September is upon us and this time signifies kids going back to school, and adults returning back to the daily grind.  When the weather changes and more school and work stresses are placed on us, both our immune system and energy levels suffer leading to the common complaints of frequent colds and flus, low mood, and low physical and mental energy.  This month I have put together a guide for how your family can stay healthy during the upcoming fall and winter seasons.

Part I: The Immune System

Your body’s immune function can become depleted by a variety of stressors including poor diet, too much sugar or dairy, food sensitivities, physical or mental stress, lack of beneficial/probiotic bacteria, and insufficient vitamins and minerals such as vitamins A, C, D, zinc and selenium.  When the immune system becomes weakened by these factors, it is more susceptible to invading viruses or bacteria.  This explains why some people stay healthy throughout the year, while others complain of catching every cold or flu going around.

What you can do:

Lifestyle:

  • Sleep 8-9 hours per night
  • Drink 2L of water per day
  • Exercise at least 30 min, 3x per week
  • Eat a whole foods diet with vegetables at every meal.  Try adding mushrooms to your plate as they support immune function.
  • Cut down sugar and dairy in your diet.  Sugar weakens the immune system, and dairy promotes mucus formation.
  • Have your food sensitivities tested so you can avoid foods that burden your immune system
  • Avoid excess alcohol and caffeine
  • Use stress reduction techniques (exercise, walking the dog, meditation, yoga)

Supplements:

  • Vitamin D:  Vancouverites are particularly low in this vitamin due to low levels of sunlight through the winter months (September to July?!).  Sunlight is necessary for Vitamin D to be produced by the body, so during the winter, Vitamin D3 (the active form) should be supplemented to the diet as it is necessary for immune function.
  • Multivitamin/mineral:  A quality multivitamin with minerals is also a good idea to give your body a boost.  Make sure your supplement contains Vitamin A, C, B vitamins, and immune boosting minerals such as zinc and selenium.  These nutrients support the production and function of white blood cells which attack microbes and keep your body safe from infection.
  • Probiotics:  A probiotic powder or capsule with at least 20 billion cfu (colony forming units) per day is necessary to replenish and support the “good” bacteria that protect the mucous membranes of your mouth, nose, throat, tonsils and gastrointestinal tract from entering viruses and bacteria.
  • Larch Arabinogalactan: An extract from the larch tree, these sugars knowns as arabinogalactans benefit the immune system.  Larch arabinogalactans are well tolerated by children, and are beneficial for those who get sick often and have other immune related conditions such as allergies and asthma.

Part II: The Adrenal Glands + Energy Production

The adrenal glands are responsible for your energy levels throughout the day, and your ability to handle physically and mentally stressful situations.  These small glands that sit atop your kidneys secrete cortisol as one of their functions.  Cortisol levels are intended to cycle over the course of 24 hours, being high in the morning to wake you up and provide you energy during the day, and low at night to allow for a restful sleep.

Long periods of stress lead to poor adrenal gland function and eventually, adrenal gland burn-out.  As you can imagine, this causes very low levels of cortisol production leading to extreme fatigue, low mood, low libido, sugar cravings and inability to cope with life’s stressors.

What you can do:

Lifestyle:

  • Avoid stimulants like energy drinks, excessive caffeine/caffeinated sodas, and nicotine
  • Increase sleep and avoid late nights
  • Stress reduction
  • Cut down on sugar in your diet.  Sweets and simple carbohydrates (white bread, pastries, white rice…) raise blood sugar which leads to energy crashes, hypoglycemia, and more sugar cravings.
  • Regular exercise at a slower pace such as walking, jogging or yoga
  • Eat small regular meals and incorporate protein at every meal

Testing:

  • Have your adrenal function tested with a 4 point salivary cortisol test, which measures how much cortisol your adrenal glands produce at 4 different times of day.  This test also checks for DHEA, an adrenal hormone that is a predictor of physical stamina and longevity.
  • It is also a good idea to have your thyroid function tested as thyroid function can be affected by adrenal fatigue.  The thyroid regulates your metabolism, weight gain/ability to lose weight, and energy levels.  Often thyroid levels will vastly improve once the adrenal glands are treated.
  • If you are a female, ovary function can be assessed by testing the female hormones estradiol (a type of estrogen) and progesterone.  This is especially important around the time of menopause as the adrenal glands take over female hormone production for the ovaries.  Adrenal support is very important during this time.

Supplements:

  • Vitamin B Complex: B Vitamins are vital for adrenal gland function and these vitamins are necessary to run the energy cycles within your cells.  Without B Vitamins, your metabolism will be slow and your energy levels will be low.  B Vitamins are depleted by alcohol, caffeine, oral contraceptives and other prescription medications.
  • Rhodiola, Licorice, and Ashwagandha: These plants support weakened adrenal glands and protect the body during times of stress.  Rhodiola is particularly beneficial for those who have heart palpitations due to stress or fatigue.  Herbs can be taken in a capsule or as a tincture (alcohol extract) but make sure you consult with your ND first as dosing and contraindications are important.
  • Adrenal glandulars:  Glandulars are bovine adrenal gland extracts that contain all the necessary components for adrenal function.  Glandulars are great for those with significant adrenal fatigue as they give immediate and optimal support, but not recommended for vegetarians.