How to Boost Your Immune System Naturally

by Karen Kerk October 05, 2014

How to Boost Your Immune System Naturally

(Guest Post By Courtney Henny, background in Nursing and owner of Emmy’s Elderberry Syrup)

You’re going to get sick this season. It’s inevitable.

Or is it?  How much control do we have over our immune systems, and our ability to fight off all these nasty bugs floating around us this time of year?

Especially for those of us with toddlers and school-aged kids, this is a topic we tend to obsess over. Illness often means sleepless nights (often for weeks or months on end), missed work and school, visits to doctors and emergency rooms, and money spent on antibiotics and other medications to suppress symptoms.

How can we decrease our risks of contracting colds, influenzas, gastroenteritis, and worse? And more importantly, what lengths should we go to in order to protect ourselves from the bugs out there? Are these bugs all bad? Should we be using toxic antimicrobial substances in an attempt to keep ourselves and our kids “healthy” and sniffle-free?

These are a few of the questions I’ve struggled with over the years since becoming a mother, especially with a background in nursing. I’ve seen the effects of some nasty infections, and I want to do what I can to prevent my family from suffering acute (and chronic) illnesses. But I don’t want to prevent temporary suffering at the expense of long-term health.

Which is why I’ve focused on prevention. This means keeping our bodies strong and healthy, and boosting our immune systems in healthy, natural ways to give our bodies the best chance at fighting off the bad bugs, quickly and efficiently, when they do hit. Do my kids still get sick? Yep. But not as often, and not nearly as severely as they used to.I’ve done a lot of reading, learning, and through trial and error, I’ve figured out what seems to work quite well for our family (although I’m always learning!). I believe it’s important to find a balance, to not obsess, and I prefer a minimalist approach when it comes to supplements.

First and foremost, our bodies need to be “clean” in order to be healthy, and our detoxifying organs generally do a great job. But we are surrounded by toxins. They’re unavoidable.

We can, however, control the extent of our exposure in our homes by using natural cleaning products (vinegar, baking soda, and some essential oils work just as well as many chemical cleaners), and choosing organic and/or local produce when possible. We can choose to use “green” personal care products, natural soaps, aluminum and paraben-free deodorants, etc. Our motto in our home is if you wouldn’t put it in your mouth, don’t put it on your skin!

Over-burdening the body’s detoxifying system with unnecessary, toxic products, and refined, processed “foods” doesn’t allow those systems to focus on protecting us from exposure to bacteria and viruses. Not to mention the ill-effects many of these products have directly on our guts, and therefore, our immunity.Because a good portion of our immune system is located in the gut, which should be inhabited by trillions of good bugs, keeping our guts healthy and balanced is one of the most important steps we can take. Research has proven that live probiotics reduce the frequency and severity of upper respiratory infections, ear infections, and gastroenteritis (stomach flu) in kids.

If you choose to use a probiotic supplement, read the labels and look for one that guarantees potency at the date of expiration. The label will state  a certain number of CFU’s (the more the better, billions not millions), but many supplements will state that this was the number at the time of manufacture. Those bugs start to die, and by the time that capsule or powder gets into you and your kids, it may only contain a fraction of the number of live bugs it contained when it left the factory. You’re looking for the words “guaranteed at the date of expiration”. Don’t waste your money on dead bugs. Also, most good quality probiotics will be kept refrigerated.

Personally, I’ve slowly taken more of a “minimalist” approach with supplements, and I like to use real food whenever possible instead of nutrients found in a capsule or pill (which often contain “extra” ingredients such as sugar, fillers, binders, etc.). I’ve started making my own probiotics. Fermented foods and drinks such as yogurt, water or milk kefir, kombucha, kim chi, sauerkraut and any other number of fermented vegetables are an extremely potent source of good bacteria and yeasts, and is generally much more affordable, and beneficial (fun to make, and fascinating to learn about!). Along with a mostly-organic, whole-foods based, unprocessed diet, based on fresh fruits and vegetables, and clean protein and fat sources, we can keep our gut bugs healthy, happy and thriving.

Aside from probiotics, one of the first and most beneficial measures I took in improving our health and immunity, was ensuring adequate vitamin d levels. I don’t believe it’s enough to take the recommended number of IU’s everyday (though that’s better than doing nothing!). For about thirty dollars, you can ask for the test, know your baseline, and safely supplement with large doses if needed. Optimal vitamin d levels have been linked to an improved and balanced immune system, with less risk of contracting influenza, greater chance of effectively fighting infection if it does hit, and decreased risk of developing autoimmune and chronic diseases.

This next one sounds so basic and obvious, but it’s something most of us need to hear (over and over again) because we just don’t realize how important it is that we get enough SLEEP! Seriously. Did you know that long-term sleep deprivation is linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and general inflammation in the body, which can lead to all sorts of chronic health issues?

Short-term loss of sleep actually reduces the body’s ability to produce white blood cells, antibodies and cytokines, all of which are needed in order to fight infection. It can even trigger symptoms of asthma in people with respiratory issues. So yes, missing out on a solid 7-8 hours of sleep each night can absolutely make us more susceptible to catching colds, influenza and other bugs. Not only that, but we are then also more likely to suffer for longer than our well-rested peers, and our risk of becoming infected with secondary infections (such as pneumonia) is increased as well. Yay!

Once you’re well-rested and producing those white blood cells and antibodies, get moving. Moderate exercise has been shown to help the immune system in the fight against viral and bacterial infections. We’re not entirely sure how this works, but the theories make sense: the increased movement speeds up the circulation, thus speeding the rate at which the antibodies and white blood cells reach different areas of the body. Since the fighter cells are getting to the sites of entry faster, they’re able to stop invading viruses and bacteria in their tracks, before they set up camp in the nose, throat, lungs, or stomach. A more sluggish circulatory system might not transport these cells to where they need to be in time.

Exercise also increases the body temperature, which can have a similar effect  to a fever. Fever is simply an increase in body temperature to just above the point where viruses and bacteria are able to survive, thrive, and multiply. If we regularly, on a daily basis, increase our core temperature through moderate exercise, we may burn off any invading bugs before they have a chance to do much damage.

Sweating is also a form of “detox”. The body is able to expel viruses, bacteria and even carcinogenic toxins through the skin and sweat! Pretty amazing, right? Luckily, there’s no need to run a marathon (and in fact, too intense of exercise has been shown to have the opposite effect on the immune system!). Only a moderate amount and intensity of exercise is required to reap these benefits.

Once you’ve got the basics of a clean, toxin-free (or at least decreased to a minimum) lifestyle, a whole-foods, high-produce, mostly-organic/local diet, a good healthy sleep routine, and you’ve found some form of exercise you love, you’ve got a great base for a good solid immune system that’s probably going to be able to fight the good fight.

Happy Boosting!!


Karen Kerk
Karen Kerk

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