I won’t lie. I’m the worst Canadian ever. I’ve acclimatized so excellently to my new home in Australia, that the short mild winters of the subtropics have become a trial to endure. It’s ridiculous. I know it. But in all fairness- it gets pretty darn cold! Especially at night, and in the houses that were built with that hearty “she’ll be right” attitude. My beautiful old house has no fireplace, no insulation, just drafty hard wood floors and windows that have trouble shutting properly. *Le sigh*
So what is winter good for? For remembering things like jeans and woolen coats and for craddling cups of tea like your whole body could soak up the heat radiating from the little vessel in your hand. Below is a bit of a winter survival guide, for those of us who don’t come alive in the cool (there are those of us out there who do), who feel diminished in their energy and who maybe need a bit of support staving off colds and flus which can get us when we’re down.
Vitamin D- Vitamin D isn’t actually a vitamin, but a hormone, which we produce in our skin from exposure to sunlight- and to a lesser extent from specific foods. In the past, there was this notion that we got enough vitamin D from our daily activities. Unfortunately, our daily activities have changed somewhat since we stopped spending most of our days living and working out doors, and well… wearing clothes. Also, the recent change in our ozone and the suns quality has made many of us avoid the sun all together, wearing hats and protective clothing, and sunscreen all the time. Vitamin D is a major player in our immune health, and long ago, it was believed that if you got skin cancer- from too much sun exposure- you were protected from other often more deadly cancers because your vitamin D status was so good. And while we don’t want to trade one for the other (we know some skin cancers are extremely deadly) it has been found that vitamin D status is linked to many kinds of cancer, specifically bowel and breast, and other auto immune conditions such as MS. Vitamin D deficiency hasn’t been taken seriously, and with up to an estimated 58% of australians apparently lacking, we need to take note. There are acutally so many things Vitamin D is important for- I’ll do an entire blog devoted to the subject later… however in the case of winter time reduced sunlight exposure, change in the angle/direction of the suns rays effecting absorption of UV light, and our extra layers of clothes and hiding indoors- we need a boost to keep our immune systems primed. If you’d like to try to get it the old fashioned way- it is believed that around 15 mins of exposure, in the middle of the day, while NOT burning is ideal- trying to expose as much of your body as possible. Now, if lying around in your bikini in 5 degree weather isn’t your thing you can try Cod Liver oil- a source of vitamin D -and Vitamin A as well as omega 3 fatty acids, OR a vitamin D supplement. Most on the market these days are vitamin D3 or cholecalciferol- the active form of vitamin D. 1000 ius (international units) is generally considered safe and many of the trials done showing the benefit of the vitamin have been done with this dose. A vitamin D test can be helpful establishing if you’re deficient, and then your doctor or naturopath can recommend a dose specific to you. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, meaning it stores in your fat tissue, so making sure you aren’t taking in too much is also important. Having your levels tested can make sure you aren’t over dosing. 1000-3000 ius is generally safe for the run of the mill inside living, clothes wearer. I back off or reduce dosing in the summer months. Also kids need a specific dose and for this it’s best to consult your practitioner.
These are substances with protective effects on the body- by stabalizing free radicals and toxins, and supporting the immune system so that it an do it’s job more efficiently. The two winter favourites to keep colds at bay are Zinc and Vitamin C. Out of the 2, I rate Zinc the highest- as it’s often tricker to get from the diet (main sources include organ meats, oysters, pumpkin seeds and whole grains) and I have found it excellent in practice- both keeping colds away and in acute treatment. There are a few zinc supplements out there which have both vitamin c and zinc in them- and these are often a good way to go so you are getting the two. I usually take double the recommended dose in acute infections, just for a few days- to really make sure you get a good hit. Take the doses a few hours apart for better absorption and longer action. I do take zinc regularly through the winter, though I avoid taking Vitamin C as a regular supplement and prefer to get it from my diet. Diet is always the best way to get your antioxidants.
There are so many amazing herbs for building immunity and also for the help in treating individual symptoms- it’s crazy. To really sing their praises I’d need to write an entire book- but here is just a taster in the meantime. You can take immune boosting herbs in a lower dose daily through winter to prevent a cold or flu. Think of it as a natural “flu shot” – your own strong natural immunity is your best defence. Up the dose if you feel like something is coming on- or get in touch with your practitioner:
Echinacea- Echinacea is usually best used as a preventative and in the first stages of cold or flu. If you aren’t taking it daily through winter in your tonic mixes- try it that first day you feel a little off, or the first tickle in your throat. That’s when Echinacea shines. It is also has an action on the lymphatic system and is ideal if you are someone who suffers from tonsillitis. Good quality Echinacea should give your mouth a tingling sensation after taking it in a liquid tincture.
here’s a picture of my little lady a couple of years ago in our garden- Echinacea produces the most beautiful flowers. While you can use the flowers and leaf as a tea, it’s the root that holds the greatest immune powers.
Andrographis– Known as the “King of Bitters” it certainly doesn’t play around in the flavour department. It’s the herb that makes the immune mix truly intense tasting and is worth a warning. But that said- it is one great herb for the cold that has gotten a hold on you. Almost every single immune support mix I make has this doozy in it. (Mwahahahaha!)
Olive Leaf- I often combine Olive leaf with Andrographis and/or Echinacea for prevention or treatment in colds and flus- and I know there are a lot of great fresh leaf liquid extracts on the market that people swear by as a preventative tonic throughout the winter months.
Elder Berry- Elder berry is a fantastic herb for the head cold. I love using it when there is sinus congestion, a general rotten-ness all over, maybe even a slight temperature. It’s also great for children, and there are a few on the market in liquid and powder form which taste great.
Garlic- Garlic is an amazing herb for the immune system. It’s the allicin which we are after, the part of the garlic which is activated during the crushing. It’s not a herb that keeps it’s immune protective characteristics well when it’s made in to a tablet, so be wary- and perhaps get the advice of a naturopath on which tablets are right for you if that’s what you’re using it for. This link can also give you more information on Garlic and choosing the right supplement. Otherwise, make a super strong hummus or pesto, garlic butter on toast, or crush it and add it at the end of a meal to your soup/stew or whatever you are eating. It is excellent for ear infections and head colds, and as funny as it sounds, try this home remedy:
-Chose a smallish garlic clove, about the size of an ear plug
-Peel a clove garlic by removing the papery outer layer
-Slice gently into it with your nail or a knife so that you’ve made a cut, enough for the oil to seep out slightly-squeeze the bulb slightly to bruise it.
-Put in the infected ear so it’s sticking out like a plug. Be careful of course not to insert it too deeply- it should be sticking out of the ear and only just inside the first bit of the canal- don’t go getting it stuck in there or piercing the ear drum- ok?! This is a great way to get a local antibiotic effect for mild ear ache, and it really works. Try it- you’ll be surprised that in 10 mins you’ll have a garlic taste in your mouth, it goes through your whole head!
Propolis– A resin made by bees to decontaminate themselves before entering the hive, it’s strongly antimicrobial, and excellent for the throat. 1 or 2 mls diluted in water, enough to gargle and then swallow, 3-4 times per day.
Medicinal Mushrooms- Common names for some include Turkey tail, Shitake, Caterpillar mushroom, Reiishi, zhu ling and fu ling. A real favourite of mine these days there are quite a few ways to get these immune boosting powerhouses- capsules, powders and liquids- quite a few different companies are making great formulations. They are amazing, with the benefits too numerous to list here- but I use them in practice for people recovering major infections such as Ross River fever, chronic fatigue, to support people with cancer or in recovering from chemo and even in the humble common cold. Especially good for kids who are prone to getting sick, and chronic/on going lurking infections of the sinus or chest. Talk to your practitioner about the supplement best for you. Kids usually take a very small dose and in powder or liquid and so it’s easy to hide them in drinks and foods.
Healthy Gut Flora-
If you want a great way to improve your immunity- improve you gut flora. Not only is a healthy gut the first line of defence in our immune system- but secondarily-a healthy gut is more likely to absorb nutrients and expel wastes efficiently which is only going to support overall health and a robust immune system. There are a few strains of bacteria which are clincally proven to improve immunity- and they’ll be marketed as such- but good quality, potent probiotics are all beneficial and should be part of your overall health routine. If you do end up needing a course of antibiotics- remember to take your probiotic supplement along side to keep the gut environment stable, and reduce side effects, as well as taking them after to recolonize the gut flora and support recovery.
Winter is the season where I can’t help but abandon a lot of raw foods, smoothies and juices. Not entirely- but the emphasis changes. It’s the time of year that I feel like cooked food is good for me, and I love the slow cooked soups and stews, bone broths and roasts.
I’ve already gone on about the virtues of bone broths – and winter is a perfect time to employ their medicinal actions. By nourishing the gut we are nourishing our immune system. The beneficial bacteria in our gut flourish and the integrity of the mucous membranes is strengthened. There’s a reason chicken soup is known for curative powers… and that is STOCK. Some sources say a good chicken stock needs the feet in it… which I’ve yet to try. Stock needs to made from scratch- no cubes or tetra packs allowed. It must be thick like jelly and smooth like velvet in your soup of choice. Always use organic, or free range/chemical free and grass fed animals for your stock.
Miso is something to consider adding to your broth as a well, a dark miso is appropriate for the cold, and macrobiotics and other systems of eastern medicine the salty quality is considered yang, which is balancing to the body when confronted by cold. Chicken soup with miso and shitakes is a favourite of mine. Lots of green veggies added at the end, and I love to add Arame seaweed too. Stir in cooked quinoa for added texture and protein.
People are often going on about drinking orange juice for a cold- which I suppose is because of the vitamin C content. It’s pretty much a standard home treatment. I would suggest though- that instead of orange juice- which is both cold and sweet – two things which are not suitable for the sick body- that you go instead for the hot lemon. You can put a spoon of honey in it to taste, and even better is also adding a bit of ginger, which will mobilize circulation and also warm you. Finely chop the ginger and put in the tea pot with the juice of a lemon- pour in the boiling water and let sit for 10 mins under your tea cozy- or alternatively bringing a sauce pan to simmer and let the ginger simmer there for 10 mins, then pour the tea in and add the lemon juice or just drop in the half a lemon whole. Honey to taste. Perfect!
A word on analgesics/anti-inflammatories/cold & flu medications–
When working in pharmacy- I try very hard to persuade people when they come in for cold and flu medications to avoid excessive use and instead work at supporting their immune system to get over the infection. I’m not suggesting that we all be heroes and suffer through our pains… if you don’t want to feel bad or have been feeling bad for long enough and just want a good nights rest- I’ll forgive you. But what you are doing is suppressing the symptoms of the infection- not fighting the infection itself. This means, you are stopping the processes the body has in place to get over the acute phase, and in my experience, using analgesics usually prolongs the duration of the cold. Parents who give their kid medications at the first sign of a temp- are going to have a sick kid for longer, and maybe even more frequently – as the immune system, I believe, hasn’t had a chance to develop, be strong and robust. Also, whenever we mobilze our immune systems due to low grade infections like colds- we are also attending to other, maybe more sinister matters. That white blood cell that is disbatched to deal with your rhinitis, might become alerted that there’s some rogue or unusal cellular growth happening and deal with those as well while they are on a roll… that’s something you can console yourself with next time you’re in bed with a flu… maybe you’re getting stronger and healthier by going through this process- if you support it correctly- maybe it’s like a good clean out.
*** I will note that I also use homeopathy regularly and with great success treating colds and flus – but to keep this piece brief I’ve decided instead to devote an entire blog to a homeopathic winter first aid in the near future. Stay tuned. xxx