The usual answer is that your immune system is not as efficient as it should be. There are a number of factors that can affect immunity, but the good news is these can all be improved upon, so maybe you don't have to suffer this year.
The development of the immune system starts before birth when we inherit some resistance from our parent’s genes and is further developed as we come through the birth canal and pick up our first lot of bacteria; our starter kit of mucosal flora in the digestive system. We then “switch on” our immune system through breast feeding as a result of colostrum found in our mother’s milk.
The immune system is extremely complex and has many layers. Our basic immunity that starts from birth is called our Innate Immune System. This is made up of physical barriers such as our skin or mucous membranes, which are protected by natural substances such as mucous, saliva, tears and stomach acid. Inflammation is also part of the Innate Immunity and is triggered in response to a foreign invaders and leads to mobilisation of our most vicious army, our white blood cells. We then have more specific immunity that develops as we are exposed to disease or through vaccination. This part of the immune system is called “Acquired or Adaptive Immunity” and is where our immune system builds up knowledge and antibodies against specific viruses or bacteria.
So with all these natural defence mechanisms why does our immunity become compromised? What affects it and how can we sort this out in time for winter?
As you will probably know allergies occur when the immune system becomes over active and starts to react to something that would ordinarily be a harmless substance - like for example a pollen or food. When people are suffering from a lot of allergic reaction this can display in the form of hay fever or food intolerances. While the immune system is busy dealing with that it can shift the focus away from its other jobs, like patrolling the body for real invaders. Consequently those suffering from allergies also seem to be more prone to catching winter chills.
In preparation for winter I suggest you start working with your allergies. Get help identifying food that may not be working for you and exclude them. Also there are many natural health products that can help balance you immunity. Colostrum is an immune balancer, as is the herb Echinacea. This means they can help move the immune system away from being reactive to normally harmless substances and direct immune forces to look for invading winter bugs.
When we experience stress for a long period of time it can shut down our immune system. Our natural chemical response to stress is to produce hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Cortisol blocks the immune system, which doesn’t seem so helpful, but when we evolved short term stress meant fighting off a cold was unlikely to happen at the same time as fleeing a predator. Long term stress on the body is a new feature of the modern world and this endless supply of cortisol now leaves us open to disease. Also Cortisol shifts our immunity towards allergy sensitivity, which we have seen above does not help overall immunity.I have explained many times to clients that too much “stress” is not the same as “not coping mentally”. We can still be trucking along doing a job competently, but our body can still suffering the physiological effects of being too busy, multi-tasking and being under constant pressure. So if you are a busy person with a history of getting sick take 5 minutes to fill out this questionnaire on my website and see if your body is suffering signs of stress http://www.janenaturopath.com/health-questionnaire/mood-stress-questionnaire
I understand that most of us can’t just stop working and stop stressing immediately, but there are many herbs and nutrients that can support the nervous system, move it out of the ‘fight or flight’ mode. Astragalus is one of my favourite herbs for the busy person who gets sick all the time. Not only does it boost the immune system and increase white blood cells, it also helps to balance cortisol levels to help manage that fight or flight response. Also many of the herbs in the ginseng family have traditionally been used as restorative tonics to increase energy and boost immunity illness. So if it looks like stress levels will continue into winter taking herbs to manage the physical effects is a must.
There are many nutrients that are key to our immune health that can easily be depleted in everyday life by poor diet, poor digestion, stress, medications etc. Vitamin C for instance is essential to make stress hormones, so is quickly used up when constant stress means we need more of these hormones. Vitamin C also becomes depleted in smokers as it is used to bind the free radicals from the inhaled toxins. However Vitamin C is essential for our immune system to build our white blood cells, where it is used in manufacturing and is actually part of these cells themselves. It is quickly used up if we get sick, which is why it is a great nutrient to take in advance or at the first sign of sniffles.
Zinc is another key nutrient and is an important part of the defence barriers we talked about before. Zinc has an antibacterial affect in our saliva, on our skin and in our mucous membranes. It is used up quickly in viral attacks as it is also used to build our white blood cells. There is great evidence around that shows zinc can shorten the duration of respiratory tract infections. So if you are having recurrent mouth ulcers and have white spots on your nails you may be starting the winter low on zinc and would be best to top it up.
Over 70% of our immunity is found in our digestive system. We often forget that our digestive system is just a big tube going through our body that protects against harmful things we ingest and absorbs the nutrients we need to stay well. Many viruses, bacteria and pathogens can enter through the digestive system, so we need strong barriers to protect us. Many lifestyle factors can cause damage to the mucosal barriers and the balance of good bacteria vs bad bacteria in the gut is important to our core defences. Then there is the issue of our nutrients not being absorbed that we need for the rest of our immune system.
As we have said previously the immune system focus can be diverted food due to allergies and over sensitivity in the digestive system, instead of protecting us from exposure to bacteria and viruses. Probiotics are good to have before the start of winter. They ensure we have the right amount of good bacteria to feed our mucosal cells and protect our digestive barriers. Probiotics can become depleted if we need to have antibiotics, so make sure if you have to take these medications that you have your probiotics alongside.
Again work on identifying those food intolerances, eliminate them and start digestive healing before winter starts in earnest.
How many of you have done as I used to do, burning the candle at both ends, not getting enough sleep and subsequently getting sick. My early warning sign is always a sore throat and when I used to ignore this (before I got older and wiser) it used to end in tonsillitis. Studies have shown that poor sleep can result in poor immunity, so what is the connection?
As well as lack of sleep leading us to become run down, make poor food choices and have poor energy, studies have shown that sleep patterns have a direct effect on our immune system. There is a 2-way communication between our immune system and the nervous system, the good management of which requires sleep. It seems that many of our immune functions are regulated around and in synchrony with the circadian rhythms which govern our 24 hour sleep–wake cycle. If these rhythms are disrupted then so can maintenance and production of our immune defences.
So if you are having sleep problems come and get some help to get back in those immune supportive patterns. Sometime magnesium before bed is enough, but many people might need more help identifying chemical imbalances that may be causing difficulties getting to sleep or staying asleep.