-By Dr. Vinod Mehta (B.A.M.S) & Dr. Manan Mehta (M.B.B.S)
Winter has a bad name. It’s called the flu season, the cold season, and the season when contagious diseases abound. If you are one of the many currently battling the sniffles, it could be time to make sure your diet is not leaving you vulnerable to nasty bugs. While there is no strong evidence that links one particular food to cough and cold prevention, there are a number of foods that are crucial for optimal immune system functioning.
Winter is actually the best season to improve immunity. It’s not a weakening season if you know how to use it to strengthen immunity. In ayurvedic terms, immunity is connected with the digestion. When digestion is strong and appetite is good, then immunity is strengthened. Whatever weakens digestion weakens immunity.
Three Levels of Immunity
1) Hereditary (Sahaj) — the innate level of immunity, which you are born with.
2) Seasonal (Kalaj) — fluctuating levels of immunity due to the change of seasons, different stages of life, and planetary cycles.
3) Established (Yuktikrit) — a balanced, permanent level of immunity that can be realized by following an ayurvedic diet and lifestyle.
If someone is born with an innately low level of immunity, that fact cannot be changed. So Ayurveda focuses on strengthening the second type of immunity, which fluctuates with the seasons, age, and planetary cycles. One reason that winter is a good season for building immunity is that the digestion is stronger in cold weather. Just as your home’s heating system works harder in cold weather, so your inner digestive fire stokes up when the air turns chilly.
Winter is the season when nature is ready to nurture us. Due to the digestive level being very high, people feel hungrier, and can actually digest food better in winter, thus nourishing their bodies more. People just think this season is bad for immunity because as appetite increases, people start eating more junk food and heavy, hard to digest foods, and thus weaken their immunity. But it is important to understand that we are creating the bad immunity; nature is not the culprit. For this reason, it’s more important that people eat immunity-boosting foods in winter, and that they follow the ayurvedic daily routine. This should be your regimen in winter—to nourish the mind and body by getting more rest and eating well.
Other seasons are better for purifying, but winter is the time to build up and nourish anything—the hair, the nails, and the skin. It’s also the best season for taking rasayanas and herbal products, because the high level of digestion helps people to assimilate them better.
Immunity-boosting Foods and Lifestyle Tips for Winter
In general, immunity-boosting foods include those that are fresh, organic, easy to digest, pure and wholesome. These include fresh, organic milk and yogurt, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and ghee.
Foods that are hard to digest should be avoided if you want to increase your immunity. Commercially processed foods, as well as canned, frozen, and packaged foods are old and difficult to digest, so they weaken immunity,” explains The Council. Leftovers, foods grown with chemicals, and foods laced with preservatives tax the digestive system and clog the channels of circulation, creating a sluggish, compromised immune system.
Foods that nourish and balance the body in the cold, dry, winter season are the sweet, sour and salty tastes. It’s best to eat less of the astringent, bitter, and pungent tastes in winter, although all six tastes should be included in your diet. Warm, home-cooked, unctuous foods are ideal, as long as they are not deep-fried and are cooked with easy-to-digest oils such as ghee or olive oil. Avoid cold or ice-cold foods, as cold foods and drinks douse the digestive fire.
Lifestyle also impacts immunity. Staying up late, working at night, eating at irregular times, exposing the body to stress and fatigue, and sleeping during the day can all affect the digestion and body rhythms—and thus compromise the immune system. That’s why it’s important to follow the ayurvedic daily routine, to keep the digestive system and other bodily rhythms working smoothly, and thus keeping the immunity high.
In winter, when the days are shorter and the nights are longer, it’s natural for the body to crave more rest. Try going to bed a little earlier, and you will wake up with more vitality and freshness.
Winter is a more inward season, when nature is at rest, so you can take advantage of this natural tendency by giving the mind and body extra nourishment in winter.