Thursday, March 9, 2017

Easy Immune System Boosters: Staying Healthy in a Germ Factory

Building immunity

Despite my continuing dependence on adrenal steroids to stay alive, I normally fancy myself as being pretty healthy. I mean, my work involves literally sticking my face in other people's faces (once they're under anesthesia, in order to secure their airways). People like me who work in a hospital just assume that they are exposed to all sorts of pathogens on a daily basis. While I've suffered the occasional virus that probably came from work or the gym knock me down for a day or two, usually things normalize again pretty quickly. But this winter, things were very different. Having a toddler in daycare during the winter definitely changes the wellness dynamic of the whole family!

Apparently we're not alone. Friends have told me, "I've never been as sick as I was my first winter with a child in daycare." I hear, "Every time they change classrooms you'll get deathly ill." I have also heard, "It gets better once they turn two" (please let this be the case). And there's an interesting phenomenon that occurs: the vector child gets better quickly while the adults continue to suffer. Throw in particularly cold and wet temperatures this winter plus worsening air quality in Salt Lake City, and you have a recipe for acute turned chronic illness.

None of us is completely immune to getting sick, but we can do some things to try to prevent it during the high risk seasons. I wanted to share some things that I do to support my immune system - some that are of the supplement variety and some that are more behavioral in nature. I'm not going to discuss scientific evidence (or lack thereof) for each potential intervention, as it could possibly turn this blog post into a dissertation! I should also explain my take on supplements. In my opinion, unless it's prohibitively expensive or obviously harmful, why not try it even if there isn't strong scientific evidence that it works? So here are my immune-boosting tips:

  • Reduce toxin ingestion. Try to steer clear of bad air, whether that be first- or second-hand smoke, pollution, car/bus exhaust, or other chemicals. In Salt Lake City, this can be difficult in the winter with the frequent inversions, but we invested in some air filters like these* for our bedrooms. At the very least, stay inside for a few days. In terms of what you put in your mouth, drink clean filtered water and limit intake of processed foods.

  • Eat nutrient-dense foods. On the topic of diet, I always go back to basics with food when I'm feeling ill. It's not the time to be adventurous with the latest spicy dish at your local Thai restaurant, nor is it the best thing to subsist on sugary junk. I usually make plain chicken soups with wilted greens, bland protein like chicken and eggs, vegetables that still hold nutrients but won't upset my stomach such a squash, and whatever fruits seem appealing (especially citrus and berries for their vitamin C and antioxidant content).

  • Protect your gut. Ever had a viral cold or flu but suffer from diarrhea? Your intestinal lining becomes more permeable when you're under great stress, inflammation, or illness. Foods with glycine can help to restore and protect that barrier. We make bone broth and homemade fruit gelatin gummies. While these are super easy to make (see a few recipes here and here), they are becoming more popular/trendy and  can be found at health food stores as well. The plain gelatin that we buy for our gummies is this grass-fed one. A good probiotic (I've used this one and this one before) can also be helpful, especially if you find yourself needing antibiotic treatment.

  • Experiment with immune-boosting supplements. Almost everyone has heard of using Vitamin C when they catch a cold, but it can upset your stomach in high doses. One thing I have used is this liposomal formulation, which encapsulates the C to make it more bioavailable and less irritating to the bowels. Another good immune-enhancing vitamin is vitamin D. I prefer to use the drops like these, which are very concentrated. Many of us walk around with vitamin D deficiency and don't even know it! Zinc in the form of lozenges can help with sore throat symptoms. I also have experimented with elderberry syrup for both me and my daughter. It tastes good, and to my knowledge there is little downside to trying it even if it doesn't do much. Last but not least, remember to be consuming an overall balanced diet and possibly use a good multivitamin to fill in the gaps. 

  • There are other immune-boosting supplements I've either tried or read about that I could mention, but these are what I've been using this winter. Try what you will and see what works for you!

  • Utilize mechanical means for feeling better. What I'm basically referring to here is steam in all of its forms: tea, humidifiers, a netipot, a hot bath with eucalyptus oil, or a sauna. My favorite tea brand is Yogi. All flavors are organic and taste pretty amazing. My favorite is Egyptian licorice, but they have a good spicy ginger flavor that would be good for tummy troubles as well. And although I was skeptical at first, I tried a netipot when I was really congested, and it really helped sinus pressure.

  • Accept that you need to take it easy. Don't do like me and continue shoveling your huge driveway between the multiple layers of snowfall while you're under the weather... delegate even if you need to pay someone! Stop going to spin class, Crossfit, or any other exercise. Take it easy. Take naps. Go to sleep early. Accept that YOU require self care right now.

  • I was sick for almost a month this past winter. In retrospect, I realize that catching a simple virus from my daughter greatly affected me despite my efforts to push through. I was in denial for at least the first couple weeks. I kept my activity level high with the exception of very heavy lifting sessions, I continued to clear my driveway of multiple feet of snow, I worked, I took care of my child and my household. Then all of a sudden I realized that I was weak, tired, achy, feverish, unhappy, and generally unmotivated for daily life activities.  Of course I treated my symptoms with the full court press as above, but as the cycle persisted, I continued to feel bad and eventually got worse, which leads me to my last tip...

  • Know when to call for the bigger guns. While antibiotic usage has recently been highlighted as something we should decrease due to widespread overuse leading to bacterial resistance, antibiotics are still sometimes necessary for getting better. I turned out to have either a sinusitis or atypical pneumonia this winter that only resolved once I took a course of antibiotics. Pay attention to your symptoms and their time course; have they persisted or worsened over time? If yes, maybe you should go see a healthcare professional. And if you do have to go on antibiotics, here is a good article discussing ways to protect your microbiome before, during, and after the course.

  • How has your household been fairing this season? What are your favorite go-to immune system boosters? Share them here!

    *Note: This is the first time I've incorporated affiliate links into my blog, and I plan on continuing to utilize them in the future whenever I recommend certain products. If you buy a product after viewing it through my link, it does not charge you any extra money but will give my blog a small referral fee. By no means do you have to use my links to buy these products; in addition, they can be found at many locations other than

    Monday, January 30, 2017

    Lessons from my Daughter: Listen Closely, I'm Trying to Tell You Something

    She's 14 months old now, and she tears it up all over the house. Climbing on furniture, getting in and out of her wagon, falling down and making messes as she goes. But we've been waiting to hear some words from her. She babbles quite a bit and we make sure to foster that, but we've been at a loss for hearing English coming out of her mouth. Lots of children say a few words around one year old, but some wait a longer period. I'm not worried per se, but honestly I've been hoping for better lines of communication.

    But the other day, I noticed something. She and I had both been quite sick, passing some sort of virus back and forth between the two of us and her daycare class. I was feeling particularly miserable, just basically sitting around and doing very little. She exhibited increased energy and playfulness, and in the process she made concerted efforts to say the words "ball" and "bubbles". In addition, when I was getting ready for bed, I sat down on the floor to put on a pair of socks. She worked her way to my closet, grabbed another pair of my socks and brought them to me. "Thank you", I said, "But I already have a pair." She looked at me, sat down in my lap, handed me the socks and held up her foot for me to put them on her. Beautiful nonverbal communication!

    When we're busy with life's duties or focused on our own drama, it can be easy to let little things like these pass under our noses without even noticing. I have been in a veritable funk regarding my persistent illness and inability to continue my new efforts at working on me. But if I hadn't slowed down and opened my eyes and ears, I wouldn't have realized that my daughter was doing exactly what I've been longing for.

    Her new favorite word and favorite toy

    Monday, January 2, 2017

    Working On Me Again

    Pretty light for a deadlift, but you have to start somewhere

    Fitness and nutrition have played a significant role in my life since my days in Arizona as an undergraduate, a skinnyfat 19 year old who had only ever played music (not sports) as a kid, trying to impress a very tall athletic ex-volleyball player. (I'm now married to that guy!) In over 20 years, I've been a climber (still am!), a step aerobics queen, a runner, a triathlete, a yogi, a snowboarder, a P90X-er, a lifter... done vegetarianism, veganism, eaten paleo and IIFYM bodybuilding style. I didn't do these as fads to lose weight; they mark specific times in my life that involved a certain way of eating and/or a style of movement. To say that thinking about these things is a big part of my life would be an understatement.

    But something was different right after I gave birth. Thoughts of self-improvement were pushed out by infant caring and feeding. Also, pregnancy and childbirth and a good couple years of IVF limbo really took a toll on my motivation to try hard, to project, to work on my own physical goals. It took a while to resurface, but the part of me that wanted to try hard showed up again in Greece, when we were taking turns watching baby and climbing. I had some great sends out on the rock, and I also got shut down on some difficult routes that made me want to get stronger. I'm finally feeling ready to work on myself again in this realm - to experiment on my body with fitness and nutrition.

    As much as some researchers have tried to construct them, good clinical trials for fitness and nutrition regimens don't really exist. There's only so far a rat study can be extrapolated to humans, and it's difficult to design control arms of research for diet and exercise interventions. But we are all our own N=1 experiment. If you have the curiosity and motivation to try new things, and the patience to stick with them for at least a little while (I'd say at least 3-4 weeks), you can perform your own health studies on yourself. How something works for you is the only thing that matters anyway.

    So here's what I'm currently trying:

    Eating low carb every day except for one. I'm loosely following a diet protocol referred to as CarbNite or Carb Backloading. It might have a gimmick-y ring to it, but the idea is to eat carbohydrates in a reverse diurnal rhythm to daily cortisol pulsations. In general, it is low-carb eating with punctuated periods of higher carbs (for me, about one evening a week). My husband has been eating this way for years, having higher carb dinners following any workout day. I've been wanting to try it with the once/week carb night, and so far I am seeing good results. Since the end of October, I haven't seen the scale move (which is fine with me), but my clothes have gotten looser and measurements have slightly changed. I have good energy for workouts, I don't feel the faintiness I often get of from blood sugar fluctuations, and my cravings for sugar have definitely decreased.

    Weight lifting 2-3 days per week. Especially now with the mix of motherhood and work, I try to follow this exercise triage:
    Remember my self-care triage
    Well, I made one for exercise types as well but never really expounded on it for the blog.

    Weight training is empowering, effective, not generally as burnout-inducing as chronic cardio or tons of high-volume metabolic work (a la Crossfit), and I have come to love it over the years. It's so good to be doing it again! I'm following a whole body push/pull split, which means that one day I dedicate my workout to pushing exercises such as pushups, squats, hip thrusts, and presses. For the pulling day, I'm falling in love with the deadlift again, and I also do assisted pullups (Nope, still can't do one!), pullovers, and kettlebell swings.

    There are SO MANY weight lifting programs out there to follow - from Wendler 5-3-1 to Westside Barbell to Stronglifts 5x5 to supersets and other bodybuilding-style rep schemes. Trying to choose one can lead to analysis paralysis, so at some point you just have to just go with something and see what happens. For the past couple of months, I've been doing own hybrid program for the push/pull schedule. I first work on a compound strength movement in a 5x5 style set and rep scheme. Then I do supersets of upper and lower body exercises for the rest of the time, at a weight where I can complete 8-10 reps usually. I finish off with a couple of core exercises and some mobility work.

    If you're just starting out with weight training, I highly recommend either working with someone or closely following a book format like this with good photos for demonstration. Even if you have some experience making the movements, it can be helpful to hire a trainer. I am planning to do once a week personal training sessions in this new year to help further inspire me to get stronger. Results of that to come...

    Still walking as much as possible. While I haven't been quantifying my steps, I am still trying to take walks as often as I can. My long walks usually correspond to days off, but with our recent move they sometimes got thrown by the wayside. Now that I've established the twice weekly weight training habit, I'll gradually try increasing my walks and yoga/massage/mobility work.

    I have some other New Year's resolutions, but these things are a major focus for me in the new year. How about you? What are you working on in 2017? Share it here!

    Monday, December 26, 2016

    PB Top Posts of 2016

    Our Christmas postcard this year

    After the major events of 2015, this year has been about adjusting to the addition of another whole person to our family. I'm not going to lie, it has been challenging to morph the activities of our daily lives as she grows up, from 24/7 needs to crawling to walking and getting into everything. It's been a beautiful progression to witness, but just when you think you've figured something out, she changes again!

    With all the child rearing activities, I didn't post as many times as I would have liked to this year, something I will definitely be working on for next year! This list provides a short trip down the 2016 memory lane with the most popular (by pageview) posts of the year:

    5) It's a virtual tie between two Lessons From My Daughter posts: one about body love and the other about looking beyond material things

    4) A post about long walks and how good they are for relaxation and productivity

    3) Results of my sugar detox experiment last summer

    2) My experience returning to work after maternity leave and mini rant about the virtues of taking extended periods of time off

    1) My first post of the year expressing my initial frustration and need to change my ways when taking care of a newborn baby.

    Thanks for reading my ramblings for the last five years. I wish you love and happiness in 2017!