It’s that time of year when many of us are likely to get sick with a cold or some other virus that’s going around the office or the kid’s school. You might be unwell for a few days, but you bounce back quickly. But, you also might be one of the growing number of people who feel like they are constantly fighting some kind of virus or seem to have an infection every month?
There are many reasons why this happens. You tend to spend more time inside and in close contact with lots of other people at this time of year, so that increases your chances of being infected and then there’s vitamin D depletion that is common during winter due to reduced sunlight exposure.
One of the other reasons is something that you might not have thought much about, but scientists are increasingly finding support for. This is the connections between your nervous system and your immune function.
We know that chronic stress has become a major contributor to poor health and is associated with cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes as well as anxiety and depression but what is now becoming apparent is that our adrenal function is intricately linked to our immune function and that seasonal stressors such as variations in temperature can cause physiological changes to our adrenal function and can lead to reduced immune function.
Your adrenal glands are responsible for your ‘fight or flight response’ (HPA axis) and the production of stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. These are part of the family of glucocorticosteroids and their job is to down regulate inflammation and support the body in the initial stages of stress by increasing energy production and essentially enabling your body to run away or stay and fight. This is beneficial in the short term, however, chronic activation of the HPA axis can inhibit your immune response, increasing your susceptibility to acute infections.
Now, what does this have to do with winter chills and ills? Well, if your immune system is already suppressed because of the effects of chronic stress, the normal addition of seasonal temperature changes and common viruses that are doing the rounds at work or come home with the kids could see you knocked off your perch.
So, what can you do?
The best thing you can do to support your adrenal health as well as your immune system is to eat a whole food diet. This means unprocessed food comprising mainly of fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains and good quality protein either from animal sources such as lean beef, chicken and fish or from legumes and pulses. By consuming lots of fresh vegetables, especially ones that are brightly coloured like beetroot, sweet potato and pumpkin, you are consuming essential nutrients that support your immune system. Good quality protein is vital for both your immune system and your nervous system function because the amino acids that make up protein are needed by all body processes. Essential minerals such as zinc and magnesium are found in foods such as nuts, seeds and whole grains as well as animal protein. These micronutrients are vital for healthy body function and a deficiency in zinc is especially implicated with immune suppression.
Vitamin C is widely known for its benefit to the immune system but perhaps not so well known is its vital role in adrenal health. The highest levels of vitamin C are found in the adrenal glands and it is needed for stress adaption as well as maintaining healthy levels of serotonin, known to be associated with mood.
For those who need more support that their diet can offer, or are experiencing high levels of stress, there are many herbs that naturopaths prescribe to help your body cope with the physical effects of stress. They do this by increasing levels of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces production of cortisol in your adrenal glands. This can reduce symptoms associated with chronic stress such as insomnia, anxiety, gastrointenstinal upsets to name a few. As well as this, there is an improvement in immune function and less susceptibility to acute infections. Herbs such as Withania somnifera, Rhodiola rosea as well as well known Glycyrrhiza glabra (aka licorice!) produce some very positive results in conjuction with dietary and lifestyle changes.
As is always the case with following a naturopathic treatment plan, the most important treatment is to support the body to return to a state of wellness. To do this you need to ensure that you:
· Eat a nutrient rich diet
· Do some physical exercise each day
· Get 7-8 hours of good quality sleep each night
· Do some form of minfulness each day – hint, you can combine this with the second recommendation by going for a walk in nature!
These things support your nervous system and allow cortisol levels to normalise. The end result is that you will likely experience less time off work for sickness and you might just improve other areas of your health too such as your cardiovascular health and your metabolism including blood sugar and cholesterol regulation.
If you’d like to know more about the effects of stress on your immune system, or you’d like to arrange a consultation to discuss your health please contact Larissa Gilroy @ Larissa Jane Naturopathy.