Around this time of year, many of us get resigned to the idea that we’ll probably come down with a few colds in fall, winter, or spring and that it just comes with the territory of being alive. But are colds really that inevitable?
In the past few years, I’ve vowed to myself that I would not get a cold. This commitment stems from a six-month period during which I had a recurring ear and throat infection that left me pretty much debilitated. I’m still somewhat traumatized by the pain of that experience, but the main reason I want to be healthy all year long is that I want to be a positive ambassador for veganism.
Back when I was sick, of course, friends and family took my illness as an opportunity to criticize my “weird” diet, which they blamed for weakening my immune system. However, even though I was frustrated that I didn’t appear to be as hearty as everyone else, I still knew in every cell of my body that becoming vegan was the best decision I had ever made and that a vegan lifestyle was the only one I would thrive on.
Therefore, I dedicated myself to learning everything I could about potential deficiencies in my diet and how I could boost my immune system. My findings fell mainly under 4 categories:
- Getting enough vitamin D and probiotics
- Sufficient sleep
- Stress reduction
- Spending time in nature
As you can see, it turned out that nutritional deficiencies were only small part of what was causing my health to be compromised. The main issue was that I was under a lot of stress due to juggling work and grad school. I wasn’t getting nearly enough sleep, and was overwhelmed with too many responsibilities. On top of that, I had my wisdom teeth removed early that fall, and suffered from the painful condition known as dry socket, which weakened my overall health.
It was a bad time. But it was an important turning point in my life because it forced me to acquire a deeper knowledge and awareness of what is required to actually thrive as a vegan, and as a person in general.
In the following years, I became increasingly resistant to colds, flus, and infections. And now I’m pretty much at the point where I never get a full-on cold. Because I’m human, there are occasionally times when I haven’t been taking care of myself and I feel potentially vulnerable to getting sick. Then I just remember to put into practice everything I’ve learned about how to strengthen my immune system, and I start feeling better within a few days.
So what specifically does it take to be cold-proof?
No, it doesn’t take a flu shot. Let’s not forget that it turned out last year’s flu shot didn’t even protect against the flu!
Here’s a list of what I’ve found to be most important to having an unassailable immune system:
Having been there (and I mean really there) in terms of sleep deprivation, I’m now convinced that most people who have bad colds are sleep-deprived. During sleep, our bodies undergo many intricate processes that are essential to our overall health. When we don’t get enough sleep, then we rob our bodies of the time and conditions they need to recalibrate.
Here are just a few things that go haywire in our bodies when we don’t get enough sleep:
- Cortisol levels are increased, suppressing the immune system
- Natural killer cells, which play an important role in immune function, decrease in number
- Production of melatonin, which creates a buffer against inflammation, is inhibited
To be cold-proof, most people will probably need 8-9 hours. There are some outliers to this – some people need only 6 or 7, while others need as much as 10. The best way to determine how much sleep you need is to not wake up to an alarm clock several days in a row, and measure the average. Then count backwards from the hour you want to get up in the morning, and make sure you’re in bed by that time.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re being more productive by cutting back on sleep. Sleep deprivation majorly slows us down, and studies have shown that in terms of mental functioning, being sleep-deprived is analogous to being drunk.
2. Vitamin D
In our society’s reactive (versus proactive) approach to health and medicine, the importance of vitamin D has likely been greatly underestimated.
According to a study by German researchers, vitamin D increases one’s immune function by 3 to 5 times, while simultaneously encouraging the production of powerful antimicrobial peptides. Over 200 diseases have been linked to vitamin D deficiencies, and as endocronologist Dr. Joe Predergast points out, vitamin D therapy may be more powerful than any other vaccine we could take.
The Vitamin D Council recommends 5,000 IU of vitamin D daily, which means that the USDA’s recommendation of 600 IU is way too low.
It’s easy for most of us to get enough vitamin D in the summer, as our bodies can produce enough from about a half hour of sun exposure. But if you live in the northern hemisphere, where the sun isn’t strong enough in fall and winter, you will likely have to supplement. As I said in Vegan Supplements: The Basics, I take Dr. Furhman’s Women’s Formula Daily + D3, in addition to 1 capsule of Doctor’s Best Vegan D3 to get my full quota of 5,000 IU vitamin D every day in fall and winter.
To figure out how much vitamin D you need based on your skin color and where you live, check out the Vitamin D Council’s guidelines.
Unless you’re a total health and wellness junky, you probably aren’t aware that an estimated 80% of our immune system resides in our gut. Probiotics, i.e. the good bacteria in our gut, are responsible for:
- Producing vitamins K and B and enhancing mineral absorption
- Killing bad bacteria
- Fortifying the immune system
Unfortunately, many “health experts” recommend that people consume probiotics in the form of dairy. Because of their own bias towards wanting to justify eating animal products, they will conveniently omit the fact that cow’s milk contains harmful proteins like insulin growth factor 1 (IGF-1) – meant to triple a calf’s weight in a period 10 weeks – and casein, which humans are unable to do digest. Additionally, the pathogen load in dairy milk (i.e. bacteria, viruses, and pus – yes, pus) is so high that it can overburden our immune system. For reference, one glass of dairy milk has 5 million pathogens per cup, versus 100 pathogens per cup for plant foods.
You can avoid the “dairy disaster” by consuming vegan forms of probiotics – kombucha, miso, coconut yogurt, and kimchi. If you don’t like any of these, you may prefer Good Belly a tasty vegan drink that comes in “shot” and glass form.
My main source of probiotics is Health-Ade Kombucha – I’ll usually have one before dinner and one after.
4. Stress reduction
Most of us have heard the expression “chronic stress kills” as it has been linked to every major disease. Still, chronic stress is difficult to catch because it’s so insidious. Everyone has to deal with some stress in their day-to-day life, and to a certain extent stress can be healthy. There comes a time, however, when it just gets to be too much – and this is when stress reduction becomes crucial for maintaining one’s mental and physical health.
Chronic stress drains our health in a number of ways, including by:
- Weakening the immune response
- Disrupting hormones
- Inhibiting the digestive system
- Suppressing reproductive and growth processes
Clearly, if we don’t keep stress in check, we can run the risk of becoming seriously ill. So how can we get control over this inescapable part of life? In addition to getting enough sleep, two other great ways to manage stress is by practicing mindfulness in the form of yoga and meditation. The physical and mental benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) have been confirmed in many research studies. These include:
- Increasing connectivity between the prefrontal cortex, the area of our brains responsible for thinking and problem solving, and the amygdala, which processes our emotions. This leads to better insight and problem solving, which means less stress
- Stimulating areas of the brain that are connected to the immune system, thereby helping the immune system to function better
- Reducing inflammation
- Reducing cortisol levels
Some examples of MBSR activities are body scans, breath work, mindfulness meditation, yoga, mindful eating, and practicing mindful awareness throughout the day.
To learn more about how to experiment with these various activities, you may want to check out John Kabit-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, which goes into the exercises in depth.
I first got into practicing mindfulness through listening to the audio program of Full Catastrophe Living, practicing yoga, and later getting into transcendental meditation (TM). I’ve noticed that since practicing yoga twice a week and meditating for a half hour every day, my stress levels have gone way down and my immune response seemed to get much stronger.
I’m also a huge fan of journaling, which helps me to clear my head and practice creative problem solving. Every morning, I almost always do 3 pages of stream-of-consciousness journaling while I drink my tea. These are called Morning Pages, and you can learn more about them in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.
Of course, there will be times when many of us will need professional help to navigate life’s tumultuous waters. There is absolutely no shame in this, so don’t hesitate to look for a compassionate and skilled therapist if you’re going through a tough time.
5. Spend time in nature
In Connecting with Nature for Our Health and the Health of the Planet, I wrote at length about the health benefits of spending time in the outdoors. Some of the advantages of being in nature is that it has the effect of:
- Lowering blood pressure and heart rate
- Lowering cortisol levels
- Improving immune function
- Decreasing hemoglobin, which increases during periods of stress
A particularly interesting fact is that trees emit special chemicals called phytoncides, which lead to an increase in natural killer cells, a potent form of white blood cells, when inhaled. Scientific evidence aside, we all know on an intuitive level that we feel better when we spend time in nature. I for one never ceased to be amazed by how I feel when I go for a long walk in the outdoors. The sights, smells, and sounds of nature nourish my senses, while the exercise of walking sends an endorphin rush to my brain.
Incidentally, the year of my never-ending ear and throat infection was also a year when I didn’t leave New York City for a period of 6 months. Not only did my withdrawal from nature leave me feeling more depressed and anxious, but it also probably had the effect of suppressing my immune system and preventing me from healing.
So if you want to have a strong, healthy immune system, emotional balance, and overall increased happiness, get outside!
Those are some of the basics for becoming cold-proof. Other things I didn’t have the space to get into depth about are: washing your hands regularly throughout the day, drinking lots of water, limiting your sugar intake, going easy on alcohol and caffeine, exercising, staying warm, eating healthy (vegan) food, finding time to do things that recharge your mental batteries, steering clear of energy vampires, and spending time instead with positive, uplifting people.
I’ll end with some beneficial herbs and supplements that I’ve found to be helpful in making my immune system extra-resilient:
Garlic – Reduces inflammation and is antibacterial and antifungal. I like to add a few extra minced cloves to my lunch and dinner.
Ginger – Highly antibacterial and antifungal; has potent anti-inflammatory compounds called gingerols; helps to clear up sinuses. I often add some minced ginger to my tea, and I usually have a few Ginger Fireballs from Juice Press every week. To make a loose version of the ginger fireball, you can juice 3 oranges and 2 inches of ginger.
Medicinal mushrooms – Some of these include shitake, maitake, reishi, and cordykeps. Like garlic and ginger, they are antiviral, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory. They have also been documented to have anti-cancer effects. Shitake mushrooms are the most readily available, as you can easily find them at your local health food store. I get my dose of medicinal mushrooms through Dr Furhman’s Immune Biotect. This is a great complement to his Women’s or Men’s Daily Formula + D3. In addition to a blend of 10 medicinal mushrooms, Immune Biotect also has elderberry and astralagus extracts. Elderberry is extremely high in antioxidants, which protect immune cells, while astralagus increases white blood cells and identifies “rogue” bodies such as bacteria and viruses.
A delicious way to sneak medicinal mushrooms in is with EnerHealth’s Cocoa Mojo – a low-glycemic hot chocolate powder with a blend of 6 medicinal mushrooms. I like to enjoy it with some So Delicious unsweetened cashew milk and an extra scoop of cacao powder.
Tea – Real tea as in green, black, white, or oolong tea can stimulate the immune system, are high in antioxidants and phytonutrients, and have antibacterial properties. I like Numi Organic’s Jasmine Green Tea, Chinese Breakfast, and Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolang.
Colloidal silver – Colloidal silver kills germs by attaching to their proteins and destroying them. However, not all colloidal silver products are pure or effective. Natural Immunogenics is the best – I use their Sovereign Silver Dropper when I feel run down.
Finally, it’s good idea to always have some natural hand sanitizer on hand. I use Dr. Bronner’s Lavender Sanitizing Spray after the subway, if I’m about to eat and don’t have access to a sink, or if my hands just feel like they have germs on them.
Super Immunity by Joel Furhman, MD
Your Brain on Nature by Eva Selhub, MD and Alan Logan, ND
Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD
Secrets of Meditation by davidji
destressifying by davidji
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron