Effective Everyday Actions to Improve Immunity

Reduce Stress

Close your eyes. Count to ten. Whatever you do, stay calm. Stress can weaken the immune system transiently but significantly. Employ a number of different stress reduction techniques to help you stay healthy and vital:

  • Abdominal breathing
  • Meditation classes
  • Read books focusing on positive thinking
  • Go out for a walk or jog
  • Hang out with people you love and whose company you enjoy
  • Think of something pleasant that makes you happy! Laugh a lot.

Sleep

Even a moderate lack of sleep can put you at greater risk of infection. In one study, adults who consistently had less than 7 hours of sleep per night were three times more likely to experience a respiratory infection. 

Exercise

It can be hard to motivate yourself to exercise, especially in winter, but think about this. Even short bursts of exercise give your immune system a temporary boost.

When 500 adults were tracked for 12 weeks, those who were the most physically active had only half the number of days sick with a respiratory tract infection, compared to those who were not active.

A word of caution

Over-exercise can deplete immunity. Your exercise regime needs to be right for YOU. Moderate exercise is always best.

Ageing

Like most parts of the body, the immune system weakens with age. That is why older people are more susceptible to infections, are more likely to get cancer and other chronic conditions. You can’t stop yourself from growing older but that doesn’t mean you have to just sit there and take it! There is much you can do to improve immunity and slow down the ageing process with herbs, nutrition and lifestyle choices.

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Peace of Mind and Your Breathing

How many times when things get out of control in your life has someone told you to take a deep breath? Well, it is good advice. When we are under stress, feeling anxious or angry, we tend to have short and shallow breathing, which only increases the muscle tension and limits our oxygen intake. This is one reason why in stressful situations, we tend to make poor decisions or have accidents as our breathing prevents our brain from getting enough oxygen to function at its best.

One of the breathing techniques that can help you relax, release anger and tension is also called diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing. It involves breathing from the abdomen, by fully filling your lungs with air on inhale and then fully emptying it out on exhale.

You can practice it by following these steps:

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent to remove strain from your lower back.
  • If you are doing it the first time, place your hand on the center of your abdomen below your chest. Inhale slowly through your nose. While inhaling, your chest should rise lightly and your abdomen should expand and rise, making the hand on your abdomen slightly higher than your chest. This means you have drawn enough air into your lungs.
  • Exhale slowly through your mouth by entirely emptying your lungs and let your abdomen fall.
  • Repeat this breathing pattern a few times and focus on your breath and technique.

If you have trouble falling asleep, practice this technique before your bed time.

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Flu Tea

This tea is a fantastic remedy when taken at the first signs of infection, expecially if you are experiencing mild chills and/or fever.

Place the following ingredients into a mug:

  1. Juice of 1 lemon
  2. 1 teaspoon of finely chopped or grated fresh ginger or ¼ teaspoon dried ginger
  3. A pinch of chili powder or a little chopped fresh chili
  4. 1-2 cloves of garlic crushed or finely chopped
  5. 1-2 teaspoons honey (if desired)

Pour over boiling water and let infuse, covered, for about 10 minutes. Rug up, stay warm and enjoy this delicious brew. It will encourage a mild fever and induce sweating. Fever is one of the body’s first defences against infection and assisting this process will often result in a quick resolution of the symptoms.

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Immunity 101

Getting sick with any type of infection, be it a cold or a stomach bug can be very disruptive in our busy lives. Many people seem to be ‘lucky’ and rarely get sick whilst others seem to be sick frequently, catching anything that is going around. Why the difference? It’s all about our immune system…

Why is The Immune System so Important?

The human immune system is an amazing, complex mechanism that works 24/7, yet mostly we don’t notice its hard work. It is extremely complex and we are still discovering new aspects of immunity almost on a daily basis.

We all know that our immune system helps protect us from infection but it does much more. It also helps protect us against damage from free radicals and cancer. A healthy immune system is also important for wound healing. There is emerging evidence that the immune system is involved in depression, ageing, obesity, metabolic syndrome and a number of other chronic diseases.

So What is the Immune System?

To keep it simple we can say it is primarily made up of two parts – innate immunity and acquired (or cellular) immunity. Innate immunity is our first line of defence against infections and comprises many different types of immune cells, all with different functions. In order for acquired immunity to work well, innate immunity must be working efficiently. The cells of innate immunity also function as our first line of defence against cancer cells. One of our most important immune herbs (Echinacea) works, at least in part, by enhancing innate immunity when it is deficient. This makes Echinacea one of our most important immune herbs.

Acquired immunity is exactly what its name implies, it is acquired in response to specific infections. For example, when we come into contact with an infection our body develops antibodies against that specific infection. Once the infection has passed, the levels of these antibodies reduce but the body retains a ‘memory’, so that next time we are exposed to the same infection the levels of these antibodies increase quickly and we fight the infection much quicker than when we were first exposed to it. In many cases the immune system is so efficient we will not even know we have been infected.

Unfortunately, things can sometimes go wrong. When different aspects of the immune system are not in balance there is a risk of allergies and autoimmune diseases developing in susceptible people. Many chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis are caused by an imbalance or dysfunction of the immune system. As in case of infection, these conditions are also well treated and/or managed with natural medicines.

So, you can see how important it is to keep your immune system healthy. Not only to keep you free from winter infections but also to prevent more serious, chronic health issues.

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Herbs and Nutrients for Optimal Immune Function

Overall good nutrition is essential for general well-being, including a healthy immune system. However there are a number of herbs and nutrients that stand out for their role in supporting immunity.

Until relatively recently we thought that the role of vitamin D was limited to ensuring healthy, strong bones. However, we now know that it has many, more diverse functions including protection from some cancers. It also plays a vital role in immunity and helps protect against autoimmune diseases.

Vitamin D is hard to get through the diet. We rely predominately on sunlight on the skin, which initiates the production of vitamin D from cholesterol. Even in very sunny climates, such as Queensland, vitamin D deficiency is very common.

Vitamin C appears to protect against infection and can reduce many symptoms of colds such as runny nose, sore throat and improves recovery from an infection.

An essential mineral, zinc is vital for an efficient immune system and is often deficient in our diet.

A number of B Complex vitamins are also important, as is sufficient protein. Many of the infection fighting cells in the body, such as antibodies, are made from protein. So a diet deficient in protein can lead to reduced immunity.

Out of all the immune herbs I use in my clinic, Echinacea is probably the most important. One of my colleagues describes Echinacea as immune ‘insurance’ because it is so good at priming the immune system so that it is ready to fight invading infection. So, it is best taken as a preventative and if an infection does occur the immune system is more efficient at fighting it.

Echinacea has been used in Western herbal medicine since the late 19th century, when the Native Americans introduced it to the early settlers. In their culture it was considered to be “a remedy for more ailments than any other plant”. One of their prime uses for Echinacea was for the prevention and treatment of any type of infection.

There are two species of Echinacea used in herbal medicine, Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea purpurea, and it is the roots of these plants that appear to have the strongest effect on the immune system. The Native Americans told the early settlers, “When chewed the root, if of good quality, imparts a persistent tingling sensation.” We now know from modern science that this tingling is caused by the major active constituents called alkylamides, and it is indeed an instant indication of strength.

There are a number of studies showing that Echinacea is effective for both preventing and treating respiratory tract infections. Most people will also have heard of studies showing that Echinacea is not helpful – these are the ones that get the most publicity in the mass media. However, many of these studies were done before we had a good understanding about how the constituents work and on close inspection we see that many studies used Echinacea products that contain NO alkylamides. It is not surprising that it did not work!! So, what this tells us is that Echinacea has to be of high quality and prescribed in the correct dosage to have its immune enhancing activity.

Andrographis is another wonderful herb that is very effective in supporting immunity. It is traditionally used in the ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic systems of medicine.  There are a number of clinical studies showing its effectiveness in treating respiratory tract infections, particularly common cold and tonsillitis, including in children.

Holy Basil is a beautifully fragrant herb from the Ayurvedic tradition of medicine. It is considered as sacred and is often grown at the entrance to houses and temples. Clinical trials support its use in respiratory tract infections, including in children.

Pelargonium is a native of South Africa and was introduced to Europe by Charles Henry Sevens, an Englishman who experienced relief from tuberculosis whilst visiting South Africa in 1897. There are many clinical studies supporting its use for the treatment of many tupes of respiratory infections including acute and chronic bronchitis, common cold, sinusitis and tonsillitis including in children.

Other herbs that are very effective include Cat’s Claw which improves immunity and Elder Berries that have an anti-viral activity.

It is important to use the correct combination of herbs at the appropriate dosage. This varies between individuals depending on the state of their immunity and the symptoms they experience. The treatment also often changes during the course of treatment as symptoms change.

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Treat Flu Symptoms

If you have a cold or flu infection you need to take precautions that will prevent its spread and reduce its severity and duration.

  • Speak to your healthcare practitioner at the very earliest signs of an infection. If you begin taking the appropriate herbs and nutrients immediately, you can often prevent the infection from taking hold.
  • Wash your hands frequently throughout the day with soap and warm water.
  • Always cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough.
  • Avoid close contact with other people as much as possible and avoid crowded places.
  • Take time off, rest and stay warm. This gives the immune system a good chance to deal with the infection quickly and efficiently.
  • Include in your meals nutritious foods and plenty of fluids. Homemade soups with plenty of vegetables, ginger and garlic are great. They are very nutritious but do not take lots of energy to digest, leaving more energy for the immune system to do its job.
  • Avoid cold drinks and foods, fatty foods and foods containing sugar and artificial additives.
  • Excessive dairy foods may increase mucus production.

If you feel feverish make a cup of Flu Tea, rug up and sweat it out. You can repeat this as often as needed until the feverish symptoms have passed. A hot bath can also help to induce sweating.

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Natural Strategies for Dealing with PMS

Premenstrual syndrome is very common. According to research, 75% of menstruating women experience some symptoms of PMS that can range from physical to emotional, and mild to severe. PMS physical symptoms include breast tenderness, bloating, water retention, sugar cravings, headaches and lack of energy. Emotionally, women can go through mood swings, feeling easily irritated, frustrated and not being able to cope.

The major cause of PMS is hormonal imbalance, particularly during the last half of the menstrual cycle (the luteal phase). These imbalances can be quite subtle but can have profound effects. Some researchers suggest PMS may also result from a woman’s increased sensitivity to natural fluctuations in hormone levels at this time of the menstrual cycle. It is interesting that the most common times of emotional difficulties for women are at times in their lives when hormonal fluctuations occur, for example in the premenstrual time, after giving the birth and around the menopausal years.

Women also need to be aware of a severe form of PMS called Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), even though it is considered to be less common and affects only 3% to 8% of women with regular menstrual cycle. PMDD is distinguished from general PMS by more acute signs of depression, moodiness, anxiety, tension and irritability. This form of PMS can be quite disruptive and destructive to women’s lives in general and relationships in particular.

Battling PMS Symptoms Conventionally

Unfortunately not many women know how to deal with these issues or are not even aware that there are natural solutions that can relieve the PMS symptoms and help them ‘sail through’ this time of the cycle without feeling miserable. Medically PMS is usually managed with hormone therapy or antidepressants. These are effective in some cases but both treatments can have side effects and neither address the underlying cause of the PMS.

Dealing with PMS Naturally: The Power of Herbs and Nutrients

Natural treatment with herbs and nutrients is another option that is very effective, without the side effects of drug treatments. For example, Chaste Tree is a fantastic herb, quite commonly used for PMS treatment. In some trials, Chaste Tree was shown to help regulate hormones. According to research Chaste Tree has a beneficial affect on brain neurotransmitters, which in turn regulate hormones. These neurotransmitters are also linked to the feelings of pleasure and reward. During PMS this function can be reduced, which can result in reduced motivation, attention, memory, desire, ability to cope and increased anxiety.

Remember, to be effective, Chaste Tree needs to be prescribed in right doses, tailored to the individual requirements. More so, Chaste Tree on its own is often not enough. It is also important to treat the symptoms throughout the whole cycle (before, during and after PMS). It is most likely that to achieve the desired results, we usually combine Chaste Tree with other herbs that are needed to nourish the nervous system and improve your body’s response to stress, reduce mood fluctuations and help you deal with water retention and bloating.

Nutrients are just as vital and are usually a necessary part of the treatment process. As an example, Zinc levels often drop in premenstrual times and this alone can reduce your immunity. This could explain why some women are more prone to various infections in the premenstrual time: from colds and flus to herpes flare-ups. Magnesium is another key nutrient as it helps balance neurotransmitters and hormones. B complex vitamins, calcium and vitamin C are also necessary to improve the nervous system and adrenal function.

Eat Well

Do not skip breakfast and eat regular meals with healthy snacks in between, as this will help prevent your blood sugar dropping, hence lessen the cravings. Avoid refined sugars, an excessive amount of starchy carbohydrates and saturated fat as well as processed foods. Include more lean protein in your diet such as chicken breast, turkey, fish and avoid having red meat more than twice a week. For healthy fats e.g. Omega 3 enjoy salmon (grilled or baked) coupled with vegetables. Make fresh fruits and vegetables a daily must-have. For example, bananas are full of potassium, known to alleviate PMS symptoms. Combine it with vitamin B rich nuts and you will have a tasty and nutritious snack. Drink plenty of water, as it will help lessen bloating and ease water retention. Don’t think that by drinking less water you will ease bloating.

Sleep Longer for Feeling Better

Many people underestimate the importance of sleep. Sleep helps us restore our nervous system, improve hormonal balance, maintain healthy weight and ultimately improve longevity. Get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Make it a priority throughout the whole cycle. Exercise for energy. Research suggests that regular aerobic activity throughout the cycle can reduce the symptoms of PMS such as bloating, fatigue and irritability at the premenstrual times. Exercising releases endorphins, which means you will feel happier and energetic afterwards. If you are experiencing a severe form of PMS (or menstruation), take a milder form of aerobic activity e.g. walking or easy jogging. Several yoga poses are considered to be particularly beneficial in relieving the cramps and helping you adapt better to stress and anxiety.

Apart from getting the right herbal prescription and adjusting your lifestyle habits, what else can you do to cope better and reduce stress premenstrually?

PMS usually intensifies the feelings you already have. During PMS women often don’t feel supported or validated. My advice would be to think through the things that you find particularly stressful during PMS and try to improve the situation or address it beforehand. Here is a good example: women tend to overload their schedules and ‘squeezing things’ in already tight agendas. If that sounds familiar, learn to say ‘No’ and don’t make any hasty promises if your schedule is already full, particularly if the additional activities coincide with your premenstrual time. BE GENTLE WITH YOURSELF.

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