Winter and flu season go hand-in-hand. Influenza and many other similar virus strains take hold in winter months. Their success largely depends on the strength of your immune system. Let’s take a look at food, fitness, relationships, climate and additional contributors to your immune system strength. I’ll also discuss what you can do to best stop the symptoms of an oncoming winter cold.
Foods For Immune System Strength
When you desire to prevent illness, slow aging and simply feel good each day, what foods do you think of eating? If you’re like me, you don’t choose food based on its specific vitamin and mineral content, or its antioxidant scores.
Better to simply choose foods you know are nutrient-rich: whole (and mostly raw) foods. Also, avoid junk food such as candy, soft drinks and fast food. This simple rule of thumb improves your chances of having an optimally healthy and strong immune system. Why? Foods highest in micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, omega-3 oils, fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals) while being lowest in empty calories are what build health in many ways. Not only does a growing body of research prove this, but your intuition and life experience will confirm this, too.
Later, I’ll discuss specific nutrient supplements and foods for fighting acute illness such as colds or flu. First, let me provide a menu of nutrient-rich meals that will build your immune strength when consumed consistently over time. Consider how they compare with your typical meals.
Breakfast: Fresh smoothie using only nutrient-rich whole foods. My favorite is to start with apple chunks at the bottom of the blender, then add one other fresh fruit (such as pineapple, orange, kiwi, cantaloupe, strawberries, blueberries, banana, etc.) into the blender. Then put in your frozen fruit of choice (i.e. frozen strawberries, blueberries, frozen kiwi, peach slices, etc.), followed by something green (green drink powder, fresh spinach leaves, kale, etc.), ice and your liquid of choice.
I use rice milk or almond milk and sometimes sweeten the deal with some apple or orange juice. If I need it to be sweeter, I’ll put in half a dropper of liquid stevia. Also, if I want this to be my complete breakfast, I’ll add almonds, walnuts or rolled oats. This is a completely raw, whole food breakfast that will provide plenty of micronutrients to support excellent immune system health. This will satisfy any sweet craving you could have and sustain you until your next meal. It provides plenty of protein. If the nuts don’t give you enough fat, consider adding flax oil or a raw egg to the smoothie. Don’t use a banana if you intend to save some of the smoothie for your lunch; it will turn brown and scary-looking.
You don’t really need to ever drink cow’s milk. Why would you want animal protein with hormones, antibiotics and immune-sensitizing effects when you can get vegetable protein? Dairy is the leading cause of food allergies among U.S. adults and children.
Lunch: It’s best to think first of sliced fruit, melon, a salad or vegetables as your lunch base. Then consider how much meat and bread you’ll eat, such as a fresh roasted turkey and avocado sandwich (open-faced with only one slice of bread), with tomato, onion and plenty of sprouts or even lettuce (for fiber– even if it is iceberg lettuce, but the greener the better). Add hot green tea or fruit tea to make sure you feel full; but you must wait 20 minutes to know if you are eating to relieve hunger or eating simply for the pleasure of tasting food.
Dinner: Think salad, salad, salad! Then consider what you can add to your salad meal. Fish, chicken, beef… they all go well in a salad, provided you have the right salad dressing or sauce to go with it, right? For example, can you imagine anything tastier than a spinach salad with grilled salmon and strawberries, topped with balsamic vinaigrette and olive oil dressing? Add tea or a hot vegetable soup to fill you up.
Dessert: Now, what about dessert? OK, so you still crave that full and happy feeling after dinner. You know typical desserts are loaded with refined sugar, which weakens your immune system. Your best bet is a fruit source for your sweet tooth. For example, simply try a piece of toast with mashed or sliced strawberries or kiwi on top. Also, sweeten plain yogurt and sliced fruit with stevia liquid, or add it to your tea to finish you off for the night. Popcorn is a low-calorie filler, too.
Physical Fitness For Immune System Strength
It is almost common sense that if you exercise consistently, you’ll have fewer winter colds or flu. It turns out that the scientific literature shows just that: Aerobic fitness correlates with improved immune system strength. A November 2011 article published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity confirmed this relationship in 102 healthy men ages 18-61 who were studied as to their aerobic level of fitness, actual age and white blood cell (immune fighting cells) strength.  The more aerobically in-shape the men were, the stronger their immune systems proved to be, even independent of their ages.
This correlates with other research in mice reported in a 2009 article in the The Journal of Infectious Diseases.  This study clearly showed that chronic exercise resulted in reduced symptoms, virus load and measured levels of inflammatory cytokines (blood markers of infection).
However, there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to aerobic fitness and winter illness. Too much exercise has been shown to break down the immune system.
What works best for me is to run 3 to 7 miles at least twice each week. This gives me mental energy and motivation to eat healthier, play more and love more. These positive thoughts and feelings further my natural cortisol (needed for stress) and sex hormone production (needed for my manliness) and results in fewer illnesses.
In my next article I’ll look at other contributors to keeping you resistant to winter colds and the flu, and how to fight them when they do hit you.
To feeling good,
Michael Cutler, M.D.
Easy Health Options
 Spielmann G, McFarlin BK, et al. Aerobic fitness is associated with lower proportions of senescent blood T-cells in man. Brain, behavior and immunity 2011 Nov;25(8):1521-9.
 Sim YJ, Yu S, Yoon KJ, et al. Chronic exercise reduces illness severity, decreases viral load, and results in greater anti-inflammatory effects than acute exercise during influenza infection. The Journal of Infectious Disease 2009 Nov 1;200(9):1434-42.