Cold comfort

Laura Uphill looks at some natural ways to support your immune system

The immune system is complex and works constantly to help our bodies deal with our surroundings. When we are tired, overworked or have not been looking after ourselves properly, regarding eating well and getting enough rest, our immune system can struggle as our resistance becomes weaker. When we have these phases of ‘weakness’, pathogens around us (whether it’s dust, the cat or your child’s cold), can get the upper hand and our immune systems struggle to prevent us becoming symptomatic or ill. When we are eating well and maintaining a balanced lifestyle the body is usually strong enough to exist alongside germs and ‘allergy’ triggers with the immune system holding its own and preventing any health issues.

There are several ways that we can ensure a healthy and effective immune system over winter:

  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Relaxation
  • Supplementation

The key to a healthy immune system is eating right. When we are exposed to seasonal changes, it is important that we also adjust the foods we eat accordingly. The reason for this is because our stomach works much like an adaptive system and what we eat sends signals to our body about our external environment. When we eat foods which are produced, grown or reared locally, these foods have already adapted to survive in a climate much like the one which we are living in. The chemical structure and fluid content of the foods will give our body the right information to deal with our surroundings. With so many foods available all year round via our supermarkets, many people are unaware what would be available in their current climate anyway.

We know here, in winter, oranges and satsumas tend to taste good, they are ripened off perfectly in warm countries such as Spain. We have heard that vitamin C is ‘good for our immune system’ so we regularly eat an orange a day and perhaps much more fresh fruit and veg from all over the world as we know these contain good things too. As we eat our orange in our centrally heated, warm house our body thinks, ‘Oh, the oranges are ripe! It must be warm outside. I will retain as much of this juice as possible to prevent dehydration. I will thin the blood to keep me cool, I will use this vitamin C to prevent me getting a cold…’ So now the body is preparing to deal with warmer surroundings which is all very well whilst we are indoors. Later we go outside. We may feel the cold easily, our noses may start to run as we thought it was warmer and dryer around us and our body is not coping with the surprise that it is winter. Now we may catch a cold. This may seem an extreme example, but it is to give you a general idea of how foods can stimulate changes within our bodies which are not so beneficial in helping our immune system to cope with or be prepared for daily challenges.

To keep our immune system strong in winter, it’s important to eat more warm cooked meals, porridges, soups and casseroles, root veg, stored/dried fruits, good quality fruit compotes and for those who do eat meat, bone stocks and ideally organic/grass-fed meats. There are several useful foods we can use to improve aspects of our immune system which also help fight off colds and flus as they arrive.

Rosehips

Rosehips have nearly five times the vitamin C content of an orange, which make them an ideal fruit for us during winter. They are widely available in the British countryside, the best variety being from the Wild or Dog Rose (Rosa canina). Rosehips can be added to compotes, jams, syrups and teas. A rosehip syrup was a traditional addition to many households especially after the war. It can be eaten with pancakes, on porridge or taken with a spoon. Rosehip syrup is known to help our bodies fight off colds and flus, can relieve joint inflammation and improve symptoms of anaemia, often being used post-partum and after chronic illness.

Elderberry

Elderberries’ immune-boosting qualities have been recently recognised due to their high volume of flavonoids and vitamin C. Traditionally, elderberry is known to relieve aches and pains in the joints, especially when the pain is worse for cold/damp weather. It is now available to buy in many forms. Elderberries can be seen in August/September along Britain’s hedgerows; many people collect them, but you must make sure you bring them (or their juice) to the boil before consuming, otherwise you will vomit. Elderberry, along with blackberries, wild raspberries, rosehips, sloes and damsons have been long known as useful health tonics during autumn and winter. They would have been included in winter syrups and compotes to combat colds and improve overall health whilst fresh fruits were not so available.

Garlic

Garlic is known to be an antioxidant with antimicrobial and antiviral properties. This makes it useful in supporting our immune system when used regularly in small amounts throughout winter. Some people take a garlic supplement when they start to feel ill and find it useful, but due to garlic’s ‘warming’ nature some may find it irritates inflammatory conditions and can make a sore throat worse and a fever rise. Ideally, use garlic in small amounts regularly in food rather than in high doses as it is powerful and can worsen some symptoms of a cold.

Astragalus

Astragalus or Huang Qi is an ancient herb of Chinese Medicine which exists in the same category as Ginseng – both are ‘Qi Tonics’. This means they have an effect of strengthening systems or processes within the body. Astragalus is known to strengthen your immune system, benefit chronic lung weakness seen in asthma, increase white blood cell count and combat fatigue. It is also used to quicken the healing of wounds. Astragalus is often cooked into soups and bone stocks, made into a tea with other herbs or can be taken on its own, available in small vials.

Echinacea

Echinacea is an antiviral and antibacterial herb which contains polysaccharides that increase the body’s production of white blood cells which help to fight infection. People believe it can be taken over long periods of time to improve the immune system, but this may not be entirely true. Its rise to fame years ago made it very well known but the information given surrounding it should have advised people to take it at the onset of an illness which involved a sore throat, fever or mucus congestion which is yellow. It is more able to relieve such conditions than strengthen the immune system itself. The root is the most effective part of the plant and one should check that any Echinacea bought is the root and not the leaf. Echinacea can be found in many forms: tincture, tablets, syrups or as the raw herb for making decoctions.

Ginger

Ginger is a powerful diaphoretic, which means it opens the pores and encourages the body to sweat. This is useful during the first stages of a cold or flu as sweating encourages the illness to leave the body via the skin, circulates the blood and can help muscles to relax, which is good to ease body aches. Making a tea by pouring freshly boiled water over five to six slices of fresh ginger and leaving until a drinkable temperature is good practice as soon as you start to feel under the weather. Ideally combine ginger root tea with chamomile or elderflowers too.

Laura Uphill Dip.CH, MURHP, GQA is a medical herbalist and practitioner of Classical Chinese Medicine. She is the founder of the Gwen’s Garden range of natural bodycare products. To find out more, visit www.gwensgarden.co.uk

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