Monday, December 26, 2016

How To Stay Well This Winter - 5 Naturopathic Tips

The kids are back in school.  Temperatures have dropped.  Germs are flying.  And you don't want to spend another winter nursing everyone in the family back to health.  So what can you do differently this winter to keep everyone well?

Perhaps most importantly, take heart in the fact that kids who are in day care and get sick over and over again actually are less likely to get the most common form of childhood cancer.  There is a bright side to the constant snotty nose!

Also know that it's typical for a family to have one or two illness plagued winters.  It's usually the first time your first child enters school or day care.  He or she starts bringing home all the goodies from all the other kids, and the whole family gets slammed.  Over and over, each time with a different illness (it's not the same illness circulating through the family).   These illnesses are usually viral upper respiratory infections, which are commonly referred to as colds.  So most of the time, there's nothing wrong with anyone's immune system.  And usually after one or two seasons like that, the illnesses will be interspersed with longer periods of wellness.  Of course, if you're wondering about the integrity of your child's immune system, it's always best to go in for a check-up. 

Photo cred: Sonny Abesamis, Flickr

Back to what you can do.  Here's a review of the basics we've all heard time and time again, but forget to do:
  1. Wash Hands!  We're constantly reminded, but few people actually do it frequently enough, or effectively. It may be the best defense against illness.
  • You (and your child) need to wash
    • after using the bathroom
    • after blowing the nose
    • after coughing or sneezing (although we should sneeze and cough into the elbow)
    • before eating
    • at many other times that are not related to this article - find a comprehensive list here
  •  Are they doing it right?
    • get hands wet
    • then apply soap
    • scrub hands - backs, fronts, under the nails, and in between fingers
    • rub for at least 20 seconds
    • rinse well
    • dry with a clean towel
    • don't touch anything in the bathroom after washing
  • My favorite hand washing song is sung to the tune of Frere Jacques and takes about 20-30 seconds to sing:
Back of hands, back of hands
In between, in between,
Rub them all together, rub them all together,
Now they're clean, now they're clean!
Photo cred: gea79on; no amendments
  1. Get enough sleep!  So important, and so under-rated.  Most of us don't get enough, and that can lead to a sub-par immune response.  The Mayo Clinic provides an excellent summary of sleep and the immune system here, and you can read more here and here.  If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, or have other sleep problems, talk to your doctor.  Many people are fighting through fatigue due to undiagnosed sleep disorders.
  1. Consider the flu vaccine.  No, I didn't say get the vaccine.  I said consider the vaccine.  If you're shocked that I would mention this and appalled at the idea, fine.  But make sure you have envisioned the whole family sick with the flu before you make the decision to avoid the vaccine.  Yes, vaccines have risks.  Yes, getting the flu has its own set of risks.  No, the flu vaccine is never 100% effective, but getting it does decrease the odds of getting the flu. And it's a myth that getting the flu vaccine can give you the flu. **Make sure you make an active decision to get the vaccine or avoid it, rather than putting it on the back burner until it's too late.**
  1. Exercise?  Science isn't sure about this one yet.  Since moderate exercise keeps us generally healthier in many ways, it's not a far leap to assume that it would also boost the immune system.  Unfortunately, we don't have any great science backing up that assumption.  I think we will before long.  Meanwhile, here are two interesting articles:  one from Harvard (scroll down to "Exercise: Good or bad for immunity"; and one from Medline.
Here are 5 less basic, naturopathic tricks to try this time:
  1. Eat seasonally.  Butternut squash soup, mashed yams, pumpkin pie:  they are all orange, which means they are all high in beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A.  Your body turns beta carotene into vitamin A, which is one of the immune systems most needed nutrients.  For some great recipe ideas, check out The Hands On Home (which also provides natural house cleaning tips and ideas for preserving), The CSA Cookbook, and True Food.
  2. Eat soup.  Chicken soup has been consumed by cold sufferers across the world for years.  Now we actually have some science showing that this practice may actually work!  We definitely know that chicken soup helps decrease and clear mucus, but it may also work on other levels to decrease your cold symptoms.  Bone broth, recently very highly touted as a miraculous cure-all may not be all that, but I think science will catch up to this tradition too.  It makes sense to me that simmering bones, where most immune cells are stored, for 24 hours or longer, probably results in an immune boosting cocktail.  Here's an article from NPR on what we do know about bone broth.
  3. Take vitamin D.  It's true that a few of us get enough sun or eat enough fish and liver (and fortified milk) that we don't need to take vitamin D.  The rest of us need to supplement.  The RDA for vitamin D is 600 iu daily for children and adults.  However, a lot of doctors recommend a higher dose, so check in with yours (you can take too much vitamin D).  The jury is still out as to whether vitamin D supplementation definitively reduces colds and flus, however, this small study is very promising.   For information on the many health benefits of vitamin D, read this article.  For more detailed information on the topic of vitamin D and acute illness, read this Medscape article or this study abstract.  Here are two vitamin D products I like on Amazon:  Carlson and Seeking Health.
  4. Decrease / avoid sugar.  Easier said than done during the holiday season!  We have one study that shows us that sugar impairs the immune system response.  Not exactly the most robust evidence.  However, with all the bad we know sugar does in other ways, and knowing that the sugar you're eating displaces immune boosting nutrients, it's worth steering clear of it.
Happy winter!

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