How to Boost Your Immune System in Winter With Ayurveda

Each one of us has an inherited or "constitutional" immunity that reflects our genetic inheritance. But we can build on or weaken what our parents gave us through the choices we make in lifestyle and diet.

Immunity is a Complex Relation between Body and Mind

Immunity in Ayurveda, is a concept of strength, and represents an understanding of the complex interplay between physical, emotional, and spiritual states of being. Science now explains that "non-physical" elements such as emotions and the presence of spiritual belief systems affect the immune system as significantly as do our diets and other aspects of our lifestyles. An example would be the improved heart health in people with close family ties.

Four Keys to Building a Strong Immune System

First is with a healthy diet.

What is a healthy diet? This is a huge topic. In sum: this will vary from person to person, depending on our body-mind type or Prakruti, the unique way in which we combine the three Dosha, Pitta, Vata, and Kapha. There will also of course be differences of cultural origin.

But the main principal of a healthy diet is to eat a diet rich in fresh, unprocessed, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, herbs and spices, with moderate amount of nuts, seeds, healthy oils, small amounts of unrefined sweeteners, and an appropriate (to you) amount of dairy products and other proteins.

As much as possible eat organic, pesticide-free, and even locally grown items. Avoid fish or meat that has been frozen. Cooked food should be eaten within 24 to 48 hours; after that it contains the structure of food without the life-force of food.

One of the ways to tell if your diet is healthy for you is to look at your tongue coating at mid-day. It should be thin, light, and white. If it is thicker, or slimy looking, you are building Ama or digestive toxins, what we call dampness in Chinese Medicine.

Second is by maintaining a healthy digestive tract.

While its obvious the "info in" part of immunity is diet, if your hard drive is crashing, your computer can't process the info. Good digestion is having a healthy hard drive. It should be pretty obvious that no matter what you eat, if you don't break it down well then the nutrients within will not make it into the blood stream and on to the body's tissues. Equally serious is that when there is poor digestion or "mal-absorption" then the large protein molecules in the large intestine can be reabsorbed, which can lead to allergies and other immune issues.

What Are the Signs of a Healthy Digestive Tract?
A healthy digestive tract is marked by "good appetite, good digestion and good elimination." This will produce a clean tongue coating, a postive feeling after eating, and regular, easy, productive elimination.

What is good appetite?
Good appetite means feeling hungry at meal times, anywhere from two to five times per day, depending on your dosha. There is no rule about times, just that you should crave food fairly strongly with regularity. If you don't that is typically a sign of weak digestive fire/Agni.

What is good digestion? Good digestion means feeling good after eating; pleasantly full, but not bloated, too tired, gassy, in pain, without nausea, heartburn excessive belching or any other negative sensations.

What is good elimination? Good elimination is both regular and easy. To be specific that means the regular urge to eliminate digestive by-products, and being able to do so easily, without struggle, and producing something akin, I apologize for being graphic, to a ripe banana, neither rocks, nor snakes, nor pudding. Of course any of the above could occur once in a way, but in the main, good elimination means the easy regular production of something like a ripe banana. Voila!

What Are the Causes of an Unhealthy Digestive Tract?
First are the diets themselves.

Not enough freshly cooked vegetables, not enough fresh food, too much old restaurant food, too much canned and frozen food, too much refined flour, sugar, and processed foods, too much junk food. Not enough green leafy cooked vegetables, too much salad, too much cold food, too much iced beverages and cold drinks, a lack of the sense of seasonal eating, not enough use of culinary herbs and spices that stimulate digestive enzymes.

Americans have so many fad diets, too much compensation with fiber and vitamin supplements that miss the point of a healthy diet and of learning to listen to your own body and eating intuitively. You should be able to tell whether something makes you feel good or bad, on a deep level. That means how do you feel later, not did that ice cream make you feel good short term.

Second are people's lifestyles.

Rushed and tight reactions to stressers sends our nervous systems into the fight or flight response. Nature hypes up the hydrochloric acid in the stomach, but shuts down digestive enzymes and peristalsis in the intestines and sends blood into the large muscles. The result? Tight muscles, excess stomach acid, and lack of movement in the intestines. Then there is my patient who goes for a run every day after lunch. Hmm...

Third the repression of nature's urge.

The more you repress that, the more you will tend to constipation. You are training yourself not to go. Some people also are afraid to use other people's or public bathrooms. Try carrying antibacterial thingies with you to solve the problem?

Fourth are anxieties and compulsions around the eating process.

This is a very big subject that ranges from obsession with 'toxins" and fear of "unhealthy food" to fear of gaining weight and body image issues, to just being unable to relax when eating or just not enjoying eating. Suffice to say that if you don't enjoy your meal and don't relax while eating, for whatever reason, internal or external, your own feelings, or the environment you eat in, (like at your desk while working) you will not digest well.

Diseases and syndromes associated with an Unhealthy Digestive Tract or Digestive Process include GERD, Ulcers, Gastritis, IBS, Ulcerative Colitis, Diverticulitis, chronic Constipation. But there are a whole host of immune disorders and diseases like eczema, psoriasis, chronic asthma or allergies that you cannot really cure without first clearing up the digestive process.

What Are the Remedies for an Unhealthy Digestive Tract?
Central to the Ayurvedic consultation is working out the diet, lifestyle, and herbal remedies that best serves your unique, individual Prakruiti (body-mind type.

Chief among herbal remedies is Trifala, or Ayush Trifal, in the brand I use. Please see for an in-depth description of this premier super food type herbal.

The Third Key to building a healthy immune system is by maintaining good sleep.

Good sleep is essential for restoration and repair of tissues and the mind. What is Good Sleep? Good sleep is when you lie down and fall asleep quickly; sleep through the night without waking up more than once or twice; fall back asleep easily if you do wake up; and wake up in the morning feeling refreshed and relaxed, not very groggy, but not wound up like a clock.

The absence of good sleep over time leads to fatigue, an inability to think clearly, and impairement of the immune system. Poor sleep is most often an imbalance of Vata, less often of Pitta (and even then it is Pitta disturbing Vata), and rarely of Kapha. But Kapha imbalance leads to lethargy, and can be the cause of morning fog or not wanting to leave the bed.
Remedies include making changes in sleep hygiene, such as doing deep relaxation before bed, turning off the t.v. an hour before bed, as well as herbals and use of oil massage with herbal oils. Please see for detailed info on oil massage.

Sleep issues can be very complex, relating to both emotional states and hormones. The best cure I know of is the daily practice of Vippassana or Mindfulness Meditation or some other kind, like Transcendental Meditation.

The Fourth Key to building immunity is "healthy mental attitude."

Good thinking is a very large topic, with many different threads; but in essence we know that a genuinely positive mental attitude aids health. It’s sufficient here to say that there is nothing as toxic as our own thoughts! And some times people overdo realistic concerns about toxins in their bodies from food, and miss this part of health. Some people get so anxious or obsessive about bad food or toxins they make themselves sick with tension and worry.
Further, Ayurveda and Asian Philosophy observes hour our minds can create illness or imbalance by producing unnecessary physical tension. People’s bodies never fully relax and their minds never become still. The wheels of thought keep spinning even when neither useful, nor necessary.

Mind here includes feelings and the way our nervous system responds to both things we are averse to and things we are attracted to. So while over-thinking, tension, fear, worry, desire, anger can bound up our energy, causing the imbalance that becomes disease, meditation and awareness can undo this somaticisation process. We can use our minds consciously to relax so that all our organs are nourished and work harmoniously. Meditation and progressive relaxation is to your mind what bathing is to your skin.

Winter the Best Season for Boosting Immunity

Although winter is a time of world-wide rhinovirus pandemics, in Ayurveda it is actually considered the best season for improving immunity. One reason that winter is a good season for building immunity is that our digestive fire (agni) is higher in cold weather, so we are better able to absorb nutritive herbs and healthfully heavier foods that tonify the body at the deepest levels of the tissues.

On the other hand in summer or in the tropics people can actually lose their appetites with the heat. And the hot weather is the natural time for purification therapies and for eating light cleansing foods like juicy fruits and salads
This corresponds to Chinese Medical philosophy as well, in which the winter season qi corresponds to the "kidney energy" which is the foundation of all Yin and Yang in the body. Winter is the time for storage in Chinese medicine, as such it is the best time for "adding" to the body with tonic herbs like Ginseng or Cordyceps. So winter is actually not a weakening season if you know how live in harmony with the natural energies of the season.

It's quite possible to go the whole winter without catching cold, even if you spent your childhood with frequent colds and flu. If you do catch every bug that goes around, or spend the whole winter with a head full of fluids, this tells us there is a strong Kapha and perhaps Vata imbalance, which can be corrected by modifying your lifestyle, diet, and taking herbs.

Immunity-boosting Foods and Lifestyle Tips for Winter

Much is said about so-called "super foods." People are obsessed with the latest heavily marketed anti-oxidant that is supposedly better than all the previous anti-oxidants: acai, pomegranate, blue-berry, mangosteen, chocolate.... While including some of those things in your diet could be reasonable, especially fruits in season, healing is a process, not a pill. Over the long term there are neither healthy nor unhealthy foods, there are healthy and unhealthy diets. What you eat over a period of time is much more important. And the mania for super foods, in my opinion, reflects a kind of desperation to find a magic pill fountain of youth. Want to eat super foods? Try some kale steamed with onions and garlic with lemon on Monday and some stir fried broccoli on Tuesday.

From an Ayurvedic standpoint immunity-boosting foods include those that are fresh, organic, easy to digest, pure and wholesome. These include fresh, organic vegetables, fruits, whole grains, boiled milk and yogurt, culinary herbs and spices, healthy oils, and lean meats, tailored to your individual dosha makeup (Prakruti), age, current health conditions, and the season.

Foods that are hard to digest should be avoided if you want to increase your immunity. Processed foods, canned, frozen, and packaged foods are old and difficult to digest, so they weaken immunity. 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, sesame, 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.

In winter, when the days are shorter and the nights are longer, it's natural for the body to need more rest. Try going to bed a little earlier, and you will wake up with more vitality and freshness.

Herbal Products to Enhance Immunity

Small amounts of tonic herbals, taken on a daily basis, like Ashwaghanda for men and Shatavari for women are appropriate. Typically they are taken with Trifal, to enhance assimilation, and prevent stagnation.
Chinese tonic herbs are world famous and very useful; things like Astragalus, Siberian Ginseng, American ginseng, Angelica Sinensis, Cordyceps and Reishii fungii are taken in winter. These must be prescribed according to your individual constitution, or you could be taking the wrong herb for you. To pursue this with a licensed herbal expert is recommended

Spices can boost immunity indirectly, by improving digestion. There is a lot of scientific research on the chemicals in spices, they are also really super foods, full of anti-oxidants, but most important they improve digestion by stimulating digestive enzymes.

Here's a winter spice mixture (masala) for enhancing immunity.
• 6 parts Turmeric
• 3 parts Ground Cumin
• 3 parts Ground Indian Coriander
• 1 part Ground Fennel
• 1 part Powdered Ginger
• 1 part Ground Black Pepper
• 1/4 part Ground Cinnamon
• 1/4 part Ground Cardomom

Mix all the powdered spices well and store in an airtight container in a cool place away from direct sun.

Use as a Churna:

If you don't want to get into full fledged Indian cooking, you can use this spice mix as a "churna." That means adding a little bit to your already cooked food. This can work with grains, legumes, vegetables, even meats and fish. Here is how:
Measure one teaspoon of the spice mixture in one tablespoon of oil or ghee and heat on a very low flame until aroma is released. Remove from heat immediately to avoid burning. Apply the warmed spice mix to cooked rice, vegetables or other dishes before serving. Taken regularly with each main meal of the day, this combination of spices will help boost your immune system and enhance digestion.

Eyton J. Shalom, M.S., L.Ac
Ayurvedic and Chinese Natural Medicine

copyright eyton j. shalom, 2008, san diego, ca, all rights reserved, copy with permission