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Improving immunity for Autumn

Why is it that our immunity struggles in this transition from summer to winter? And what, if anything, can we do to bolster ourselves against it? Filippa Harrington investigates.

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Image: Andrew Preble

With the darkening days and crisp mornings of Autumn, there also comes the cacophony of coughing and ruddy noses of those ailed by cold and flu, which often feels like part and parcel of the change of season.

Unfortunately, ‘boosting’ our immunity is not as simple as the marketing teams of supplement and vitamin brands would, perhaps, like us to believe. Primarily because researchers still don’t entirely have immunity figured out. Thus, knowing how to boost your immunity and not overstimulate it at the same time is an elusive notion.

In our fast, quick-fix world, we are surrounded by products that offer an off-the-shelf solution to boost the resilience of our immune system. However, with our immunity being just that, ‘a system’, or a network, researchers are unable to pinpoint one particular nutrient or supplement that we can turn to, and many of these products may not perform quite in the way we expect them to. Alternatively, the recommendations from leading medical experts, namely Harvard Medical School, such as eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, regular exercise, moderate drinking and adequate sleep, take a more holistic approach, and represent the interconnectedness and intricacies of our immune response.

The recommendation of medicine echoes the nature of remedies found in traditional medicine systems, such as Ayurveda, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), for which these transition seasons hold poignancy, and place attention on adjusting our diet and daily routine to accommodate these changes. The recommendations of these systems, which draw on ancient sources of knowledge, align with the qualities of the season itself. They place us within nature, not outside of it, and suggest that if we do better to connect with the elements of the changing season, paying attention and adjusting our behaviours to the changing qualities of the world around us, we may fare a little better in its wake.

Ayurvedic specialist and IKIGAI Thought Leader, Dr. Issac Mathai M.D, simplifies the relevance of this connection; “the basic principles of Ayurveda attaches a lot of importance to climate in health management.” Although Ayurveda recognises six seasons, our Autumnal months fall under the Dakshinayana period within Ayurveda – a period that offers potential for ‘rejuvenation’. That’s if we connect with the qualities of the season, and adjust accordingly.

Summer, with its long days and sunny warmth, naturally encourages us to be more active, eat lighter, spend more time outdoors and, with the later sunsets, we may find ourselves with a more expansive energy that encourages more social activities in the evening hours. We may also find ourselves sleeping less and seeking out foods that are refreshing, such as fruits and vegetables of the season that are naturally high in water.  Yet, as Autumn rolls in, the sunlight hours begin to dwindle, the temperature lowers, vegetation around us begins to lose its vibrancy, and the heartier root vegetables come into season. And, if we take a moment to notice these elemental changes and their subsequent impact on things that grow, we can take cue, and look to how we too can adjust to the changes (be it our activities, our sleeping patterns, or our diets) to accommodate a balance with the environment within which we live.

If immunity cannot be isolated to the intake of a single vitamin or supplement but is, rather, the sum of a greater whole, we have to give attention to a few key pillars.

Image: Kinga Cichewicz

Sleep

One of the clearest links that science has been able to make between our immune response and an actionable element that we have a fair amount of control over, is that of sleep. As neuroscientist and author, Matthew Walker, explains in his book, Why We Sleep, ‘an intimate, and bidirectional association exists between your sleep and your immune system.’ Sleep is the tool we have for assisting our bodies build immune resilience, and as little as one night of less or lost sleep can cause our immunity to drop, significantly. It’s important to keep in mind here that sleep can help support our immunity, but this doesn’t mean we are iron-clad against colds or flu. Rather, that if we do fall ill, our symptoms and the severity would be less, and we may recover within 24 hours, rather than needing a few days of bed rest.

As Dr. Walker shares, sleep not only helps build resilience against the common cold and flu, but it also helps build the consistent and robust immune cells that are necessary to protect us from cancerous tumour cells. Unfortunately, it’s not only length and depth of sleep that is crucial here, but also that it is aligned with our circadian rhythm. Disrupted sleep and night-time shift work has a proven link to the development of certain cancers, so much so that Denmark recently became the first country to pay worker compensation to women who had developed breast cancer after years of night-shift work in government industries.

The link is inviolable; to support our immune system we have to take cue from the waning sunlight hours as we move towards winter, and ensure we are getting our recommended eight hours of sleep a night.

Diet

Our gut health and immunity are inextricably linked, and so it’s important that, during this transition season, we are conscious to support our digestive system and provide ourselves with the foods that welcome the change in season. Our gut health accounts for 80% of our immune function and for good gut health there are a number of fundamentals to keep both in your mind, and on your plate.  These include eating a healthy dose of probiotic and prebiotic foods, chewing your food well, and avoiding the over use of medication and antibiotics, unless vitally necessary. Alongside an attention to promoting good gut health, there is also space to connect what we eat, and how we eat, with the season.

For Autumn, both Ayurveda and TCM prescribes warm, cooked foods like soups and stews, which naturally aligns with the root vegetables that come into season during this time and the cooking methods that they call for. We also want to include more healthy fats, through oils and nuts, that help insulate the body, and nourish our cells.

Dr. Mathai also recommends, importantly, not overeating during this period. When we overwork our digestive system, giving it either too much food or food that is difficult to digest, vital energy is spent on digestion, instead of regenerating immune cells.

Image: Melanie Hughes

Lifestyle

The colder, darker months provide an opportunity to move towards a quieter, inward space of reflection and rejuvenation. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, Autumn is the start of an insular Yin period, in contrast to the high-energy Yang of Summer. This is a time to take things off your plate, rather than adding to it. In TCM, during Autumn, there is focus placed on the lungs and the large intestine – two organs that work in conjunction with each other to help bring in what we need and eliminate what we don’t. When imbalanced, the lungs are also associated with grief, sadness, and attachment, and thus TCM suggests we pay particular attention to these qualities during this season; place importance on time spent in evaluation, restructuring your life and activities to keep what serves you and eliminate what doesn’t. It’s a time of shedding, as we see mirrored in the natural world.

Autumn also provides a welcome opportunity to be resolute about eliminating unnecessary stressors from your life, as stress and immunity are in critical relation to each other. Sometimes, it may feel like an impossible task as, with our contemporary lifestyle, many of us are exposed to high-stress situations daily. With this in mind, as Autumn arrives, we may want to turn to easy-to-assimilate apoptogenic herbs to support our nervous system, such as Ashwagandha – a root with adaptogenic and nervous-system-calming qualities.

Author of Superherbs, Herbalist, and IKIGAI Thought Leader, Rachel Landon, also recommends the use of Rosehip for its multi-purpose support during this transition time, “they calm and support an exhausted nervous system while uplifting and strengthening the mind and spirit. They are rich in antioxidants, carotenoids, polyphenols, flavonoids, and essential fatty acids. They appear in the late Summer weeks and are accessible to us all, even city dwellers.”

Rachel also makes the important link between Vitamin D and health, and advises that, for the majority of us, winter means very low exposure to sunlight. With this in mind, this may be one of the few things we may want to consider supplementing in pill form throughout the colder months, alongside increasing intake of foods high in Vitamin D, such as mushrooms, oily fish, eggs and sprouted seeds.

And, if you do fall ill to the cold or flu, there are herbal remedies that can support a quick recovery, and relieve symptoms, as Rachel shares, “our Wilder Botanics Cold & Flu infusion is a traditional formula used for centuries to ease symptoms. With yarrow, peppermint and elderflowers to support immune health and the body’s eliminative organs, and with cinnamon and bay leaves to protect the digestive system and prevent infection.”

As with the lifestyle, big-picture recommendations of modern medicine, which mirror both the guidance of ancient medicine systems, and the behaviour of nature itself, if we look for opportunities to harmonise ourselves with the qualities of the season, we will offer our body the support it needs to function naturally. In turn, we’ll help to build a strong immune response that will carry us through Winter and into Spring.

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