An Integrative Dietitians Guide To Outsmarting Cold and Flu Season

When the cold weather months come around I always get an influx of emails, text messages, and calls from friends, family, and patients about how to help prevent them for getting sick this cold and flu season. 

Over the years I have developed my own protocol for tackling cold and flu season, and generally helping to support immune function for those who seem to catch any cold going around all year long. So since we are now entering the most common months for getting sick I wanted to share with you a few of my medication free methods for keeping you feeling healthy, and preventing colds all winter (and year!) long. 

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Please not that this information is not meant to take the place of personalized medical advice. It is always advised before starting anything new to consult your physician. While this protocol has worked for many clients, it also is not a guarantee. If you find yourself with a prolonged cold or fever you should consult your primary care physician. 


what does our immune system do?

The immune system is made up of a complex network of organs, tissues, and cells that all work together to help protect the body against harmful pathogens, and environmental exposures. You can think of it as your body's natural defense system that is running at all times.

As long as this system is running smoothly, we don't really notice it and generally will feel pretty good. However, when the immune system is compromised in anyway due to a particularly aggressive pathogen, this is when an illness can occur, and the immune system will kick into overdrive to attack the harmful organisms in the body. 


innate and adaptive immune system

The immune system can be broken down into two systems, the innate and adaptive immune systems. 

  • Innate Immune System: The innate immune system comes into play immediately (or within a few hours) of a harmful pathogens appearance in the body. The innate immune system is activated by the chemical properties of the pathogen, and includes physical barriers like the skin, and immune system cells that work to neutralize the pathogen in the body.
  • Adaptive Immune System: The adaptive immune system is more complex than the innate system, and is called into action by the innate immune system. The adaptive immune system refers to an antigen-specific immune response. Once an antigen has been identified, the adaptive immune system will work to create an attack on that antigen. The adaptive immune system also has a memory that makes the response to future, similar antigens much more efficient, and easier to neutralize.

The main roles of the immune system

  • Neutralize harmful pathogens that have entered the body and remove them.

  • Recognize harmful environmental substances and neutralize them

  • Fight against the body in some cases (like in the form of cancer) when the body's own cells have mutated. 

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main components of the immune system

  • The Lymph System: Ever notice that your lymph nodes around your throat can become swollen during a cold? That is because your lymph system is an essential part of your immune system. It carried lymph fluid throughout the body comprised of white blood cells with the main objective of helping the body fight and discard any harmful organisms.
  • Tonsils: The tonsils are the body''s first line of defense in the immune system. But they sometimes become easily infected, and can be lived without, which is why many people with chronic tonsillitis at some point will have them removed. 
  • Thymus: The thymus is actually only important in children, and becomes inactive after puberty. In young children and adolescents it plays an important role in the development of T-lymphocytes or T cells, which are a type of white blood cells.
  • Bone Marrow: Our bone marrow is where our red and white blood cells, and platelets are produced. White blood cells in particular are an important part of a healthy and highly functioning immune system, which helps prevent and fight infection.
  • Skin: Our skin acts as the primary defense and physical barrier to external harmful pathogens. It is made up of several layers of cells and glands that function together to protect the body. 
  • Spleen: The spleen is the largest organ in the lymphatic system, and acts as a filter for blood where old red blood cells are recycled, and platelets and white blood cells are stored. It also works as part of the immune system by producing antibodies that neutralize harmful bacteria and viruses in the body.
  • Mucous Membranes In The Nose, Throat, Bladder, and Genitals: Feeling congested? That is one of your body's first lines of defense working to fight off any harmful organisms you may have breathed in. 
  • Bowel: The gut is bombarded on a daily basis with harmful toxins and bacteria that it needs to manage. Incredibly the bowel does an amazing job of determining which organisms are harmful and which should be absorbed, making intestinal bacteria an essential part of the immune system.

how do we support a healthy immune response?

You have heard people talk about boosting the immune system before, but what does that really mean? Basically when someone is talking about the various ways to help boost your immune system, they are referring to different complimentary tactics for helping to promote a healthy immune response. There is actually very little scientific backing behind the idea of boosting the immune system, however there is a lot we do know about how to support a healthy immune response using complimentary tactics.

Like we have already talked about, our immune system is incredibly complex and highly functioning on its own, however when it is constantly under attack it something can use a little extra help, which is where complimentary methods for improving immune function can be a great part of a maintaining optimal health. Especially during the cold/flu months.


creating a strong foundation

No amount of supplements or herbs will ever out beat a poor diet, high-stress lifestyle. When it comes to supporting your bodies immune system it is critical to start with dietary and lifestyle behaviors that will give you the foundation your body needs to do it's job best.

Whenever I have clients who are struggling with constantly getting sick we always start with these few lifestyle and diet related behaviors below.

  • 7-9 hours of Sleep per night

  • roughly 2 liters of water per day

  • stress reduction techniques (yoga, nature walk, meditation)

  • vibrant, mostly plant-based diet (high in dark leafy greens/healthy fats, low in refined sugars/oils/carbohydrates)

  • daily movement (30 minutes of gentle movement per day)

These lifestyle factors are non-negotiables when it comes to keeping your body healthy, and your immune system strong. Without them, no amount of complimentary supplements or herbs is going to be helpful. So take a good look at this list and see which areas you can work on improving before you move onto other supplemental ways of supporting your immune system.

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my favorite herbs and supplements for supporting a healthy immune system and response


I'm going to get into the specific functions of the supplements I use in my immune supporting protocol below, but here is a list of some of my favorite options that I will usually use in some varying combination based on my clients medical picture and current symptoms.

In a separate post I will be covering how I use many of these herbs, vitamins, and minerals to help treat acute cold symptoms when they first present themselves. 


  • Zinc

  • Magnesium

  • Vitamin C

  • Elderberry Drops/Syrup

  • vitamin d

  • digestive bitters

  • Probiotic

  • echinacea 

  • propolis

  • raw local honey

  • apple cider vinegar

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my go to protocol for outsmarting cold and flu season

Please note that this is a general protocol that I use as a foundation for most of my clients, however it is always tweaked to meet each persons specific needs, therefore it is always best to work with a practitioner in making sure your personal protocol is designed to meet your needs. If you would like to work with me on designing a specific protocol for you personally, please check out my services.


daily immune support protocol

This protocol is great for someone who is otherwise healthy, has implemented the above foundation lifestyle components to support a strong immune system, but still feels as though they catch colds easily. 

  • High Quality Probiotic: Remember when we talked about how important your gut is in promoting a healthy immune response? This is where probiotics can be very helpful. Taking a high-quality/dose probiotic everyday I have found to be very helpful in both myself and my clients, and helps support your guts natural ability to fight harmful pathogens. Two of my favorites that can usually be found at a health food store or online are Mega Food Plus Probiotic and Flora Udo's Super 8 Hi-Potency Probiotic
  • Raw Apple Cider Vinegar: Similar to probiotics, Apple Cider Vinegar does a great job of stimulating bile production and supporting a healthy liver, and detoxification process in the body. Since Raw Appel Cider Vinegar is a naturally fermenting food it also contains helpful enzymes, probiotics, and other organisms that can help support a healthy gut and immune system.
  • Raw Local Honey: The key here is that it is Raw and Local. I always recommend trying to source your honey from within your own state or ideally within your own region. Most of the honey that is sold commercially in super markets barely constitutes as honey at all, and typically is being shipped from China and cut with other sweeteners. That isn't what we want. So start inquiring within your own local community and find a local honey producer who makes raw honey. Raw local honey has been found to be beneficial in preventing allergies, and contains many anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial properties, and other natural enzymes, and phytonutrients that help support immune function. I like to have my clients mix a heaping tsp of raw local honey with their ACV and a little filtered water in the morning, or mix it in with some herbal tea in the evening. 
  • Vitamin D: Most people are chronically deficient in vitamin D, which can affect our bodies immune response. Vitamin D helps modulate the innate and adaptive immune systems, and deficiency has been linked to increased susceptibility to infection. It is very important to always supplement with a high quality vitamin D supplement. I recommend these to my clients and typically will start people at 2000IU and adjust depending on blood work.
  • Magnesium: Remember when we talked about stress and sleep? Well magnesium can play a big part in our bodies ability to handle stress and get adequate sleep. Magnesium helps to control hundreds of chemical reactions in the body, and helps keep the immune system strong. However, most people are chronically deficient in magnesium because we just aren't getting enough in our food anymore due to soil degradation. Because of this most people can benefit from a magnesium supplement. I recommend 200-300mg of Magnesium Glycinate typically to clients. 

coming soon...

Since this post is already very lengthy, I am going to save my specific protocol for acute cold symptoms to a separate post. So be on the lookout for that information coming soon. 


sources

[1] Zhao, E., Xu, H., Wang, L., Kryczek, I., Wu, K., Hu, Y., … Zou, W. (2012). Bone marrow and the control of immunity. Cellular and Molecular Immunology9(1), 11–19. http://doi.org/10.1038/cmi.2011.47

[2] Purchiaroni, F. L. A. M. I. N. I. A., Tortora, A., Gabrielli, M. A. U. R. I. Z. I. O., Bertucci, F., Gigante, G., Ianiro, G. I. A. N. L. U. C. A., ... & Gasbarrini, A. N. T. O. N. I. O. (2013). The role of intestinal microbiota and the immune system. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci17(3), 323-333.

[3] Janeway Jr, C. A., Travers, P., Walport, M., & Shlomchik, M. J. (2001). Principles of innate and adaptive immunity.

[4] Sforcin, J. M. (2007). Propolis and the immune system: a review. Journal of ethnopharmacology113(1), 1-14.