Butternut squash
This time of year it's hard to miss those inevitable colds and flu that always seem to plague us as we head into the cold, dark days of mid-winter. If you're a parent, you may be particularly prone to picking up the germs the kids seem to bring home from school on a weekly basis.

But if you find yourself getting sick over and over, it's probably more than just simple exposure. We are all exposed to hundreds (if not thousands) of bacteria and viruses on a daily basis, but if your immune system is in good shape, your body should be able to fight most of them off before you ever come down with anything.

If it seems like you're sick practically all winter long, it's probably time to take a good look at your immune system and find out why this is happening, and what you can do about it.

Here are 6 reasons why you may be getting sick on a regular basis - and some tips for staying healthy!

1. You're Not Eating Seasonally

You probably know that certain vitamin deficiencies can lower your immune system, but I'd never thought about this one until I read it on a Paleo eating blog, and it totally makes sense! With just about every food we could ever wish for available in the supermarkets year-round these sdays, we have unfortunately fallen out of the habit of eating what is in season, which are often the foods that contain just what we need to stay healthy.

The foods we typically used to eat in the winter were long-term storage vegetables, usually packed with extra nutrients we would need in winter, like Vitamin C (found in citrus, which ripens in the winter) and Vitamin A - found in squash, pumpkins, carrots, and sweet potatoes (typically harvested in the fall for winter eating).  Both of these vitamins are important to keeping your immune system healthy and strong.

To get more of these vitamins when you need them the most, and give your immune defenses a boost, start eating more seasonally. Try a medley of roasted root vegetables, or puree pumpkins or squash with stock and spices for a hearty, warming, and nutrient-filled soup.

2. You're Drinking Too Much Coffee

On these cold, dark mornings when it's really hard to get out of bed, you may have started reaching for an extra cup (or two) of coffee to get you going. Your immune system needs plenty of rest to keep you healthy during the winter months (see #6 below), and by adding extra stimulants, you are taxing your already-stressed immune system even further, leaving you more susceptible to illness.

Try cutting your coffee intake in half, or if you only drink one cup a day, give your body a rest and skip it a couple of days a week - especially if you feel like you're coming down with something.

3. Your Gut Bacteria Is Out of Whack

Over 70% of your immune system is located in your gut, and maintaining a healthy balance of good bacteria is imperative for good health. Unfortunately, today's modern high-stress, fast-paced lifestyle - not to mention a diet of sugar, caffeine, and processed foods - along with many medications, can alter that delicate balance, and tip the scales in favor of pathogenic invaders.

To stay healthy, you must take steps to strengthen your colonies of good bacteria with fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and kefir. If you're feeling run down, or if you have recently had to take antibiotics for some reason, you should also add a probiotic supplement to help boost your levels of healthy gut flora quickly.

4. You Are Deficient In Vitamin D

Vitamin D is particularly important for a healthy immune system, as it helps keep foreign bacteria and viruses from taking hold in your system. Although many foods (such as fish, eggs from pastured poultry, grass-fed meats, and mushrooms) do contain vitamin D, it often is not enough to keep your vitamin D levels high enough to fight off invaders - especially if you live in the northern half of the United States where you are not exposed to much sunlight during the winter.

Most health experts recommend you keep your blood levels of vitamin D to at least 30-40 ng/ml, which for most people would require supplementing with 2,000-4,000 IU daily during the winter months.* Get your blood tested if you're not sure how much you need.

5. You're Not Washing Your Hands Often Enough

This is one of the most basic principles of health, and yet too many of us forget that the number one way you get sick is by picking up other people's germs through objects that you touch.

Just like you tell your kids to do, you should also be washing your hands before you sit down to have your lunch or afternoon snack, as well as anytime you touch your face or mouth. This simple habit alone will greatly reduce your risk of catching whatever is going around at the office or the gym.

And no, you don't need any fancy antibacterial soaps or hand sanitizers. In fact, many health experts are now recommending that you not use these, as overuse can lead to the development of "superbugs," while plain old soap and hot water are just as effective for most people for everyday use.

5. You're Not Getting Enough Sleep

Biologically speaking, winter is the perfect time to get more sleep, and yet, for many of us in the modern world, the opposite is true. With holidays, travel schedules, and hectic work routines, the winter months can be so busy that we end up getting less sleep, instead of more. Studies on primitive hunter-gatherer tribes have shown that primitive peoples generally go to sleep at least an hour or more earlier during the long nights of winter, which is when your body needs more rest to fight off infections and stay warm.*

Lack of sleep can severely impair your immune system, making you much more prone to catching that nasty cold or flu. Remember to give your body the support and rest it needs, by turning off the TV and the computer at least an hour before bedtime, and try to get to bed an hour earlier than in the summer months, if you can.

By making these 6 simple changes to give your body what it needs for a strong, healthy immune system during the winter months, you'll be laying down the building blocks for a healthier you year-round!

To your health,

* Source: PaleoHacks.com.


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