The holiday season is here, which can result in added stress and anxiety due to time crunches, feelings of obligation, and demanding schedules. Stress and anxiety interfere with our immune system, so keeping stress in check is important, especially since this time of year tends to be cold and flu season. Three immune suppressors that you have direct control over are dehydration, stress, and sugar intake.

Stress has been linked to almost every major disease, as well as weight gain and obesity. When you're stressed out, your body produces excess cortisol, the stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. This accelerates aging and causes excess belly fat. Too much cortisol prevents the immune system from functioning properly, and releases fat and sugar into your bloodstream, increasing your risk of diabetes, allergies, autoimmune diseases, hormone disruption, heart disease and digestive issues.

Follows are 10 simple strategies to boost your immune system and lower stress:

• Sleep. Lights out by 10 p.m. Immune power builds the most during restful sleep. A good night's sleep helps boost your mood and your memory, has anti-aging qualities, and is often overlooked for fat loss. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the physical body repairs between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. The mind/emotional/spiritual body repairs between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m. Growth hormone is released during sleep, which boosts the immune system and aids in the growth and repair of your body. I heard one researcher say "the greatest antioxidant we possess is a good night's sleep."

• Address digestive dysfunction. A healthy gut equals a healthy person. The gut is one of the largest and most important centers of the immune system. Seventy percent of your immune system is located in your digestive tract. A healthy gut is essential to absorbing and digesting nutrients.

Be aware of foods your body is sensitive to. Which foods will make you tired, hyper, create hives or sinus problems, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal bloating, cause digestive distress, increase inflammation, and deplete the immune system? The top culprits to avoid include diary, wheat, corn, peanuts, gluten, sugar and soy. Eliminate processed foods, soda, starches, and sugar. All of these cause an insulin spike, and are destructive to the immune system. Your immune system is suppressed for eight to 12 hours after consuming sugar. Processed foods, starches, alcohol, and sugar destroy the ability of your white blood cells to kill germs.

• Eat breakfast. Consuming a bagel with a sugar-sweetened coffee drink, or sugar in a box (cereal) with low-fat milk are some of the worst things you can eat in the morning. Fuel your brain and body with a nourishing breakfast that includes protein. The first 40 grams of protein you consume daily goes to rebuild your immune system. If you are not rebuilding your immune system, you'll have a hard time rebuilding your brain chemistry to be happy and think straight.

• Drink more water, and green and white tea. Drink a minimum of half your weight in ounces of water daily. Add the juice of a fresh lemon or lime, plus a pinch of unprocessed sea salt to your drinking water to increase mineral absorption, boost alkalinity, and nourish the adrenals. Many people are chronically dehydrated, which may reveal as dry skin, brittle bones, low back pain or hunger, which is actually thirst, and even depleted brain chemistry (neurotransmitters function in water).

Green and white teas contain powerful antioxidants, and have been shown to inhibit bacteria and viruses, and stimulate the immune system.

• Look and feel better. Juicing is a smart way to increase your intake of vegetables, antioxidants, and alkalinity. Many of my clients initially turn up their nose at the thought of juicing or blending their veggies, but when their energy level doubles, their skin becomes clear and vibrant, their digestion improves, and they stop running to the doctor for antibiotics, they begin to see the wisdom and endless health benefits of juicing. Some of my favorite greens to juice or blend include kale, Swiss chard, dandelion, water cress and parsley. If juicing is not an option for you, consider organic powdered greens.

• Consider immune boosting supplements. Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Probiotics and Zinc are good supplements. Goldenseal is helpful in combination with Echinacea for the treatment of colds and flu.

Take a high quality, daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplement to ensure adequate nutrition, which can build up your immune system. It is important to know that it takes most people six to 12 weeks of use before the immune system becomes stronger. It's very challenging to obtain sufficient nutrition from food alone. Much of our food today is over processed and void of many essential nutrients. Additionally, food is grown in soils that have been over-planted and saturated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies trigger more diseases, aging, sickness, and cause a weakened immune system. Consult with a qualified health care professional for your personalized protocol.

• Moderate exercise. Aside from strengthening your heart and lungs (two organs that can become physically affected from too much stress), exercise particularly strength training and interval exercise (i.e. sprints) increase lean tissue, thereby, boosting your metabolism and fat burning. Intervals and strength training increase levels of endorphins in your body, stimulating your immune system, reducing stress and putting you in a better mood.

Avoid excessive exercise, particularly overdoing aerobic-type exercise which, according to research, is not effective for fat loss. The body perceives excessive exercise as an additional stressor, compromising and suppressing the immune system.

Boost your cardiovascular and immune systems, flush lymphatic system, detoxify your cells by bouncing on a mini-trampoline three to five minutes daily.

• Breathe deep. Breathing releases endorphins that create feelings of happiness. Deep, full breathing using your diaphragm is the foundation to de-stressing, healing revitalizing, and energizing every cell in your body. Studies show that deep, full breathing lowers blood pressure, increases creativity and productivity, enhances your ability to handle stressful situations, and releases healing hormones throughout your body. Create balance and include parasympathetic, yin-style programs such as Qi Gong, Tai Chi, restorative yoga, or yin yoga into your exercise routine at least two days per week.

• Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands often and thoroughly throughout the day with soap and water, especially after bathroom use or shaking hands. Refrain from sneezing or coughing openly into your hands and, instead, sneeze or cough into your elbow. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth since that is often how the viruses enter the body.

• Relationships and connections. Numerous studies show that people who are connected to other people through healthy, loving marriages, friendships, communities, and the like, live longer and are healthier, and have better performing immune systems.

Surround yourself with like-minded, supportive people who make you feel happy. Listen to your heart and intuition, pay attention to how you respond, and connect with that source. Minimize time spent with people who are negative, full of drama and deplete your energy.

Smile and laugh more. It releases endorphins, your body's natural pain killer. Laughter lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, and boosts your immune function.

Following these tips will boost your immune system naturally and minimize stress this holiday season and throughout the year.

• Ahwatukee Foothills resident Paula Owens is a nutritionist, fitness expert and weight loss coach with more than 20 years of experience. Reach her at

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