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How to Boost Your Immune System During the Winter

Nov 18 2022
By Laura Roe Stevens
9 min read
Man meditating surrounded by plants.

Following these five easy-to-do tips and incorporating them into your daily life can provide additional protection during winter.

A healthy lifestyle has many benefits—from preventing heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes—to lowering your risk for chronic illness and depression. This is because a healthy way of life boosts your body’s ability to ward off, or fight off, infection and inflammation. Vibrant health is best supported with tools to optimize our immune system. Finding simple, natural ways to augment your well-being can be a boon to functioning and performing at a high level in all aspects of life. But “performance” isn't just about athletics. Whether your role is taking care of a family, running a small business, working for a large corporation, or maybe you’re retired and trying to actively perform in life, a healthy immune system is vital.

Below are five easy ways to naturally strengthen your immune system that may provide additional protection during stressful moments that are challenging and times when your daily responsibilities will require more from you.

1. Get Adequate Sleep

Experts say we need seven to nine hours of sleep nightly for optimal health. Research shows that chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to a decline in metabolic health that contributes to weight gain. Chronic sleep deprivation has severe effects, putting us at risk for heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, depression, mood disorders, impaired cognitive function, and reactivity that can make us accident-prone.

How does sleep help us? As you sleep, your brain works as a biochemical factory, churning out antioxidants, growth hormones, melatonin, DHEA, and testosterone. According to Krisna Hanks, MS, MBA, a Health and Performance Coach at Canyon Ranch Tucson, sleep restores your body’s complex chemical balances, repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, and, as mentioned, strengthens your immune system.

Krisna’s Tips for Better Sleep:

  • Turn off devices one to two hours before bedtime.
  • Darken lighting in the evening to increase melatonin levels.
  • Eat evening meals two to three hours before bed to allow ample digestion time and better sleep hygiene.
  • Relax in the evening: put on music, light candles, take a bath, read, or watch something uplifting, and limit stressful or rigorous activities.
  • During the day, exercise and try to get outside, even for short periods.

Related Article: Sleep and Your Health

Related Experience: Mastering Sleep: An Immersion Retreat with Dr. Michael Grandner

2. Reduce Inflammatory Foods

Did you know that 70 percent of your immune system resides in your gut's microbiome? That means much of your health is within your control, says Melissa Sundermann, DO, DiplABLM, Lifestyle Medicine Physician at Canyon Ranch Lenox.

“Try to limit refined, processed sugars, as they wreak havoc on our immune systems. One of the best things you can do is add fiber to your diet. Fresh fruits and vegetables are prebiotics that help create the short-term fatty acids that we need,” advises Dr. Sundermann. Amber Letourneau, RN, BSN, is an experienced nutritionist at Canyon Ranch Lenox who agrees with Dr. Sundermann, adding the importance of also incorporating probiotics into your diet—especially during the winter holidays when you’ll likely be eating more refined sugar.

“Probiotics actually add the good microbes into your gut, creating more balance in the biome. There are many opportunities to add delicious probiotic foods into your diet,” advises Amber. Her favorites? Fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, pickles, kombucha, kimchee, fermented vegetables, and sauerkraut. Cocoa is also a fermented product! “Try to use raw cocoa powder with no additional sugars to it,” she says.

Related Articles:
Fermented Foods: Nutritional Superheroes
Favorite Healthy Winter Foods

Related Experience: Optimal Health Pathway

3. Exercise: Not too much or too little

Exercise may be the most significant way to lengthen your life and enhance your well-being and sense of joy. Experts advise finding a sweet spot with moderate amounts of exercise to not over-exhaust the body with daily strenuous workouts. On the other hand, it’s important to move every day. Our experts say to aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical exercise (walking counts!) each week, as well as two days of muscle strengthening.

“We all know anecdotally that regular physical activity boosts our mood, enhances our musculoskeletal system, supports better sleep patterns, and provides opportunities to grow and enrich our lives. There is, however, a caution to the tale, which is of the chronic exerciser who does not allow their body to properly recuperate,” reminds Krisna.

Related Article: Your Brain on Exercise

4. Prioritize Mindfulness and Time to Rest and Restore

Americans are busy. We work long hours. We race from activities to events. And we vacation less than almost all other cultures. Without periods of mindful rest, chronic stress builds in the body—keeping stress hormones like cortisol at a high level. Increased amounts of fight-or-flight hormones trigger inflammation, which is at the root of chronic disease. Experts say this hormonal imbalance also activates areas of your brain known for reactivity, anxiety, and poor focus. And chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, that area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Incorporating mindful breaks into your daily routine may lower your risk for chronic disease and dementia.

Here are our experts’ tips for mini-stress breaks:

  • Mediate daily, even if for five minutes.
  • Allow ample time between intense activities.
  • Practice simple breathing techniques to reduce anxiety.
  • Walk outside.
  • Look at old photos that make you smile.
  • Plan a vacation.
  • Take a personal day.
  • Have tea and catch up with a positive friend.
  • Get a massage.
  • Take a bath.
  • Set a boundary: say no to a draining request of your time.
  • Listen to inspiring music (and maybe dance!)
  • Go to a yoga class or do 10-15 minutes of stretching at home.
  • Find time to create something: paint, draw, mold clay, sew, etc.
  • Journal.
  • Read a good book.

Related Article: Meditate for Better Health

5. Spend Time Outdoors

Have you noticed that when you are walking or hiking in a beautiful, natural setting, you feel more optimistic and better about life? There is science behind this. “We now know that being in nature is truly good for us. Movement outdoors allows us to get necessary vitamin D from sunshine, and relaxing in a natural setting, lowers stress hormones. Now we know that moving within natural settings actually increases our body’s natural killer cells that are a key to fighting cancer,” explains Dr. Sundermann.

"It’s intuitive, but we now know, through studies of participants in Shinrin-yoku, that people’s natural killer cells, the ones that banish viruses, increase from time in nature,” she says, referring to recent Japanese studies about forest bathing. In multiple studies, after participants "bathed" in the forest—a meditative experience that is offered at Canyon Ranch Woodside, California retreat—they were discovered to have a 50 percent increase of natural killer cells within 24 hours. The best part? Just 10 minutes or less in nature, surrounded by trees, gives you this result, making it extremely beneficial to your health.

Even on cold winter days when you are working long hours, or it gets dark earlier, try to take a 5-minute walk in your neighborhood or around your office to experience a boost in energy and frame of mind. Need other ideas?

  • Meet up with a friend in a park.
  • Go outside (weather permitting) for your morning coffee.
  • Get a pet that needs regular outdoor attention.
  • Take up gardening, if you don’t have a yard, join a community garden.
  • Join a hiking group.

Remember, any efforts you start today will inspire you to do more. Taking care of your immune system as much as possible is not a luxury but a necessity, says Krisna. “Focus on what you can do, not what you cannot.”

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