In many parts of the country, wintertime means chilly temps, snow, and all sorts of bugs that threaten to banish us to the couch with tea in one hand and the TV remote in the other. And while it’s always a good idea to prep your immune system for this time of year, it may be especially important this year. Why? Experts are predicting the colder months will bring with them a particularly rough flu season.
“Since Australia’s seasons are the opposite of ours and they are the largest temperate-climate country in the southern hemisphere, they may provide us with advanced notice of what our flu season will look like,” explains Dr. John Sellick, D.O., M.S., a professor of medicine at SUNY University at Buffalo’s Division of Infectious Diseases. “It is not absolute that one follows the other, but Australia’s season started early and has been moderately severe—and in the U.S. we are already starting to see some cases.” Basically, things aren’t looking great.
Not to mention, the winter months can be tough on our immune systems for other reasons, too. “Between holidays and work-life demands, the winter season tends to be a very busy, stressful time for many,” says Dr. Tricia Pingel, N.M.D., an Arizona-based naturopathic physician and author of Total Health Turnaround. “Without properly supporting your immune system and your body’s ability to manage stress, you’re setting yourself up for the perfect ‘storm’ of illness.”
While you might not be able to skip out on the snowstorms and holiday drama, there’s plenty you can do to prep your immune system for the season. In addition to getting your flu shot (which Sellick recommends doing ASAP), check out these must-try tactics, straight from the pros.
1. Keep up with your workout routine
Chilly temps tempting you to skip those workout sessions? Not so fast. “Exercise can produce cytokines and increase the circulation of lymphocytes, which can help support the immune system,” says registered dietitian Amber Pankonin, M.S., R.D., L.M.N.T., founder of The Stirlist. Both of these types of molecules play crucial roles in immune function. (As if you needed yet another reason to get moving!)
The going recommendation: two muscle-strengthening workouts, plus a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (think five brisk 30-minute walks) per week.
2. Eat foods rich in polyphenols
“Research has shown that eating foods that are high in polyphenols, such as extra-virgin olive oil, dark chocolate (in moderation), and green tea, can promote a healthy immune system,” says chef and certified nutritionist Serena Poon, C.N., C.H.C., C.H.N.
Polyphenols are compounds found in plants that work as antioxidants in the body, and studies have found that they help the immune system by activating signals within cells to create an immune response, while also scavenging for free radicals, which contribute to oxidative stress.
3. Get at least seven hours of sleep
One of the most powerful things you can do to prep your immune system for the colder season: rest. “Sleep is essential to our health, but it’s oftentimes neglected or not prioritized. The current recommendation is seven to nine hours per day, and anything less can weaken our immune system,” says Las Vegas-based dietitian Roxana Ehsani, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D.N. “When we sleep, our body’s immune system produces protections that fight off viruses and defend our bodies against them. When we don’t get enough sleep, we can’t produce them.” As a result, she says, we’re more susceptible to getting sick and may take longer to recover.
In addition to working on your sleep hygiene (back away from the screens before bed!), you can also add a sleep-supporting supplement to your routine to help you log the rest you need.
4. Take stress management Seriously
When you’re under chronic stress, your immune system loses its ability to effectively fight off bacteria and viruses, leaving you more vulnerable to illness. “Studies have shown that stress can even impact your body’s ability to heal from those infections,” says Pingel. “Plus, recent research also shows that stress often causes you to make poor lifestyle choices, accelerating the aging process of your T-cells, which are critical for proper immune function.”
Four major ways to help your body manage stress, according to Pingel:
- eat a nutrient-rich, whole foods diet
- take adrenal-supporting herbs such as ashwagandha or rhodiola
- Make calming exercise, such as walking or yoga, part of your regular routine
- Start a daily mind-body ritual, such as meditation
5. Consume more vitamin C
“Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant known to help fight free radicals in the body and support the body in the face of environmental stress,” says Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist based in New York City. Though it’s always a nutrient you want on your plate, it’s especially important to get enough throughout the colder months.
The good news: You’ll find it in plenty of foods. “Citrus, berries, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and tomatoes are just a few of the popular vitamin C-rich foods,” Gans says.
To meet the recommended daily amount (RDA) for vitamin C (65 to 90 milligrams), enjoy more of the following during the winter months:
- Oranges (83 milligrams per cup)
- Strawberries (136 milligrams per cup)
- Sweet potatoes (42 milligrams per cup)
- Broccoli (81 milligrams per cup)
- Tomatoes (55 milligrams per cup)
6. Take herbal Supplements
“There are many herbs and plant compounds that can help support your immune system when taken in supplement form, such as astragalus and echinacea,” says Poon. “Taking these plant compounds can support your system in preparation for times of stress or seasons that tend to bring more illness to your community. Each supplement is different, so it’s always important to refer to the suggested usage on the back of the bottle and check with your practitioner.”
Read More: The Best Adaptogens For Every Wellness Need
Another popular option to add to your pantry: oil of oregano, which has been used for generations to support immune and respiratory health, adds Pingel. Supplements are typically standardized to provide 32 milligrams of carvacrol, the main component of oregano oil. (She loves Gaia Herbs Oil of Oregano.)
The experts recommend keeping these supplements stocked for the winter months so that you can add them to your routine as needed.
7. Up your zinc intake
“Zinc is another powerful antioxidant that has been linked to immune health,” says Gans. “Zinc-rich foods include oysters, beans, whole grains, and nuts.” While it’s always important to meet your daily needs (11 milligrams per day for men and eight for women), take extra care to do so during the winter.
While many people can accomplish this through food, certain groups of people—such as pregnant and lactating women, vegetarians, and people with gastrointestinal issues—may need extra support, suggests Ehsani.
Zinc is better absorbed from animal sources (like beef and seafood), but you’ll also find it in vegetarian and vegan foods (like beans, nuts, and seeds). Incorporate the following into your eats regularly:
- pumpkin seeds (2.2 milligrams per ounce)
- fortified cereal and whole-grain bread (up to 3 milligrams per serving)
- beans (3 milligrams per half-cup)
- beef (7 milligrams per three ounces)
- crab (6.5 milligrams per three ounces)
8. Spice up your cooking
“Many plants that are known to carry potent properties can boost immune function,” says Poon. “Spices such as garlic, turmeric, and black cumin seed can be used in cooking or to support your body’s inner defenses.” Bonus: These particular spices also have a warming quality that makes them comforting amidst colder weather. (Check out these immune-loving soups and slow-cooker recipes for some inspiration on how to get more of these spices into your diet.)
9. Increase Your vitamin D
“As the hours of sunlight dwindle in the fall and winter months, it can be difficult to get vitamin D from the sun,” says Ehsani. Considering vitamin D plays a notable role in immune health, that’s a big deal. In addition to eating D-containing foods like fatty fish, UV-exposed mushrooms, and eggs, talk to your dietitian or doctor about adding a supplement to your routine. Researchers suggest many adults need up to 2,000 IU per day to maintain sufficient levels.
10. Support your gut health with a daily probiotic
“While probiotics are mainly known to promote gut health, they also support your immunity,” says Pingel. That’s because your gut is the home of much of your immune system, so a healthy gut makes for solid immunity.
For that reason, Pingel recommends taking a daily probiotic supplement, and reaching for a higher-potency option (think 100 billion CFU) when you feel under the weather. Research suggests those good gut bugs really do make a difference!