Whether you’re diligent about getting your annual flu shots or choose to tough it out instead, it makes sense to do what you can to boost your immune system naturally when flu season hits. Because even if you do get your flu shot, sometimes the strains the shots protect against aren’t the ones that end up going around, in which case you’ll be glad you had a back-up plan.
Of course, it’s not just the flu that you need to protect against this time of year, and that’s the other benefit of strengthening your immune system—it’ll help you fight off a whole host of nasty winter germs. These are some of my favorite natural immunity boosters to help you stay healthy this winter.
1. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is critically important for our immune system because there is actually a receptor for the vitamin on our immune cells, meaning it really gets them moving [source]! However, it turns out that some of us may be running a little low. A review of studies related to optimum vitamin D levels recommended an increase in daily intake of the vitamin to improve the body’s functions, including the health of your bones and teeth and many other beneficial effects [source].
There are many reasons why we can become deficient, but here are a few: instead of spending our lives outside, we live in houses, work in buildings, and commute by cars where we get zero UVB radiation; we don’t eat the healthy unprocessed foods that our ancestors used to; and we lather ourselves in sunscreen, which blocks the good UVB radiation whenever we do go outside [source].
The list goes on, but what matters is that it’s really important to make sure to get enough vitamin D on a regular basis. Some of us will need to supplement, especially in the winter, because we have a tough time getting enough natural sunlight. Older people, those who have intestinal conditions that cause poor absorption, darker-skinned individuals, and those who are overweight or have had gastric bypass surgery will also be at risk for deficiency and should consider supplementing. A daily vitamin D3 supplement should help you to do just that (and here is an alternative vegetarian source).
Generally, people need around 1,000–2,000 IU per day to get optimized vitamin D levels. There has been a trend to take large doses of vitamins, and that’s not always safe. Because vitamin D is one of the fat-soluble vitamins, when you take too much it can build up in your body and reach toxic levels. It’s a good idea to stay within the generally accepted guidelines unless your doctor prescribes a supplement because a lab test has shown that your blood level is too low [source].
In addition to your supplement, there are many food-related sources of the vitamin that can be seen on the NIH website [source]. It’s always important to eat a healthy diet of fresh, unprocessed foods, lots of greens, and a good variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. That’s the best way to take in all of the nutrients your body needs.
You may have heard how turmeric is an all-around rock star of a spice. It’s warming, immune-boosting, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and antimicrobial [source].
Turmeric does a great job of decreasing inflammation in the body to make it more conducive to healthy, immune-producing microbes. A study showed that piperine (the active component in black pepper) increases the absorption of curcumin (the active component in turmeric) by 2,000% [source].
So when you add turmeric to your soups, stews, eggs, etc., add a couple grinds of black pepper to increase curcumin’s bioavailability. I also love adding turmeric to my smoothies and drinks. Give this latte a try!
Ashwagandha is a warm, heavy, and sweet root that is one of most immune-boosting adaptogens out there! It helps the body adapt to stress without unwanted stimulation [source], and also supports natural sleep cycles by inducing sleep [source] and helping the body to maintain adequate energy levels to calm itself down and sleep restfully [source].
In the daytime, it helps support the immune and musculoskeletal systems, both of which may be negatively impacted by stress. The easiest way to get it in you is to take it as a supplement.
Astragalus is prized as an immunomodulator, meaning it will help to make your immune response more effective without causing it to become overactive (as in allergies). There have been many clinical studies showing how astragalus encourages an increase in immune cell activity, production, and function [source]. Look for it at the Asian market and chuck it into soups like in the recipe below or get the supplement for more regular use.
5. Eat Nature’s Harvest
To stay balanced this winter, focus on foods that are warm, moist, heavy, and even a bit spicy. Good choices are soups, nuts, warm grains, and other high fat, fiber-rich, high protein foods.
If you love root veggies as much as I do, this is your time to gorge on them! Rutabagas, turnips, parsnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets! They’re so delicious, very colorful (so you know you are getting many different nutrients), and easy to prepare. They all do well with the roasting method, which is what I use the most. But you can also try steaming them to make a root veggie mash, adding in some warming winter spices like cinnamon, ginger, and cayenne.
Chicken and Ginger Immunity Soup
This chicken soup is just like your grandma used to make, only better—shiitake mushrooms, ginger, and astragalus root combine to make it a tasty, warming, immunity-boosting brew.
Immunity-Building Chicken and Ginger Soup
- Sea salt
- Black pepper
- Cayenne pepper —add this to each individual bowl as you like
- 2 split chicken breasts —this means bone in, skin on
- 1 3-inch piece ginger, cut into strips
- 6 slices dried astragalus root
- 4 carrots chopped
- 4 celery stalks chopped
- ½ white onion chopped
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 1 large bunch kale leaves and stems chopped separately
- 6 shiitake mushrooms sliced
- 1 cup fresh parsley finely chopped
- 1 cup fresh cilantro finely chopped
- Fill a pot about one-third of the way with filtered water and toss in some sea salt, ground black pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Bring water to a boil.
- Add the split breast (after pulling off the fat and skin--a little left is fine).
- Add the ginger, astragalus root, carrots, celery, onions, garlic, kale stems, and shiitake mushrooms to the soup. Return to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
- Let this cook for about 30 minutes to an hour. When it's almost finished cooking, add the kale leaves and use a fork to shred the chicken.
- Put the chopped parsley and cilantro in the bottom of your serving bowl and ladle the soup over it.
- If you want to add some additional slices of ginger (not too much) and cayenne pepper, you’ll really open up your sinuses for a good, healthy blow.