As we finally leave the long winter behind and head into spring, you may think that the colds and sniffles of the winter are behind you. Think again! Springtime brings with it not only a resurgence of colds but also the addition of allergies. Your immune system may have taken a beating over the winter months. Here are some lifestyle changes to boost your immune system along with strategies for healthy eating to keep illness at bay.

Go to sleep

This month we spring forward, losing an hour of sleep and gaining daylight. Although the extra sunshine is a great source of vitamin D and is naturally energizing, this transition can cause fatigue and disruption of sleep. Making sure you get plenty of rest (which varies from person to person but is generally between seven and nine hours a night) is crucial to keeping your immune system in fighting form.

Don’t smoke

Smoking forces your body to deal with that particular toxin. The blood vessels constrict and the lungs have to work harder just to draw air. Smoking is also a depressant, which dampens the immune response. The good news is that quitting smoking today confers immediate health benefits, not the least of which is a stronger immune system.

Exercise regularly

When all systems of the body are working effectively, the body is better able to fight off bacteria and viruses that slip past your defenses. Adults should get at least 45 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. Kids should get 60 minutes a day. Make it a family affair and go for a hike as the weather warms.

Eat immune system-boosting foods

There are also foods that help support a healthy immune system. The good news is that they are readily available this time of year, so you are eating them in peak season.

Greens: Sharp and pungent bitter greens begin to proliferate in the springtime, the best possible time for your body to get a dose of toxin-clearing green food. Kale and spinach contain iron, antioxidants, vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. Paired with fresh winter citrus in a smoothie, these nutritional powerhouses wake up the body, strengthen the immune system, and clear out the liver. These fresh smoothies also boost mood and give you a kick of energy.

Fermented foods: Bacteria is inevitable, but fermented foods make sure that the bacteria that makes it into your body is the friendly kind. Kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, and kombucha use fermentation to develop strains of friendly bacteria that replace whatever dangerous bacteria might be lurking in your belly. There is a powerful, research-proven connection between bacteria in the gut and inflammation in the body. Inflammation can trigger your immune system and make it work so hard that it is overwhelmed and exhausted. Fermented foods clear out the bad pathogens and replace them with beneficial bacteria for a stronger immune system response.

Orange vegetables: The skin is the largest organ in the body, and it is the first line of defense against illness. Protect this major organ with vegetables that contain vitamin A. This includes things like sweet potatoes (try them roasted with olive oil and salt or baked with a bit of organic sour cream), carrots (raw, roasted, or pureed into soup with fresh ginger), and pumpkin (for more than just pie!). A half-cup of these vegetables offers 40% of your recommended daily allowance of vitamin A.

Mushrooms: In addition to adding umami to savory dishes, mushrooms boost the production of white blood cells, which are crucial for a healthy immune system. Mushrooms also make existing white blood cells more aggressive. This makes them better able to ward off bacteria and viruses when everyone around you is getting sick. Shiitake, maitake, and reishi mushrooms seem to have the most benefit. Add them to your pizza (with vitamin C-boosting fresh tomatoes), or sauté in a little olive oil to add to fresh pasta.

Black (or green) tea: A study from Harvard University found that those who consumed five cups of black tea a day for two weeks benefited from an interferon boost delivered by the amino acid L-theanine. L-theanine is also present in green tea, and both caffeinated and decaffeinated versions are effective. To get the most out of each cup of tea, dip your teabags up and down as they steep.

Vitamin C: One of the most delicious harbingers of spring is early strawberries. These tiny red orbs of delicious sweetness are packed with vitamin C, a crucial component in boosting your immune system. Strawberries, grapefruit, oranges, broccoli, and peppers of all colors help the body repair itself with antioxidants. Antioxidants help tissues repair damage and protect cells in all organ systems of the body. Fresh, seasonal fruit is best, as local as possible and simply prepared. One of the most delicious ways to get your vitamin C is to make a pink grapefruit, fresh basil, and red onion salad drizzled with olive oil and balsamic with a few grinds of cracked black pepper.

Local honey and bee pollen: Finally, a powerful ally in the fight against spring allergies (and an immune booster in general) is local honey and bee pollen. Local honey is made from bees that are collecting pollen from plants and flowers in your area. The resulting honey incorporates these allergens in small amounts so that when you take a small amount daily you have built immunity to the allergens when they spring forth in full bloom.

Honey must be produced within 100 miles of where you live to be effective, and those with strong seasonal allergies should talk to their doctor and exercise caution. In general, you can start with a teaspoon of honey daily in mid-January, or a few grains of bee pollen mixed into organic yogurt. You can continue to add bee pollen grains gradually, and the process can be continued year-round or repeated in the fall as the seasons change.

Eating for a healthy immune system proves the adage, “The best offense is a good defense.” What immune-boosting recipes will you make this spring?

Image by Meal Makeover Moms via Flickr

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