When it comes to staying healthy during winter, I believe in prevention first. By prevention I don’t mean vaccines and screening tests. I believe in cultivating true health from the inside out by adopting healthy habits such as proper diet and exercise, an enjoyable family and social life, and a personal spiritual practice.
Yet, even healthy people sometimes get sick. And with cold and flu season upon us, I want to share some of the best ways I know to stay healthy naturally and some natural ways you can treat symptoms so you can recover quickly if you do get sick.
10 Ways to Avoid Getting Sick This Winter
- Keep your gut healthy. In the winter, it can be tempting to load up on comfort foods. And I’m all for nourishing yourself emotionally, but it’s important not to forget healthy eating habits altogether. Remember, 80 percent of your immune system is in your gut microbiome. The best way to improve your microbiome is through your diet. So, continue eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables this winter, including lots of dark leafy greens, berries, onions, and raw garlic. You may also want to add fermented foods that contain probiotics and prebiotics. This is an easy way to seed your gut with beneficial bacteria. Plus, adding spices such as ginger, cumin, turmeric, oregano, and cinnamon to your food can help to improve your digestion, and they have the added benefit of boosting your immune system because they have antibacterial properties. When you want to indulge in rich foods, try high-quality dairy, nuts and seeds, organic meats and fatty fish, and healthy fats.
- Take Vitamin D. Getting your vitamin D levels in optimal range (between 50 and 100 ng/mL) can help prevent disease, including seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.), multiple sclerosis, and even breast cancer! In the winter, it can be hard to get enough sunlight for your body to create vitamin D. So, ask your health care practitioner to order a 25-hydroxy vitamin D to determine your levels. Or better yet, go to Grassrootshealth.net and order a home test kit. (You don’t need a doctor’s prescription.) If you have low vitamin D, take 5,000 IU per day of a high-quality vitamin D supplement, and continue to monitor your levels. Remember, it’s still important to get as much natural light as you can. This will help you maintain a positive attitude, which will help boost your immune system.
- Wash your hands. Washing your hands is the easiest way to prevent colds and flu and to keep from spreading them. The proper way to wash your hands is to rub them together for at least 30 seconds with hot water and plain old soap. Be sure to get the backs of your hands, in between your fingers, and under your nails. Then dry your hands thoroughly. Don’t go overboard with the antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer, and don’t allow yourself to get all “germ obsessed.” When your immune system is healthy, it will protect you.
- Take a multivitamin mineral supplement. In addition to taking vitamin D, a good multivitamin mineral supplement can help boost your immune system and keep you feeling good. Be sure to look for a high-quality supplement that contains vitamins A and C, along with the minerals zinc and selenium and the amino acid L-carnitine. Glutathione is an important immune-enhancing antioxidant that has been shown to help support your liver, the organ primarily responsible for detox in your body. Turmeric is a great free radical scavenger and does double duty to improve joint and cardiovascular health. If you are under stress, you may want to add an adaptogen, such as ashwagandha, to your supplement routine. And don’t forget to take enough magnesium. Remember, vitamins are not magic bullets, but they can help support your body when used properly. Take the supplements that feel right for your body, and remember that what is right for you now may change, so trust your intuition.
- Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep is important for your brain and every organ in your body. When I feel like I am getting sick, sleep is my number one remedy because it allows my body to repair. As the days get shorter, take your cue from the sun and go to bed earlier. (You can benefit from doing this even if you are not feeling sick.) Limit caffeine, avoid alcohol, and turn off the television, computer, and phone at least 1 hour before going to bed. Here are some more ways to get a good night’s sleep.
- Clean your cell phone. Cell phones, computers, and other surfaces you touch frequently can harbor bacteria and viruses, such as rhinoviruses, for up to 48 hours! You can easily clean your phone with an antibacterial microfiber cloth and spray cleanser suited for your device. Also, don’t use other people’s devices if you can avoid it.
- Keep your sinuses moist. Dry air can cause dry sinuses, and this can certainly be uncomfortable. Keeping your nasal passages moist can help prevent symptoms such as pain and nose bleeds and can even help prevent colds. An easy way to keep your sinuses moist and healthy is to use a saline nasal wash every day. You can buy saline nasal rinses and sprays such as NeilMed Sinus Rinse or Xlear Nasal Spray over the counter. Or you can use a neti pot and make you own saline solution with Himalayan neti salt and warm water. Another way to keep your sinuses healthy this winter is to use humidifiers to keep the air in your environment moist.
- Move your body. Regular exercise strengthens your immune system. It also makes you feel good. If the winter months make you less likely to get outside for exercise, try doing an indoor workout. There are so many at-home workouts that you can do without owning any gym equipment. Just look on YouTube or other websites for inspiration and routines. You can also try group exercise classes, which not only will keep you moving but will help you stay connected to others and is another great way to strengthen your immune system.
- Take a sauna. Saunas have many health benefits, and some studies show that regular saunas can reduce your chance of getting a cold by 30 percent. In addition, infrared saunas have even been shown to help prevent a cold from getting worse. One of the reasons is that a sauna-induced fever may stimulate the immune system to increase production of white blood cells and antibodies.
- Exhale. This is not science but common sense. If you see someone coughing and sneezing around you, don’t inhale. Try to slowly exhale until you are well out of range of the possible contaminants—about 10 feet.
Natural Ways to Speed Recovery If You Get Sick
When I get a cold or the flu, it’s usually because I’ve been overdoing things and not getting enough quality sleep. The first thing I do if I become sleep deprived is to allow my body the time to recover. In addition to getting much-needed rest, I like to use the remedies I can find in my kitchen rather than take medicines if I don’t really need to. And you can, too. For example, the B.R.A.T. (bananas, rice, apple sauce, toast) diet is good if you are recovering from an upset stomach or diarrhea. And adding spices to your food can help ease nasal congestion. These are just a couple of ways you can feel better faster.
Here are 9 more easy ways you can recover naturally from common winter ailments:
- Try Homeopathy. Homeopathic remedies work with your body to help it heal on a deep, energetic level. For colds and flu-like symptoms, try oscillococcinum. This works whether or not you have been officially diagnosed with the flu to relieve some of the worst symptoms, including fever, congestion, sore throat, and body aches. You can find oscillococcinum at Whole Foods and many drugstores. I also recommend having a homeopathic emergency kit on hand. You can find these online at www.a2zhomeopathy.com. Usually, the 30C kit is all you need.
- Load up on vitamin C. Vitamin C can do wonders to help you recover from a virus. In fact, IV vitamin C was once used to treat polio, which it cured in some cases. I keep 1,000 mg capsules of ascorbic acid in my home at all times and take it the minute I feel a sore throat or runny nose coming on. I recommend taking 1,000–2,000 mg every hour or so until you reach what is called “bowel tolerance.” At this point, you begin to have loose stools, which means your body is saturated with vitamin C. The amount of vitamin C it takes to get to this point varies.
- Try echinacea. Echinacea (purple coneflower) has been used for centuries, and studies show it can reduce the duration of a cold. In addition, echinacea may help prevent the common cold.
- Drink tea. Drinking green tea throughout the day can boost immune function. Add lemon to help thin mucus and honey to soothe a sore throat and fight bacteria that cause infection. Elderberry tea (or elderberry extract in water) is high in antioxidants and can help fight flu symptoms and shorten the duration by several days. If you don’t have any tea or elderberry, you can simply boil some pure water, add a little grated ginger, and take “hot sips” regularly throughout the day.
- Eat mushrooms. . Mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for centuries to treat a variety of illnesses, maintain health, and prevent disease. Mushrooms are a true superfood. They are prebiotic, so they can improve your microbiome. In addition, mushrooms are a great source of vitamin D. And certain mushrooms are high in antioxidants, such as ergothioneine and glutathione. Some of the best mushrooms to add to your diet to boost immunity include porcini, golden oyster and oyster, pioppini, lion’s mane, maitake, and shiitake. But adding just about any edible mushrooms to your diet can help improve your health.
- Sip soup. Chicken soup is not only good for the soul, but it can also be good for your body. Chicken soup contains an amino acid (L-cysteine) that can ease bronchial symptoms much like acetylcysteine, a drug used to treat bronchitis, asthma, and other lung diseases. It also contains electrolytes and other nutrients.
- Gargle with salt. Gargling with salt can ease your sore throat and may actually kill viruses and bacteria in your throat.
- Do nothing. There are times when you should not treat symptoms. For example, fevers can clear your body of viruses and bacteria. If you have a fever under 102°F, avoid the urge to treat it. You may be uncomfortable for a day or two, but allowing your body to work the way it was designed is often the best thing. Plus, many women will treat a fever then go about their day as they normally would. Avoid doing this! Your body needs rest to recover from illness.
- Take a nitric oxide supplement. Nitric oxide is the miracle gas molecule that affects nearly every organ and system in your body, and some studies show that nitric oxide may play an important anti-inflammatory and antiviral role in preventing colds and improving cold symptoms. For example, one study indicated that higher levels of nitric oxide are associated with fewer cold symptoms and more rapid clearance of viral infections.
Supplements to Prevent and Treat COVID-19
In addition to everything I have mentioned above, there are some specific ways you can protect your immune system to help prevent COVID-19 infection.
As I have already mentioned, optimal vitamin D levels can help prevent acute respiratory infections. This includes both influenza and COVID-19. One possible way vitamin D strengthens the immune system is by regulating cytokine production.
Keeping a healthy gut microbiome is also an important factor in preventing COVID-19 infection as well as other illnesses. A less-than-optimal gut microbiome is associated with proinflammatory cytokines that could predispose you to severe COVID-19. The good news is your gut microbiome responds quickly to what you feed it. So, changing your diet to support your gut microbiome is an easy way to improve your immunity and stave off COVID-19 and other infections. Taking a high-quality probiotic is also a good way to improve your gut microbiome.
Zinc deficiency has been associated with more severe COVID-19 illness. Zinc deficiency can be caused by malnutrition, chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, and even some medications that increase the body’s loss of zinc, such as diuretics. Taking a zinc supplement alone or in combination with a zinc ionophore (such as hydroxychloroquine) has been proven effective in both preventing and treating COVID-19, especially in the early stages. Some experts do not recommend long-term use of zinc supplements because too-high doses over a long period of time can cause copper deficiency and subsequent hematologic and neurologic issues. However, zinc supplements and nasal sprays containing 50 mg of zinc are safe for daily use, especially if you feel a cold coming on. I like Vimergy liquid zinc. I take a small amount daily and more if I am coming down with a cold. You can also get adequate levels of zinc by eating meat, shellfish, chicken, nuts, and lentils.
Another supplement that is instrumental in helping to fight off coronavirus infections is quercetin. Quercetin is a flavonoid that has antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties. There is a large body of research showing that quercetin can help fight obesity, type 2 diabetes, circulatory dysfunction, chronic inflammation, high blood pressure, and mood disorders. It has also been found to trigger tumor regression and begin the process of apoptosis. In 2003, when the SARS epidemic broke out, research showed quercetin provided broad-spectrum protection against the SARS coronavirus. In June 2020, a study showed that quercetin interfered in multiple steps of pathogen virulence, virus entry, virus replication, and protein assembly and recommended its use against SARS-CoV-2, in combination with vitamin C because of their synergistic effects. You can take 500 mg of quercetin twice per day. Supplementing with vitamin C will enhance the effect.
Finally, melatonin is shown to help support immune function and prevent severe COVID-19 infection. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland. Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic reported that patients who were taking melatonin had a nearly 30 percent lower likelihood of testing positive for COVID-19 after adjusting for age, race, smoking history, and various disease comorbidities; the likelihood of testing positive for the virus increased from 30 to 52 percent for African Americans who took the supplement. The usual dose is 0.5–3 mg taken 1 hour prior to bedtime. However, some doctors recommend 3–6 mg. Children should not take melatonin.
How do you stay healthy in winter?