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Do Probiotics Help Build My Immunity in Winter?

October is the month when doctors and pharmacies become aggressive about recommending flu shots. They give somewhat dark, dire warnings that if you don’t get one on the shoulder of your choice, well, you may suffer nasty consequences that may make you want to stay in bed and shut out the world.

Those who live a healthy lifestyle may be working with an adequate immune system that can fight off foes that are more prevalent during cold weather, but those who have unhealthy habits or are stressed may be more susceptible to sneezes and other symptoms. There are more than 250 types of viruses that lead to this short-term disruption,.

According to the CDC, recent studies show that flu vaccines do work – approximately 40 to 50% efficacy in the general population each year. Further, CDC noted, flu vaccines prevented approximately 5.3 million cases of flu during the 2016-2017 season. The flu is a virus and as such, antibiotics are no longer the first line of defense when flu symptoms descend; they are effective when or if there is a secondary infection arises from bacteria that take the opportunity to pillage when your defenses (immunity) are down fighting the virus.

So how do you support your immunity in winter? First we’ll summarize what a winter virus is and how it can bloom, then we will give ideas of how to remain vibrant, energized and immune-empowered during winter months.


How Viruses Spread

A virus that is still alive --expelled by another typically through a cough or sneeze, or by it transferring itself from its host to a surface you touch and allowed entry may cause you to develop symptoms (cough, excessive mucus, low energy, sneezing, headaches, nausea). If this particular virus is familiar to your immune system, it already has a strategy in place to recognize and vanquish it.

These viruses are not as potent in summer as heat and humidity lessen its transmission ability; one guinea pig study showed that an upper respiratory virus was transmitted more in lower temperatures and humidity than in more summer-like conditions. This was based on earlier work that showed that the flu virus sustained longer in cold temperatures than in higher temps.

Another theory is that because humans tend to stay indoors, in closed spaces during the winter, the diminished exposure to sunlight causes less vitamin D, a substance known to help boost immune function.

However, you cannot get temporarily derailed by a virus simply by feeling the winter chill or venturing outside with damp hair.

It all comes down to boosting your immune system – the goal is to ensure it functions optimally – to enjoy your winter season in good health.


How to Boost Immunity in Winter

Winter brings with it the desire for heavier foods (more calories), a vestige of when our ancestors had to pack on the fat for the winter starvation time; as well as low mood and vitality from increased darkness and cold. While some people can and do journey through the winter without viral incidents, other individuals are more susceptible to them during the frigid months.

Don’t Skip Breakfast: Many people rush off to start their days by gulping down a hot beverage and a nutrition bar, while many people skip solid food altogether until lunchtime. One study found that throughout 10 weeks in the winter, those people who had more than one bout during 10 weeks in winter were less likely to eat breakfast.

Don’t “Party Hearty:” The same study showed a distinct link between smoking and drinking and development of an upper respiratory tract infection. Those participants who developed colds during the study’s duration were more likely to drink and smoke than those who didn’t.

Cut back on Caffeine: Caffeinated beverages that prods us awake in the mornings tends to stimulate release of adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone that impacts immune function in some people.

Monitor Stress: Speaking of stress, a constant state of stress also equates to more viral punches and makes one more susceptible to flu. One study found a link between high psychological stress and incidence of the common cold. Stress alters the concentration of biochemicals that impact response to infection.

Wash Hands Often: We are constantly rubbing our noses and eyes and touching our mouths without realizing it, thereby transferring viruses and other microbes from our fingers and hands directly into our bodies. Washing hands with soap and water thoroughly, and use of hand sanitizers when soap isn’t available, are practices widely known to reduce incidence of viral events.

Hydrate: Drinking water is always a good idea to flush out toxins and hydrate all cells, and it is especially good when you have a slight fever as this biological defense activity dehydrates your cells more quickly. Hot herbal or green tea is good as well, as it provides not only hydration but the heat can help break up mucus. (This is one of the reasons why chicken soup is preferred during a cold.)

Eat Mushrooms: Good news for fungiphiles (mushroom lovers) – shiitakes, for example, have been shown in a month-long study to activate several immune cells and cause others (such as tumor necrosis factor, interleukin-4 and 10) to proliferate, while also lowering pro-inflammatory biochemicals, notably c-reactive protein. Edible mushrooms contain high levels of beta-glucans, which help activate natural killer cells and macrophages.

Zinc: One meta-analysis (study of studies) found that taking zinc within 24 hours of feeling symptoms reduced duration and severity of the cold. Further, they found that when taking zinc supplements for at least five months, cold incidence was reduced. But too much zinc may create side effects, especially for kids.

Vitamin C: Since Linus Pauling made it a household name vitamin for winter support, there have been numerous studies showing benefit. One recent meta-analysis looked at higher doses of vitamin C. The authors found that taking high doses of C (on top of routine DV consumption) at the onset of symptoms reduced the duration and relieved those symptoms.

Echinacea: Both an ornamental flower and a “medicinal herb,” echinacea has been a go-to botanical supplement for decades to fend off common cold symptoms. One meta-analysis found that consumption of echinacea decreased the chances of developing a common cold by 58%.

Mind Your Microbiome: Your body hosts trillions of living organisms that collectively are known as the microbiome, and within these communities reside billions of microbial strains. When healthy, all these communities are thriving, resisting incoming elements that can disrupt and cause problems – e.g., “there goes the neighborhood.” But when imbalanced or impacted by stressors, the good bacteria in the microbiome may need to be replenished.

How Probiotics Enhance Defense

As part of reinforcing your microbiome, probiotics support immunity in myriad ways. Probiotics can block pathogenic bacteria from adhering and activating by competing for the intestinal walls (getting there first and bumping them out of the way), as well as by producing bacteriocidal compounds (bug killers).

First, know that probiotics do not “prevent” flu or cold in anyone. Nothing can. In fact, one meta-analysis declared that probiotics didn’t outright prevent the common cold, but may instead have an impact on reduction of incidence. In one published review, the author wrote, “Probiotics were found better than placebo in reducing the number episodes of acute upper respiratory tract infections, the rate of episodes of acute upper respiratory tract infection and reducing antibiotic use.”

Certain strains have been shown to shorten duration. One combination of three strains taken for three months was found to shorten common cold durations by approximately two days. The researchers also saw higher levels of immune cells in the group that took the probiotics.



Winter is a time for enjoyment (skiing, sledding and building snow people) and getting cozy by a fireplace. It can be as fun as summertime especially when your immune system and microbiome are sturdy. Taking vitamin C, zinc and probiotics, keeping hydrated and practicing stress management all can help you feel your best during the cold months.
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