How to balance your immune system in winter

Wellbeing Tips
December 21, 2020

Here are some simple tips that can help you avoid getting sick and maximize your chances of recovery during winter illness season.

“The immune system is really complicated. We don’t understand very much of it at all,” says Dr. Suzanne Cassel, an immunologist at Cedars-Sinai, a nonprofit academic healthcare organization located in Los Angeles. Yikes – when a specialist admits to the limits of knowledge, that could be cause for pause. However, Cassel goes on to address a common misconception around the desire of having a strong immune system: “You actually don’t want your immune system to be stronger, you want it to be balanced. Too much of an immune response is just as bad as too little response.” So, having too strong of an immune system can be a bad thing, but what can you do at a personal level to make sure it’s balanced?

The human body’s response to attacks from pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms such as viruses or bacteria) is to put in place several biological mechanisms including the production of antibodies, leukocytes, and lymphocytes that fight disease. There are several steps you can take to help your body be ready with a balanced immune system to respond effectively to illness.

Practice preventative measures

The rituals of washing hands, using the “vampire method” of coughing into the elbow, and other tricks of the health trade are particularly effective in the fight against all types of communicable diseases. Even if they are indispensable today in the midst of a pandemic, one can imagine that outside of COVID-19, these steps will continue to be practiced while some longtime customs including kissing and shaking hands might be stopped in certain social situations.

Beyond washing hands (and remember – hydroalcoholic gel is not a substitute for soap), wearing a mask is an effective way to preemptively fight the spread of disease in a collective fashion. Or, in other words, when you wear a mask, you help prevent making others ill.

Don’t skimp on vitamin C

According to several studies, including this one, taking a daily dose of 100 to 200 mg per day can prevent and treat respiratory infections. This will not necessarily prevent you from getting sick if you come into close contact with a virus, but you will surely heal faster.

Luckily you can throw a coin in a produce section at a grocery store and manage to hit at least one fruit or vegetable beyond oranges that has the required daily value of vitamin C.

Vitamin C specifically works against illness as an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory and immunostimulant properties. It activates mono and dioxygenase enzymes that reduce oxidative stress, i.e. the aggressions suffered by the body. It cannot be manufactured by the body and is often administered to patients suffering from trauma or severe infectious diseases.

What happens if you manage to actively avoid vitamin C in a society where its presence is generally available and affordable? Well, deficiency can lead to scurvy, a disease responsible for decreased immunity and serious infections. Poor eating and lifestyle habits (smoking, alcohol) are generally responsible for a lack of vitamin C.

Wake up to the importance of sleep

Since the 1970s, many researchers have been working on the link between sleep and the immune system. A study published in February 2019 in the Journal of Medicine proves that T-lymphocytes (cells that destroy disease-infected cells) are stimulated by a restful night’s sleep. Another 2015 study published in the scientific journal Sleep proves that with a good night’s sleep, you are four times less likely to catch a cold. The body therefore defends itself better if your sleep score indicates that your night has been restorative.

Adding flavor adds defenses

Many of the nutrients in our food can help balance our immune system. If you already have a balanced diet, you are on the right track. However, you can always give your body an extra boost by adding spices, herbs, and oilseeds to your dishes. For example, parsley, paprika, chives, spearmint, tarragon, and saffron are particularly rich in vitamin B2, which stimulates the production of antibodies and red blood cells and may even prevent the development of certain cancers.

Consider adding the following to your soups and salads to help ward off winter illness:

  • Prebiotics: garlic, onion
  • Probiotics: brewer’s yeast
  • Vitamin A: garlic, cayenne pepper
  • Vitamin B2: parsley, paprika, chives, spearmint, tarragon, saffron
  • Vitamin B5: brewer’s yeast, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, dried apricots
  • Vitamin B6: brewer’s yeast, paprika, chili, spearmint sage, cayenne pepper, tarragon, basil, chives
  • Vitamin C: chives, thyme, parsley
  • Vitamin E: wheat germ oil, sunflower oil, avocado oil, rapeseed oil, hazelnut oil, sunflower seeds, unbleached almond oil, hazelnut oil
  • Zinc: poppy, pumpkin seeds, garlic
  • Copper: walnuts, cocoa

Carolyn Dean, an M.D. known for championing the benefits of natural medicine suggests eating “magnesium-rich foods such as nuts and seeds,” including “almonds, cashews or pumpkin seeds,” to boost your immune system.

Moderate exercise for maximum benefits

What health article isn’t going to tell you to exercise? None we know of, especially since exercise is good for the immune system. However, exercising in winter, especially during a pandemic, can provide challenges for those not used to exercising outdoors. Wearing clothing that keeps you dry and warm is the key to exercising longer outdoors. One big tip hikers learn by heart for winter adventures: cotton kills! Wearing wool blends for socks, pants, and core will help you maintain body heat while wicking away moisture from sweat when you find yourself on a long outdoor journey. If you’re running during winter with access to the indoors when needed, you can wear synthetics that will keep you dry.

However, before you snap on the spandex, the study Sport and Immunity published in the scientific journal “La presse médicale formation”, states that “Physical training that is too intense, unsuited to individual capacities, and/or with an unbalanced effort/recovery ratio, especially if it is associated with other significant external and/or dietary constraints, can weaken the immune system.”

Nevertheless, the study also explains that 3 to 4 sessions per week of balanced exertion and recovery in combination with moderate intensity and duration can actually balance the immune system.

Put chilling out on your to do list

Stress can be, well, stressful on the immune system whether it’s winter or not. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine and conducted by a group of researchers from Inserm, CNRS, and Aix-Marseille University has shown the negative impact of stress on the immune system.

However, telling you to relax will probably not be enough to help you do so.

We suggest getting to know cardiac coherence as one easy-to-implement relaxation exercise that you can practice using ScanWatch and its Breathe feature to help you regain focus and target the stressors in your life you can control and those that require continued endurance.

Get your vaccines

Everything mentioned thus far can potentially help bolster your winter defenses. However, the methods outlined above aren’t intended to be seen as a replacement for vaccines. Inoculation is one of the best ways of avoiding disease. In fact, the flu vaccine can reduce the need of a winter doctor’s visit by 40 to 60 percent.

There is a plethora of misinformation surrounding vaccination. But a study analyzing 25 million vaccines administered between 2009 to 2011 revealed only 33 people, or 0.00000132 percent of those who received a vaccine, suffered from a severe reaction. Put another way, the benefit of vaccination outweighs the risk 99.99999868%.

Modern medicine is a gift, and this combined with all of the personal steps you can take during winter may help you balance your immune system for a continued or enhanced quality of life.


This article has been reviewed by Professor Escourrou, cardiologist and sleep doctor.