As winter days get colder and our bodies become more prone to colds and flu, we should do what we can to protect ourselves and lower the risks of infection. Olivia Lee, a nutritionist and beijingkids columnist, and Melissa Rodriguez, a naturopathic doctor, offer some useful advice to help get us through another chilly season.
"The immune system requires a broad range of nutrients to keep it working, much like the way a concert requires a collection of instruments to make music," explains Lee. "So this means that the immune system requires vitamins A all the way to E, plus minerals such as zinc and iron to supply our immune defenses." Therefore, building a solid foundation for the immune system requires plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, and some protein everyday. Without a strong nutritional foundation, anything else we take to boost the immune system will be ineffective.
Simply gorging on fruit and veg the moment you feel a cold coming on is not the answer. You must consume a broad range of healthy foods over a long term period in order for them to have a notable impact on our immunity. Why? Lee says it’s similar to "maintaining a strong wall defense flanked by alert troops, rather than building one just as the barbarian hordes approach."
Fiber from a diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruits increases the overall production of friendly bacteria in our gut, which in turn produce chemicals to boost our immune system. Furthermore, fresh produce provide a broad range of plant-based phytochemicals that work together with food nutrients to help improve your immune system.
Lee believes that organic produce is the way to go, claiming that not only do organic foods aid a body’s overall nutrient intake, their lower pesticide content also means that our body spends less energy trying to remove toxins from our system and more on repair, growth and defense.
For maximum immunity protection, one should avoid refined grains (such as white rice and white bread), sugar, oily or deep fried foods and alcohol – all of which tax the body, in turn diverting attention away from those all-important natural defenses.
In addition to a healthy diet, supplements can also help fight off any nasties. According to Rodriguez, these include antioxidants like Vitamin C or CoQ10, probiotics like those found in yogurt, as well as a variety of Western and Chinese herbs, such as echinacea, wild indigo, and licorice root. By affecting various steps of immune response, essential fatty acids found in flaxseed oil, fish oil and other unrefined, cold-pressed oils can also help to reduce inflammation.
If you are interested in taking Chinese herbal supplements, Rodriguez recommends going to see a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctor, who will take a full case history and then prescribe a combination of herbs tailored to your unique needs. Chinese herbs like astragalus (huangqi 黄芪), codonopsis (dangshen党参), and reishi mushrooms (lingzhi灵芝) are popular immunity boosters. She suggests the herbal supplement Fufang Yangshen Wangjiang Jiaonang (复方养身王浆胶囊), sold at the well-known Beijing pharmacy Tongrentang. If you do not speak Chinese but are keen to try TCM, it’s best to bring someone with you who can help translate.
Armed with Knowledge
"Choosing the right supplement for each individual is something that I consider very important. An individual treatment plan is critical to achieve the best results," says Rodriguez. "A person needs to ask themselves whether their symptoms have improved. Are you getting sick less frequently? Do you recover from colds and flu quicker? Overall, do you feel better?" Answering these questions for ourselves will signal whether or not these supplements are effective.
Before taking any supplements, you need to be aware of their side-effects, warns Rodriguez. For example, licorice root is not suitable for those with hypertension as it can increase blood pressure and CoQ10 can cause nausea, diarrhea and heartburn for some. In short, see a qualified professional before taking any new supplements. If you have high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems or other serious medical conditions, consult your doctor.
Parents should be aware that certain supplements should not be given to children, including herbal tinctures or cough syrups with alcohol, supplements with artificial sweeteners, certain tonics such as ginseng which are too stimulating, high doses of vitamins or minerals (excess amounts are stored in the body and can be toxic), and Fufang Yangshen Wangjiang Jiaonang.
Aside from diet and natural supplements, some basic lifestyle changes can also help. First, it’s important to get enough sleep and manage your stress level, both of which directly affect your immune system. Other things that lower our immune defenses such as sugar, caffeine, smoking, and alcohol, should be avoided. Finally, engaging in physical activity, even as basic as a brisk walk, has been shown to boost our immunity levels.
Providing you arm yourself with a healthy diet, a few choice supplements and a pair of walking shoes, those winter bugs will be no match for your mighty immune system this winter.
Olivia Lee: Nutritionist
Melissa Rodriguez: Naturopath
International Medical Center-Beijing
Room S106, Lufthansa Center Office Building, 50 Liangmaqiao Lu, Chaoyang District (6465 1561) www.drmelissarodriguez.com
Tongrentang Traditional Chinese Medicine Clinic Daily 8.30am-9pm (pharmacy), 8.30am-noon and 2-5pm (clinic). Mapletree Tower, 108 Jianguo Lu, Chaoyang District (5869 1171)同仁堂.朝阳区建国路108号丰树大厦