Hello winter, nice to meet you. What’s that you say? We’ve met before? Ah yes, I think I remember. Cold mornings, dark afternoons, muddy backyards, and frosty windshields. How could I forget? Yet I seem to, every year.
Maybe it’s like childbirth? Your brain makes you forget the details, or you’d never go through it again.
Anyway, my point is I’m a summer girl and although winter is not all bad, constant colds, chesty coughs and sinus infections are. Our immunity or lack of, is a complicated thing.
The immune system is made up of a complex combination of cells, organs, specialised fluid and tissues that span every inch of your body including your digestive system and even your skin. Without feeling a thing, your lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes filter fluid and monitor for foreign bodies; macrophages then engulf and destroy them if found. Your spleen produces white blood cells and immune enhancing compounds, while your thymus is busy making T cells to protect you against bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi. All while you sleep or watch Next Top Model.
These amazing processes all work together to form a system that our bodies rely on for survival. Without an immune system we wouldn’t last long.
So be kind to your body in winter, and learn about some of the myths abounding about immunity.
Five myths about immunity
1. ‘If you get sick you have bad immunity’ – Getting sick is okay actually. The real measure of a person’s immunity is how long they take to get over a cold. If you bounce back after a week, that’s fine. But if it progresses on to hacking bronchitis and blocked up sinus infections that’s when you need to help your immune system out. On that note, have you ever met someone who washes down their cigarettes with 5 coffees a day but hasn’t had a cold in decades? I see them in the clinic quite often. They’re usually proud of their track record, but in fact it’s a bad sign. It often means the immune system is so under functioning that it can’t even muster a response to the viruses it comes into contact with. This leaves you more prone to autoimmune diseases and certain cancers. It’s better to have 2-3 sore throats or sniffles that last a few days over the winter. Keeps you immune system in practised.
2. ‘Orange juice and honey drinks help you get better’ – Step away from the orange juice sniffles! People hate to hear that orange juice and honey drinks only hinder your immune system. The truth is that the fructose (sugar) in these things only reduces your white blood cells ability to fight infection. A study (the neutrophilic phagocytosis study out of Loma Linda University, California) showed the effectiveness of neutrophils (our most abundant type of white blood cell) was suppressed after ingestion of sugar. That is, their ability to phagocytose (engulf microbes) was reduced. In this study subjects were given 100gm of sugar and after 5 hours a 50% reduction in neutrophil activity was seen. 50%! That is astounding to me. The suppression continued at a lower level for some time. The types of sugar given were glucose, sucrose, honey, fructose and orange juice. They all had this effect. So although most of us wouldn’t have 100gm of sugar in one sitting, even a much smaller will impede your recovery.
3. ‘But aren’t oranges full of Vitamin C?’ – Yes they do contain Vitamin C, but capsicums (especially the red ones) have 3 times more Vitamin C than oranges, and without the sugar. Broccoli contains twice the amount of Vitamin C, also without the sugar. Go for those instead when you have a cold.
4. ‘Look at my tan, I can’t be Vitamin D deficient’ – half of those working in office jobs become Vitamin D deficient over winter. When you really think about it, how many days do you go from your house to your car to the office to your car to your house again? Never to have the sun bathe your skin. Vitamin D reduces the frequency and severity of colds and flu’s (among many other things) and it’s deficiency rates are starting to reach an epidemic level. Having a tan or darker skin means more melanin in the skin which blocks the action of sunlight on Vitamin D precursors. Basically, the darker your tan or skin colour the longer sun exposure you need to get enough vitamin D. Very fair skinned people also tend to be more vitamin D deficient due to sun avoidance. It’s a fine line to tread between not enough and sun damage. In New Zealand the Ministry of Health is very reluctant to quantify how much sun exposure is required, while in Australia the numbers are helpfully specific. General guidelines are 10 minutes of sunshine mid-morning or afternoon every day during the summer and upping it to 30 minutes around midday during winter. Your arms and shoulders should be bare.
We can’t get enough Vitamin D from food but it all helps. You’ll find it in small amounts in mackerel, herring and sardines, egg yolks and liver (yum!).
5. ‘Nothing will cure a cold’ – this is only partly myth really. It’s true that once you have a cold it’s course will run. But there are some things that have been proven to reduce the frequency, duration and severity of colds. Zinc is probably the best researched. Timing and dosage is critical though. Ideally start at the first sign of a cold and take 15mg’s every 2-3 hours. Be sure to have it with food, and only at this dose for a couple of days, then reduce to a lower maintenance dose of 30mg’s daily. This should see you reduce your cold by 3 days! I employ many herbs and other nutrients depending on person’s specific symptoms. Like so many things quality natural medicine is the key. Hopefully a past experience with a dodgy Echinacea tablet that did nothing hasn’t vowed you off nature’s pharmacy for good.
And of course prevention is the best cure. So don’t eat yourself sick with sugar and fake food. Get back to basics, put your gumboots on and enjoy the muddy backyard.