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How to boost immunity and stay healthy in winter

Read my expert advice on how to increase strength, immunity and resistance during the vulnerable winter months. ​Learn how to fight off those persistent colds, coughs and sore throats when they strike.

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In this article I share common sense precautions and explain how herbs can boost immunity and heal infection. I introduce some of the herbs in my Resist formula for immunity and my herbal formulas for coughs, sore throats and sinusitis. Finally I explain the importance of exercise and fresh air, touch and connection, mindfulness and contentment.

Winter health

​We are all aware of the need for a strong immune system as our health becomes more vulnerable during the winter months. The weather is colder, wetter and more changeable, there is less sunlight, our energy is reduced and our sedentary time increases. No wonder our systems are fertile ground for opportunistic bugs and viruses.

So how can we best increase our strength, immunity and resistance? And, when they do strike, how can we fight off those persistent colds, coughs and sore throats?

I suggest that we can promote our good health and happiness by drawing on both practical common sense and the ancient wisdom of herbs. Our ancestors had great knowledge that has become almost overlooked – perhaps because they lived in a different world. Now, as a herbalist, I’m re-imagining the best of that wisdom, bringing it right up to date to meet the needs and challenges of modern living.

Common sense precautions

Saying ‘bless you’ when a person sneezes may be a traditional wish for protection, but practical precautions work better! It really is important to stop the exchange and spread of germs by placing a hand over the mouth when coughing or sneezing. Also, be sure to put used tissues in the bin so nobody else handles them. And finally keep hands clean and germ free by washing them thoroughly with soap and warm water – especially after handling money or travelling on public transport.

Healthy bacteria in the gut are now understood to be essential for maintaining immunity. So a top priority for good health is eating to promote healthy flora that remain in good condition. Plenty of fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables are a great start – especially local organic produce. Be sure to include dark green leaves, sprouted seeds, fresh ginger and garlic – and remember that lemons are richer in Vitamin C than oranges. If extra help is needed, a probiotic supplement is a good idea.

Herbs can boost immunity

As a health practitioner, I am fascinated by the way our bodies work. I think of seasonal immunity as an annual cyclical dance where we introduce our biomarkers and T cells to the different strains of possible infections – and then allow that older generation of cells to move aside. Now we can generate a new frontier of fighter cells to step elegantly into their place.

So how do we optimise our bodies’ functions to keep those fighter cells moving in the healthy dance of immunity?

Centuries ago our ancestors discovered that particular herbs and plants can heal humans or keep them healthy. Herbalism is the oldest form of medicine, passed down through the ages throughout the world, its efficacy preserved by generations. This makes sense, since we have for so long co-existed with plants on earth, thriving on water and sunlight.

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In the western world, herbal remedies were in widespread use until the 1950s – and then became rather overlooked. But now science has embarked on a much needed search for alternatives to antibiotics. Increasingly, people seek treatments that address the causes of disease, rather than just its symptoms – and with fewer side effects. More and more of us sense that preventing disease is better than having to treat it. ​​

The power of herbs to protect and heal

As a modern herbalist trained in Chinese herbal traditions, I am excited about the power of natural herbs to protect and heal – and especially when they are mixed into formulas. Herbal formula remedies contain several herbs that work together for optimum health results. When complementary herbs are combined, they can create the perfect mix of specific actions within the human body to keep us well or encourage speedy recovery.

Every herbalist likes to work with certain plants that give good results for their patients. I’ve selected some of my own favourite herbs to create a formula called Resist – which does exactly that, helping the body to resist infection and to clear any bugs, should they strike.

The Expert Herbalist Resist formula contains a combination of herbs designed to nourish the body and balance its internal environment. This makes them a much more effective choice for boosting immunity than any single substance.

The herbs in the Resist formula simultaneously clear infection, reduce inflammation, rebalance the gut flora to promote immunity and increase strength and vigour. Some of these herbs have the unique ability to ensure that both air and energy – what the Chinese call qi –  circulate freely in the body. I consider this to be extremely important because it means that the body can easily expel germs, ensuring that infection simply cannot take hold.

Resist formula herbs and how they work 

A brilliant herb in the Resist formula is Forsythia Fruit (Chinese name lian qiao). This cools the blood and clears heat from the throat and the muscles of the upper body.

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The lian qiao plant has hollow stems, a symbol for its ability to act like an air pipe, lightly clearing heat from the skin of the head, neck and shoulders. Heat is associated with infection, so this is useful when muscles tighten and swell and we start sweating – a sign that we’re coming down with something.
Forsythia fruit is also a very good herb for the digestion and restoring gut flora, along with Scutellaria (huang qin). Since the gut is so crucial to immunity, these herbs help the gut flora to remain in good equilibrium, making sure that our microbes are not disturbed by changes in body temperature and toxicity.

Isatis root (or ban lan gen) works with these two plants by helping to clear toxic heat from the throat. Isatis root cools and vents the body from inflammation in the throat, since this is the main area for its action.

Our throat can be thought of as a tube that represents the beginning of our passage through life. Our contact and ingestion of the world – physically or mentally – relate to the throat. As we ingest life, it is good for our body and soul if we keep this area clear and clean. This is why Isatis root is a very helpful herb and a key ingredient in oriental and traditional western herbal medicine. It helps us to avoid being burnt by heat from life’s bugs and infections – and to maintain our natural strength and vigour.

​To give our body that extra strength, another type of herb is sometimes needed – what we call a ‘yang’ tonic.  Cuscuta (tu si zi) is included in our Resist formula because its nature is neutral, adding neither heat nor cold but strengthening just the same.

​“Astragalus” he advised…

Another boost of strength to stay healthy can come from the tonic type of herbs. A very famous one in Chinese medicine – and increasingly known to the western world – is Astragalus – huang qi. This too is in the Resist formula and is a powerful herb in its own right. I remember when I was training in China, a man very concerned for his young child asked my illustrious professor what he should give his five year old for her cough. ‘Astragalus tea’ he advised – and that was it.

Two ventilation herbs are Angelica dahurica (bai zhi) and Ledebouriella (fang feng). These encourage circulation, giving the body the power to open up and eject any potentially harmful pathogens, rather than allowing them to fester – an important part of the immune function.

So, to stay healthy, my family and I take the Resist formula, with this powerful combination of herbs, throughout the winter months. As a preventive dose, I recommend two capsules to be taken twice a day.  Should a cold or infection occur, the dose can be increased to four to six capsules twice daily in order to fight off the illness.

Herbal formulas for coughs, sore throats and sinusitis

In the Expert Herbalist range, I wanted to offer as much help as possible for everyone suffering from common winter infections. Many of us have our weak spots where illness takes hold and is hard to shake off. The cold that turns to catarrh and the misery of sinusitis; the cough that persists for weeks, disturbing our sleep; the throat infection that keeps on coming back.

All these ailments are hard to treat and every winter I sympathise with patients who are trying to keep going with their daily commitments whilst their system feels completely worn down. Keen to alleviate such suffering and knowing how powerfully herbs can help, I have also created Expert Herbalist formulas for SinusThroat and Cough.

Like Resist, these formulas contain a targeted combination of herbs that have the ability to heal in varied and complementary ways. They too can be taken at full dose to clear infection and at a lower dose to protect people who are particularly susceptible to coughs, sore throats or sinusitis. Take a look at the product descriptions for more information, including top tips on practical steps you can take at home to feel better.

Exercise – the unsung hero of immune function

It’s really important to keep moving during the winter months. Get out whenever you can in fresh air and daylight, ideally in nature. The beauties of the natural world – trees, flowers, hills and mountains, a stream, a river, a lake or the sea – feed and uplift our body and spirits with long lasting effect. Even a walk in the park in any weather – but especially sunlight – will give your well-being a boost.

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Consider taking a regular class in Tai chi, Qi gong, yoga or pilates. All have the ability to strengthen the body, increase movement and enhance immunity. Once you have learned the movements, you can practice them at home. Ideally get into a daily habit of a ten or 15 minute routine every morning or evening.

The magic of touch

I am also a professional Osteopath and in osteopathy we learn that manually adjusting the ribs can help improve lung function and boost immune health. This can be done regularly indoors and is a wonderful and fun way to communicate with your family, friends and loved ones through the health giving magic of touch.

The idea is to manually vibrate the ribs gently, almost like slow tickling, working from the bottom to the top of the back. Ask the person to take a deep breath in and, as they exhale, tenderly move their ribs individually, emphasising the space between each one. Obviously stop if this causes any pain or discomfort.

A therapeutic way to finish this process is by appreciating each other and exchanging extended hugs. The immune system certainly responds with enthusiasm to the satisfying feel of a good hug with those we love!

Contented mind and gratitude equal healthy body

We’ve all experienced feeling in low spirits, overwhelmed by life or saddened by a situation and have a knowing that when we feel ‘down’,  then illness often strikes.

I believe that our experience of physical health is connected to our inner world. This was acknowledged by Einstein, when he suggested that it dominated much of what we think to be within our physical control. Equally inspiring is Einstein’s comment, “The ideals that have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth.”

A sense of connection with life – with your friends and family, community and environment – helps cultivate a contented mind and resilient constitution. An ability to relax and reflect can lead to greater self acceptance and inner peace. Try simply sitting, relaxing your body and noticing your natural breathing with no effort. If your mind wanders, just allow it to return to your breathing. This is an easy but effective form of mindful meditation.

Try to release worry by analysing what action can be taken and letting the rest go. Remember the great power of gratitude to boost your physical and mental health. It’s good, alone or with others, to sit quietly, take three deep breaths and say what you are grateful for. Interestingly, appreciation for specific things like a kind word or a beautiful sunset can offer the most powerful boost to your system.

​To find out more about the Expert Herbalist herbal formulas for boosting immunity and fighting winter infection, check out our product pages or download our free eBook, ‘Herbs and the Human Body’.

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