6 Steps to Optimize Your Gut Health to Prevent Colds and Flu This Winter
I'm pretty sure 'Cold and Flu Season' was a term coined by pharmaceutical companies who were trying to sell more product! I hate walking past a CVS or Walgreens and seeing the fluorescent warning signs in the window yelling at us to stock up before we have even gotten ill. Way to put it out into the universe!
But seriously it is not inevitable that you will get sick at the turn of the season. We get ill if our immune system does not function as well as it should do, not because we are turning a page on a calendar.
But Why Do So Many People Get Sick at This Time of Year?
Personally, I think how we schedule our year plays a huge role in why we get sick in the Fall and the Winter (especially in Boston). We spend our summers staying up late, grilling out, drinking rose and prioritizing fun, but the minute the day ends on Labor Day we are hard at work at our jobs, at school, or both (believe me, I am feeling that pain right now), not paying our health and wellness the attention it needs because we are so busy, only surfacing at Thanksgiving to enjoy the start of the holiday season...
Recent research shows that the influenza virus does thrive better in a colder, more stable environment such as the fall and the winter, but this is only a tiny part of the puzzle. I believe that if post-summer, we can implement some holistic health habits that result in a robust and thriving immune system we can phase out Cold and Flu Season altogether!
The Effect of Gut Health on the Immune System
As you probably know by now, over 70% of the immune system is housed in the gut. Our microbiome (often referred to as our gut flora or bacteria) lives within the mucosal barrier of the gut (the cell wall of the gut is just one cell thick) and is responsible for what is let into our bloodstream, and what is kept out. This relates not just to the nutrients from our food, but to pathogens, viruses, and bacteria too.
If we have an imbalance in this intelligent microbiome, then the signaling can get confused causing the defense mechanism to become compromised. Combine this with the effects of Leaky Gut (when the tight junctions of the gut wall become compromised due to food allergens, stress, environmental toxins, and medications) and our usually robust immune system takes a severe hit.
Easy Ways to Optimize Our Gut Health
Looking after our gut health doesnt have to be complicated, and by following the steps below you will not only enhance your immune system, but feel more energized, experience less bloating, sleep better and improve your body composition!
1) Reduce Consumption of Processed Foods
When you reduce your consumption of processed foods you are automatically reducing your consumption of sugar, soy, wheat, dairy and artificial colorings, flavorings and sweeteners that cause microbiome imbalances and that increase symptoms ofLeaky Gut. Aim to base your diet around real, whole foods - those without an ingredients label such as veggies, fruits, organic wild or pasture raised proteins.
2) Chew Your Food
It seems crazy that we have to be reminded of this, but in our fast-paced society where we rarely sit down to eat a meal, chewing is a forgotten art form! Both mechanical and enzymatic digestion takes place in the mouth, and our salivia contains a certain enzyme that is not found anywhere else in the body. Without chewing we do not break down the nutrients in our food, and run the risk of large particles of food being released into the bloodstream, setting off an auto immune response.
If you are eating in a rush, aim for smoothies, yogurts, soups, etc that do not need as much breaking down to be absorbed by the body, but ensure you balance this out with high fiber meals that you sit down and take the time to eat.
3) Drink More Water
Simple, right? As the temperatures get cooler we tend to decrease our water consumption, but in fact, we need just as much as in the summer to combat the drying effects of cold weather and indoor heat. Ensure your water is clean and filtered (click here for my choices for at both home and whilst traveling), and ensure it is at least room temperature or warmer, as cold water can reduce digestive function.
4) Give Time For Gastric Clearance
Again, a simple solution, but since the eighties, we have been conditioned to think we need to eat every 2-3 hours to stabilize our blood sugar. This is not the case, as if we eat a diet rich in protein, fiber and good fats it will keep our blood sugar and insulin levels stable for at least 4 hours, but also does not give adequate time for gastric clearance (the food to move through the digestive system). I also like to have at least 12 hours after eating my evening meal before breakfast, so for most of us, this means moving our evening meal a little earlier. If this does not work for you try eating a larger meal at lunch and a lighter meal in the evening.
5) Eat More Cooked Foods in the Winter
Whilst it is important to utilize the Prime Principle of eating at least 8-9 servings of veggies a day during the colder months make sure at least half of these are coming from cooked veggies. Cooked veggies are actually easier for us to digest, and as such we may absorb more nutrients from them than their raw counterparts. Also if we are eating seasonally we are moving into a season of hearty root vegetables that need to be baked or roasted in a little fat to ensure we are getting all of their goodness.
6) Increase Pre and Probiotic Foods in the Diet - But Not Too Much!
In addition to a daily probiotic (click here for my recommendation) I also love to include fermented foods in my client's diet on a daily basis. Technically fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha cannot be labelled as 'probiotic' unless they have been tested in a lab, but they are a great way to ensure you are getting a variety of good bacteria for microbiome health.
Prebiotics are foods that contain a certain type of fiber that our gut bacteria can digest, but we can't. Whilst I do recommend having some prebiotic fiber everyday (except in the cases of severly compromised gut health or SIBO) in the form of starchy vegetables, proceed with caution and tritate very slowly upwards when adding in prebiotic fibers (especially with potato starches, plantain starches, etc), as too much can cause severe GI distress.
Should you have any question regarding the info here please commment, or head over to my 'Eat, Exercise, Empower' FB Group to join the conversation!