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  • Dr. Sarah Penney, ND, MSc

Stave off The Sniffles Naturally!

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

At some point this winter it will seem like everyone you know is sick. So what do you do when you are surrounded by sniffles at home and coughing at the office? Even the healthiest of us get sick once in a while, but there are simple ways you can decrease your susceptibility and help prepare your body to get over infections faster. Supporting your immune system is your top line of defense against the viral infections that cause both the common cold and flu, so try some of these tips to help boost your immunity and keep seasonal sickness away naturally!

  1. Watch What You Eat – Your diet can either help or hinder your immune function, and choosing the right foods during cold and flu season could make all the difference. One important question to ask yourself is how many servings of fruits and veggies you are having per day? These foods are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that are thought to help keep the immune system in optimal shape. Pick produce with bright colours to get the most bang for your buck – red, orange, blue and yellow generally indicate high nutrient content in these foods. Along the lines of what to avoid, some believe that high amounts of sugar suppress immune function in the short term. Try monitoring your intake of sugary foods likes pop or chocolate during the fall and winter, especially when surrounded by sniffling friends and family!

  2. Optimize Your Digestion – You might wonder what your tummy has to do with catching a cold, but the trillions of bacteria that live in our gut are instrumental in supporting several aspects of our immune system. Research suggests that when it comes to our response to infection, our gut bacteria may help sound the alarm to alert our immune system of potential invaders (1). This helpful bacteria can however be impaired by the use of antibiotics, prolonged diarrhea, chronic stress and a diet low in healthy fiber. Consider supporting your gut flora with an extra dose of good bacteria through a probiotics supplement in the winter season, and talk to a Naturopath about how to maximize your digestive health.

  3. Keep Moving – Exercise is a tried and true way to prevent many health concerns, including the common cold! Studies suggest that regular exercise is associated with a decreased risk of infection, and as a bonus it can help boost your mood during the dark days of winter. Try getting some fresh air on a walk during your lunch break, or climb the stairs in your building a few times if it is too cold outside. Athletes who exert themselves to the level of extreme training for prolonged periods of time may however be temporarily depressing their immune function, which may be important to consider if you are training for an event. Be sure to dial down the intensity if you get sick! (2)

  4. Stress and Sleep – These two factors go hand in hand when thinking about immune function. When we are under periods of prolonged stress, our body releases a hormone called cortisol that can suppress our immune function. As if stress wasn’t enough, many of us lose sleep when we are under pressure or we have issues on our mind, a factor that can increase cortisol levels to begin with. This perfect storm can seriously increases our susceptibility to infection and make it harder for the body to recover. As a Naturopathic Doctor, I help patients manage stress through tools like deep breathing, retraining negative thought patterns and acupuncture to calm the mind. Identifying and treating the underlying cause of sleep concerns, whether it is stress, hormonal imbalance, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or blood sugar levels can also help stabilize cortisol and improve immune response. Individualized assessment and treatment can help you optimize your overall health and immune function this winter.

  5. Support From Supplements – For patients who are chronically ill with long drawn out colds or seem to pick up everything their child brings home from school, I often consider the use of nutritional supplements to further support the body. Some patients stand by trusty Vitamin C to keep them healthy, and an increased intake of zinc may help decrease the frequency of upper respiratory tract infections (3). There are also some herbal remedies called ‘adaptogens’, such as Ashwaghanda and Withania, which can help support the immune system for those who are susceptible to frequent infections. It is important to use these herbs on an individual basis to prevent interactions with medication and determine the correct dose according to age and overall health.

Remember that everyone gets sick once in a while, and that encountering certain viruses may actually do the body good. When we are exposed to an infection, our body mounts an immune response which means we create a specific attack plan in our immune system for the exact offending virus are exposed to. This means that next time we are exposed to it, either later on in the year or next year, we are better prepared to tackle it before it gets the best of our health. Consider visiting a Naturopathic Doctor to optimize your immune function if you find yourself with frequent infections this season.

- Dr. Sarah Penney, ND, MSc


  1. Stephanie C. Ganal, Stephanie L. Sanos, Carsten Kallfass, et al. Priming of Natural Killer Cells by Nonmucosal Mononuclear Phagocytes Requires Instructive Signals from Commensal Microbiota. Immunity. 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.immuni.2012.05.020

  2. Gleeson M. Immune Function in Sport and Exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2007; 103(2):693-699

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