Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Winter Immune Supports

It’s that time of the year again. The time of the year when children’s noses start running and parent’s stomachs start aching. While it may seem like the cold air brings on the various winter ailments, there is actually a known seasonal correlation with illness and immune function. We will look at how common issues such as vitamin D deficiency, increased stress, poor dietary choices, and decreased glutathione production can affect our susceptibility to illness during the winter months.

Vitamin D deficiency is common in our society. It seems like every week there is a new study correlating vitamin D deficiency with a different chronic or acute illness. This tendency towards deficiency becomes even more prevalent in the winter when the daytime sun is lower in the horizon and hence the rays that support vitamin D conversion in the skin are diffused on the approach through the atmosphere. This decrease in our vitamin D levels in the winter has been proposed as a causative factor for the seasonal association of RSV, Cold and Flu, and other winter illnesses. I personally supplement with 2000 to 4000 IUs of vitamin D3 during the winter and I make sure my daughters get 1000 IUs every day.

In addition to Vitamin D, there is another key nutrient that can play a pivotal roll in our winter immune function. That nutrient is N acetyl cysteine, an amino acid precursor to glutathione. Glutathione is vital for our health due to its ability to decrease oxidative damage and to neutralize free radicals. The formation of glutathione happens primarily in the liver and glutathione is a key component of our body’s detoxification process. In addition glutathione is important for our body’s immune response and cellular repair mechanisms. Glutathione is a vital component in some capacity for nearly every system in the body and when we are missing the nutritional precursors, our overall functioning decreases and susceptibility to illness increases.

Unfortunately most individuals, and doctors for that matter, are completely unaware that acetaminophen affects the production of glutathione in the liver. So taking any product with acetaminophen to address the pain and/or fever that often accompanies an illness will actually decrease our body’s own capacity to fight it. In cases where something is absolutely required for pain or fever, I recommend ibuprofen or naproxen for my family. But before that is even necessary, one can start taking N acetyl cysteine to increase glutathione production. N acetyl cysteine also has a unique action helping to liquefy mucus, so it is an ideal support for sinus infections and those nagging coughs where there is thick mucus stuck in the chest that just won’t come up.

Stress and increased cortisol levels are another concern that will suppress the body’s immune function. In general the hustle and bustle of the holidays creates stress in our lives which then increases our cortisol levels. We must be proactive in creating stress relief and healing opportunities for ourselves. Take time to find space for meditation, relaxation, and prayer during the winter months. At least once a day decompress and focus on the many things you have to be grateful for during the seasons. A simple and effective exercise is to take a deep inhalation through the nose, hold for a few seconds and release back through the nose. Wait a few seconds and then repeat. This cyclical deep breathing practice will help shift the body from a stress response into a more relaxed and healing state.

The dietary choices we make during the holidays are often times a great departure from our normal food consumptions. These drastic changes can lead to varying degrees of digestive disturbances that can create GI flora imbalances and an immune system that is susceptible to infection. Because our gut functions as a first line of defense against foreign pathogens, multiple studies have shown an increase in immune function from probiotics. Probiotics are live microorganisms that help to rebalance the bacteria in our digestive tract. Taking a broad spectrum probiotic supplement at the first signs of a GI disturbance can help support the digestive process and avoid the potential decrease in immune function from a GI flora imbalance.

I will also often suggest some of the standard herbal immune stimulants when individuals aren’t feeling well or have recently been exposed to someone known to be suffering with a cold or flu. These herbs are best to be used for short periods of time to help rev up our immune response in acute situations. They should not be used throughout the winter due to their immune stimulatory effect. If we are constantly sending a message that our body should be fighting an infection even when we are not sick, then when we do get sick it will be much more difficult to mount an adequate immune response. The herbs I typically will recommend include: Echinacea, Goldenseal, Garlic, Grapefruit Seed Extract, Osha root, Shitake and Maitake mushrooms, Elderberry, and Astragalus.

Finally I want to share an incredibly easy and effective way to support our body’s healing abilities through the application of water, known as hydrotherapy. This is an approach I share regularly with patients. This at home immune support technique is called “Wet Socks” and should be considered at the first sign of any illness. The instructions are listed below. Peace and health to everyone this holiday season.


The wet sock treatment is best if repeated for three nights in a row, or as instructed by your physician. It can also be used as a prevention technique at the first signs of impending illness.

Indications: Sore throat or any inflammation or infection of the throat, neck pain, ear infections, headaches, migraines, nasal congestion, upper respiratory infections, coughs, bronchitis, and sinus infections. Through the increased circulation in the lower extremities this technique can also support healing of injuries, sprains, strains, and muscle soreness in the legs.


1 pair white cotton socks

1 pair thick wool socks or thick polar fleece socks


Warm bath or warm foot bath


1. Take a pair of cotton socks and soak them completely with cold water. Be sure to wring the socks out thoroughly so they do not drip.

2. Warm your feet first. This is very important as the treatment will not be as effective with cold feet. Warming can be accomplished by soaking your feet in warm water for at least 5-10 minutes or taking a warm bath for 5-10 minutes. If you feet are naturally warm, you do not need to soak or heat externally.

3. If wet, dry off feet and body with a towel.

4. Place cold, damp wet socks on feet. Cover with thick wool socks. Go directly to bed. Avoid getting chilled.

5. Keep the socks on overnight. You will find that the wet cotton socks will be completely dry in the morning.

Effects of the Wet Sock Treatment: This treatment acts to reflexively increase the circulation through the legs and decrease the congestion in the upper respiratory passages, head, and throat. It has a sedating action and many patients report that they sleep much better during the treatment. This treatment is also effective for pain relief and increases the healing response during acute infections.