2017 was an infamous flu season, both here and abroad. Here in Australia we saw a spike in the number and severity of flu cases, with so many people falling ill – even those who normally escape these kinds of infections. With this in mind, I’ve been seeing plenty of ads lately, urging people to have their flu shot in preparation for this winter’s onslaught. The trouble is, many people last year DID have their needle as a preventative measure – but the vaccine was far less effective than normal, due to an unusual strain of flu being the one most of us were catching.
So, whilst this isn’t an article about the benefits or otherwise of the vaccine, it pays to keep in mind that despite being promoted as the ultimate protection against the flu, it is only part of the equation. Our ability to ward off these kinds of infections varies between people – I’m sure you know someone who catches one cold or flu after another, and never seems to completely get over an infection before coming down with another one. And on the other end of the spectrum there are plenty of people around who hardly ever seem to get sick, even when they are around those that are practically coughing up a lung.
So, what can make a difference to your immunity? And are there ways you can reduce the chances of yourself (or your kids) getting sick in the first place?
If you find that you continually get sick throughout the year, or that you can’t really ‘shake it off’ all that well, your immune system may be struggling. You also may find that you experience:
• Wounds healing slowly
• Recurring urinary tract infections
• Persistently low energy
• Mouth ulcers
• Skin infections that don’t completely heal – fungal infections for instance
These can be signs that your immunity is low, which can occur for several reasons:
• Your gut health may be less than ideal. Did you know that 70% of your immune system is located in your digestive tract? We are finding out some fascinating information about the gut, and how your gut health can influence (either for better or worse) so many other parts of your body. This includes your immune system, and how easily you are able to fight off infections, as well as how quickly you can recover from a cold or flu if you do happen to catch one. When I am working with patients who come to me suffering from one infection after another, looking at their gut health is where we start.
• You may be low in immune-boosting nutrients. Certain nutrients such as zinc are fabulous immune-boosters. I regularly take zinc as a supplement, as well as increasing my intake of zinc-rich foods as an infection preventer during the cooler months. Vitamin D is also crucial for a strong immune system – and many people are low in this vitamin by the end of winter (yes, even here in South East QLD). Certain medications can deplete vital nutrients, so it pays to ensure you are getting enough of these.
• Stress, anxiety and depression can also play a role in the strength of your body’s resilience, and continual mental pressure leads to weakening of your immune defenses, due to the connection between your nervous system and your immune system. High stress also plays havoc with your gut health, so you can end up with a double whammy that sees you becoming sick more often than you should. If you find you are always feeling under pressure, aim to be proactive with managing your stress – activities such as yoga or meditation can be as quick as 10 minutes but the benefits are worthwhile.
Thankfully, there are many different herbal medicines that can be used for supporting the immune system, and I find these invaluable, both in my clinic and my family life. One of the great things about herbs is that not only are many of them effective against bacteria, there are many herbs that possess antiviral properties – which is a handy weapon against many of our common colds, flus and infections (and for which pharmaceutical treatments are few and far between). I use different herbs for different scenarios in the clinic – some are best for infection prevention (such as Astragalus and medicinal mushrooms), others can be taken at the first sign of a cold or flu in an effort to prevent it taking hold (elderberry is great for this).
Don’t wait until you get sick – now is the time to start building a strong immune system.