likely our requirement for vitamin C is increased when we’re fighting infection, as the immune cells which engulf viruses need it for their functioning. An immune system which is fighting infection will be using up vitamin C more quickly. Vitamin C is easily destroyed by heating, food processing and even by storing food for long periods. Fresh vegetables and fruit are our best supply.
- Support your microbiome. The bacteria which live in your gut interact with your immune system, the majority of which also resides in your intestines. If the gut bacterial balance is disturbed, the immune system will suffer too. In fact, studies have found gut bacteria specifically influence our immune response to the influenza virus.
- Don’t forget vitamin D. It’s estimated one in five of us in the UK are deficient in vitamin D, especially in the winter months when there’s less sunshine around. Our body uses the sun’s rays to manufacture vitamin D. You may need to consider taking a supplement.
- Emphasise Omega 3. This essential fatty acid, which is relatively scarce in many diets, supports the immune system by assisting the functioning of certain white blood cells in the immune system.
- Garlic is particularly beneficial to include in your diet during the flu season. It contains a compound called allicin which is believed to both support the immune system and have a direct antiviral activity.
- Plenty of antioxidants from a rainbow of brightly-coloured fruit and vegetables can reduce inflammation and directly support the immune system by protecting immune cells from damage.
- Avoid sugar. Sugar is believed to depress immunity and can encourage chronic inflammation.
- Manage your stress. Ongoing stress adversely affects a struggling immune system. Try yoga, meditation, exercise or deep breathing.
- Get enough sleep. Insufficient sleep also suppresses the immune system. Your body needs time to repair, and lack of sleep directly reduces the amount of signalling molecules which are produced to direct immune cells.
- Stay hydrated. When the weather is cold outside it can be easy to forget to drink enough liquid. Think soups, broths and herbal teas.
We are all different, so the strategies mentioned above are general guidelines for guarding against the flu.
If your immune system needs a little extra support, a one to one consultation with a Functional Medicine practitioner will assess your nutritional status, lifestyle and unique genetic inheritance in order to provide you with a personalised wellness plan designed to naturally support your own defences against the flu.