HOLISTIC HEALTH - November 2019
by Emily Day
As we transition into late fall, we look forward to holiday celebrations with family and friends. However, illness may also be an unwelcome guest into our lives during these times.
Although illness may be related to close, indoor contact with others, it could also be related to changes in our lifestyle and nutrition that lower our immunity.
I’m reminded of a quote by Louis Pasteur, the French microbiologist known for his work on the germ theory of disease and pasteurization. At the end of his life in 1895, he said, "I have been wrong. The germ is nothing. The 'terrain' is everything.” This quote suggests that illness depends on whom the germ affects, not just the germ itself.
Our bodies have built-in mechanisms that help prevent us from getting sick due to the bacteria, viruses, parasites, and environmental factors that we encounter every day. However, the strength of our immunity can wax and wane. In Functional Medicine, we believe illness is related to both the germ and the host, and has much to do with a lifestyle and nutritional standpoint to stay healthy.
What we eat and drink can have a direct impact on the function or dysfunction of our immune system. With holiday celebrations, nutritious food intake is often replaced to our detriment with processed, high-sugar foods.
When our blood glucose is elevated from nutrient-depleted foods, our immune system is suppressed by 50 percent, and it takes approximately five hours to rebound. Amazingly, our neutrophils, the cells of our immune system that engulf and kill bacteria, prefer refined carbohydrates and sugars to bacteria. This change in function can cause us to negatively react to a germ that, under healthier circumstances, would not have caused illness.
Conversely, when we eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, the phytonutrients (natural substances produced by plants) support our immune system, helping it to function optimally. Strive to eat seven to nine servings of vegetables daily, with a few servings of fruit, even throughout the holiday season. Remember, a serving is a half-cup of cooked vegetables, one cup of raw vegetables, or one cup of raw fruit. Adequate intakes of protein and healthy fats with each meal can help curb your intake of sugars and processed foods. Ideally, keep the sugary/processed temptations out of the house altogether.
Alcohol consumption, which may increase over the holidays, can significantly weaken our immunity and predispose us to infection. It disrupts the immune function of our lungs, making us more prone to upper respiratory infections, and alters our microbiome–healthy bacteria in our intestines that help protect us from pathogenic bacteria. Enjoy holiday parties, but aim to keep your alcohol consumption to one or two drinks total.
Keeping your gut microbiome healthy enhances the strength of your immunity. Two-thirds of our immunity resides in the intestines, and it cannot function optimally if compromised by chronic antibiotic use, overgrowth of yeast, bacteria, parasites, or from inflammation from food sensitivities. Your functional medicine provider can test for food sensitivities and intestinal pathogen overgrowth. But you can take action now to support a healthy microbiome by reducing processed, high-sugar foods, eating fermented foods such as kombucha, sauerkraut, or yogurt, and including high-fiber foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and whole grains.
From a lifestyle standpoint, there is also much we can do to strengthen our immune system. Exercise promotes lymphatic circulation to help fight and rid the body of infection. Also, the more muscle you have, the more robust your immune system, whereas the more adipose (fat) tissue you have, the more inhibited your immunity. Caveat: While regular, moderate-intensity exercise is beneficial, prolonged periods of intense training can suppress immune function. Aim for 30-45 minutes daily of stability/strength training and cardiovascular exercise, even during the holidays.
Most of us struggle with sleep difficulty at one time or another, and the holidays are no exception. Late-evening parties, alcohol, and sugar consumption all can disrupt sleep, and sleep deprivation reduces our mature neutrophil count and function, making us more prone to infection. Aim to take a short nap on days when you’ll be out late for a gathering, and work to improve your sleep overall. Contact your functional medicine provider if you struggle to get seven to eight hours of quality sleep per night.
Finally, while stress is hard to avoid, it’s important to manage, especially when around certain friends or family. Stress suppresses the response of our immune cells, both in the gut and throughout the body. Rather than trying to cope by reaching for sugar and/or alcohol, or by lashing out at others, we can manage stress in healthy ways by exercise, journaling, and not over-booking ourselves.
There is much we can do to stay well this fall and winter—healthy eating, good exercise, improved sleep, and reduced stress are not just about a trim waistline! They are also about the health of our terrain!
Emily Day is a Family Nurse Practitioner and Functional Medicine provider at Nurturing Optimal Wellness with Dr. Nancy Russell.