By Jean Maxwell
Winter CAN be fun…holidays, spending time with family and friends, big meals, parties, gifts, decorations…and, depending on where you live, snow, sledding, skiing, snowboarding, and lots more!
BUT winter can also be rough (depending on where you live). It can be really cold, lots of snow and ice, shoveling, difficult driving, dangerous roads, high power bills, etc.
What irks you most about winter?
Well, I’ll tell you what I hate the most about winter…getting sick…the FLU or a COLD. Missing work, laying around feeling miserable with no energy, getting others in my family sick (OR getting sick because they’re sick!), passing colds around the house, etc.
We’ve all been there – stuffy nose, chest congestion, headaches, nausea – all the side effects of the cold and flu viruses that run rampant this time of year.
You remember the misery that hit you sometime around January, don’t you, when you were hunkered on the couch with a blanket and a box of tissues, watching countless Walking Dead reruns?
Don’t you wish you knew better ways to fight those nasty bugs than just getting a vaccine that may or may not work?
Aside from putting yourself or your children in quarantine and not touching anything ever, both of which are basically impossible, you CAN reduce your risk of contracting an illness this winter.
How, you ask?
Eating the right foods to strengthen your immune system and lower inflammation can greatly improve your chances of staying germ-free during the winter (or anytime).
READ ON to find out what these foods are and how to include them in your diet.
The Gut-Immunity Connection
Did you know that 80% of your body’s immune tissue dwells in the intestinal tract?
Areas called Peyer’s Patches, located in the small intestine, are responsible for producing the body’s immune tissues and building up antigens (molecules that attack diseases and other invaders).
Peyer’s patches also help regulate the populations of gut flora, or the bacteria that live in the digestive tract, by keeping the balance between the helpful bacteria and those that can cause sickness.
There are billions of bacteria in the body, all of which play important roles. Those that live in the gut are no exception. These organisms, also called commensal flora or probiotics, do everything from helping with waste elimination (yes, poop) to releasing anti-inflammatory compounds. They also keep the intestinal contents from leaking out, and they even eat the bad bacteria!
Without the proper balance of these good guys, along with a poor environment for them to grow and thrive, a host of health problems can arise. Inflammation, which can occur simply from everyday stress (but also poor dietary habits), releases hormones that suppress the immune system and prevent your body from using nutrients properly (Wu and Wu, 2012).
Consequences of Imbalances in Gut Flora
When a person’s diet is not up to par, the flora do not have a good environment in which to live.
If your house was filthy and all your food was rotten, would you be happy?
Same rule applies here. Since these bacteria eat the byproducts of what you eat, they cannot be healthy if your diet isn’t.
This brings to mind the term symbiosis – where two organisms work together to create benefits for both of them. We give the bacteria the food they need, and in turn, they protect us!
There’s a great deal of research on the connections between diet, gut health, and disease. Among the health conditions implicated in poor gut health are obesity, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. There’s even a theory that behavioral disorders like ADHD are linked to the “leaky gut” that can arise from gut flora imbalance (Wu and Wu, 2012).
Functional Foods for Gut Health
There are a number of foods you can eat to help maintain gut health, strengthen your immune system, and reduce inflammation.
The good news is that you don’t need any fancy, expensive designer foods — these are all whole foods that can be purchased at any grocery store! This makes feeding your family healthy food very convenient and simple.
Try to eat at least ONE serving of each of these foods DAILY for maximum benefits.
These are foods that actually contain living, active cultures of the same beneficial bacteria that live in your digestive tract.
Examples include yogurt (don’t worry if you’re lactose-intolerant; there are dairy-free versions, too!), kefir (a liquid version of yogurt) dill pickles, tempeh, sauerkraut, miso soup, soft cheeses like brie, kimchi, and kombucha (a popular tea drink that you can brew yourself or buy in bottles in the produce section).
These foods should be eaten to help provide a rich environment inside your body for the probiotic organisms to grow.
These include garlic, onions, asparagus, bananas, and wheat bran. Also, foods containing prebiotics also generally provide probiotics.
(Source for 1 & 2: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2015)
Fiber assists the gut flora with keeping food waste moving smoothly through the digestive tract. A diet low in fiber can not only cause constipation, but also lead to disorders like diverticulitis and irritable bowel syndrome.
Virtually all fruits and vegetables, as well as oats and other whole grains, contain dietary fiber, and 25-40 grams per day is recommended.
The main nutrient responsible for protecting the immune system is zinc.
The best sources are beans, oats, oysters, chicken, turkey, crab meat, and nuts. Other foods great for boosting immunity are garlic, onions, mushrooms, and raw honey (National Institutes of Health, 2016).
Omega-3 fatty acids are a key nutrient in keeping inflammation down.
Good sources are salmon, tuna, walnuts, flaxseed, hemp seeds, and olive oil. Leafy greens, berries, turmeric (the yellow spice found in curry powder), and green tea also have powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
Here’s an example to give you an idea of how to include these foods daily:
Breakfast – Oatmeal with walnuts and sliced banana; green tea with lemon
Snack – Greek yogurt with berries
Lunch – Grilled chicken over a large salad with onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, mushrooms, and a balsamic/olive oil dressing.
Dinner – Salmon with asparagus and a baked sweet potato
Furthermore, supplementing your meals with good probiotic supplement is an extra layer of protection this winter.
When your immune system is weakened, it’s like you’re opening the door for invading bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Not only that, but you’re going to feel run down, tired, and weak. Perfect Biotics has been designed to ensure that you maintain the ideal ratio of 85% good bacteria and 15% bad bacteria in your gut so that your immune system is running at top speed.
As you’ve just read, protecting yourself and your loved ones against the cold and flu this winter can be as simple as making just a few dietary changes and taking a good probiotic.
A healthy family means fewer sick days missed from school and work, fewer missed holiday gatherings, and a happy home!
Here’s to a happy winter!
Jean Maxwell is the owner of MaxWell Nutrition, LLC, a nutrition consulting company. She received her Master’s Degree in Nutrition from East Carolina University in 2007 and has been a dietitian for 10 years. Additionally, Jean has been a vegetarian for nearly 20 years and loves making vegetarian dishes for friends and family to show them how delicious it can be! She has a particular interest in gut health because she was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) as an adolescent, which led her to improve her diet to better control the condition, and she was amazed at how simple it was! This was also a major reason that she become a dietitian – she wanted to help others live better by improving their nutrition.
1) Wu, E., and Wu, HJ (2012). The role of microbiota in immune homeostasis and autoimmunity. Gut Microbes 3 (1): 4-14.
2) Academy for Nutrition and Dietietics. Prebiotics and Probiotics: Creating a Healthier You. Retrieved 14 October 2016 from http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/vitamins-and-supplements/nutrient-rich-foods/prebiotics-and-probiotics-the-dynamic-duo
3) National Institutes of Health. Zinc: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Retrieved 14 October 2016 from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/