We live in an environment surrounded by pollen, pet dander, viruses and bacteria that have the potential to make us sick or sneezy. Our immune system chugs along, day in and day out, sorting through these exposures and fighting back when a potential threat to our health occurs. But is it me, or do we only notice our immune system when it lapses? We get a head cold or cough and then start in on the healthy routine to come back into balance.

Let’s do this: let’s acknowledge the importance of our immune system in a series of lifestyle strategies that are especially important now that the winter colds and flu season has arrived.

Six steps to getting stronger

Here’s a checklist to help keep your immune system strong every season of the year:

1. Nutrition is key. Avoid white sugar and sweets. Grab a piece of fruit or a handful of raisins instead of cookies, cake or pie. Watch out for oil that has gone rancid (use your nose) and check expiration dates carefully on packaged and canned goods. If your body is exposed to a lot of inflammatory foods like these, your immune system is “distracted” in its efforts to protect you.

2. Get moving. Walk 30 to 45 minutes at least three times a week. If walking hurts, try a recumbent bike or water-based therapy. Your body systems all work better when you are active – this includes your immune system!

3. Examine your exposures. Look carefully at your exposures to heavy metals like mercury (silver dental fillings or farm-raised salmon) or pesticides or other potential environmental toxins. See the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen and Clean 15” (ewg.org/foodnews/) to get an idea which foods from commercial growers can be safely consumed, and which fruits and vegetables should only be bought from organic growers.

Ask your dentist if any of your mercury amalgam fillings are old and cracked and make sure the dentist knows how to replace them safely so you aren’t exposed to mercury when they are replaced. Chemicals like these interfere with your liver’s ability to detoxify – which hampers your immune system’s ability to do its job.

4. Get your balance. Check with your integrative medicine practitioner and make sure you are on a good balance of antioxidants, essential fatty acids, electrolytes and magnesium. Be aware that everyone’s nutritional needs are unique. If you aren’t getting adequate micronutrients like these from your diet, adding nutritional supplements can be helpful. Ask your practitioner to assess and monitor how much you need.

5. Control your stress. We know that our immune system is closely tied to our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which allows us to respond to both short- and long-term stress. We also know that the strategies here can’t take all of our stress away, but we can certainly learn to cope so that we can become more resilient and less reactive to life’s stressors.

6. Sleep well. Turn off the computer monitor or the TV and start a relaxation practice. It could be breath work or prayer or meditation… figure out how to “unwind” so that your sleep is deep and restful. If there is a question of sleep apnea, consider getting a sleep study and assessing the quality and quantity of sleep.

We know that a lot of our body’s restorative and detoxifying systems kick into gear while we are asleep. Rather than medicating with a prescription drug, explore emotional, mental, physical and spiritual aspects of your health to see if you and your practitioner can understand why you’re not sleeping well.

The winter cold and flu season isn’t a problem for people who follow the guidelines here. Remember our immune system and allow it to function optimally. That is nothing to sneeze at!

Initially published in TriVita Newsletter

Textbook of Functional Medicine 2010, Institute for Functional Medicine, Ed. David S. Jones