Breathe Easy This Winter

If you live far enough north, winter is synonymous with skating, tobogganing, snowball fights, and other snowy pursuits. But it can also be a season of sickness, during which our bodies transform into mucous factories.

Do you ever wonder where all this mucous is coming from? How can one tiny person produce so much yuck? And why does it happen so much more often in the winter?  

photo by Mike Gieson

As many of us know from experience, in the winter the climate becomes not only cold, but also dry. The dryness is the trigger for this mucous mayhem. The body is loaded with mucous membranes, which line most of our internal surfaces and are especially prominent on surfaces that are exposed to the outside world, like our nasal passages and sinuses. These membranes act as our front-line defence against outside invaders, but they need to be moist in order to trap and remove the invaders before they have a chance to advance further into the body. When working properly, these mucous producing membranes are highly beneficial to us. So, what goes wrong in the winter?

As we continually breathe in the cold, dry air of winter, our membranes get dried out. This signals them to produce mucous to maintain appropriate moisture levels. As they repeatedly get dried out, the mucous production increases and can become excessive. The excess mucous is not only unpleasant for us, but it is also a great breeding ground for viruses. This is one of the reasons we get colds and flus more commonly in the winter.

Mucous food-fighters:

Now that we know why it happens, what can we do to fight this mucous monster?  

First off, always make sure to eat foods rich in nutrients to help keep the immune system strong throughout the winter months. Here are a few of my favourite immune supporting superfoods:

Camu Camu Berry:  This berry is not native to our area of the world and we typically find it in a dried powder form or as a juice at the health food store. Camu camu berry is loaded with a variety of vitamins and minerals, but is most famous for its incredibly high concentration of vitamin C. The powder and juice have a bitter-sweet flavour and they both mix well into a smoothie or other fruit juice.

Raw Honey: This superfood is considered a universal medicine. Honey in its raw form (not processed or pasteurized) is nature’s richest source of live healing enzymes. Manuka honey from the New Zealand rainforest has the most abundant collection of these enzymes. Raw honey not only strengthens the immune system, but it also helps kill off a wide variety of invading organisms as it has anti-fungal, anti-biotic and anti-viral properties. The best part is it tastes great right off the spoon!

photo by J. Gabriel

One of my favourite ways to use raw honey is in a warm soothing drink. In a mug of hot water add ½ teaspoon grated ginger root or a ginger tea bag, 1 teaspoon lemon juice and 1 teaspoon raw honey. Add the raw honey once the water has cooled to a drinkable temperature to prevent killing the healing enzymes it contains. This warm, yummy drink is great for coating a sore throat, soothing an upset stomach, and is helpful for killing off an infection. As an added bonus, ginger is a strong detoxifier and works at healing imbalances that are responsible for excess mucous production. 
*NOTE: Raw honey should not be given to infants under 1 years old.

Goji Berries: These little red berries are becoming increasingly popular as we learn more about the many health benefits they provide. Goji berries are typically found in dried form in the grocery or health food store. These berries are world-renowned for their immune-boosting capabilities. Goji berries enhance the functioning of the thymus gland, and therefore, increase immune system activation. This mechanism plays a specific role in protecting us against viral infections (the main cause for the mucous party in your face). Goji berries are a great addition to trail mix, blended into a smoothie or on top of your salad.

When dealing with a mucous monster there are also foods we should avoid:  

Dairy: We always think of comfort foods when we’re sick and hear about kids getting ice cream in the hospital after having their tonsils removed. Unfortunately, that is one of the worst foods to have at that time! Dairy products can create a lot of phlegm and mucous in the body, in addition to thickening any already present secretions. It only enhances the mucous monster state we are in. Dairy should be avoided completely when we are sick.

photo by Pat Herman

Sugar: It’s commonly known by now that sugar affects the body in many adverse ways. One is that it reduces the effectiveness of the immune system. Did you know that 1 tsp (4g) can reduce the immune system’s effectiveness by 50% for up to 6 hours? Wowzers! That’s a dramatic hit to our defenses. So, the ice cream after a tonsillectomy not only increases mucous production but also knocks out the immune system, which is already trying to fight hard against any infection. Double whammy! I challenge you to check the nutritional label on your favourite snacks to see just how many teaspoons/grams of sugar they contain. You may be surprised.

Banana: I know! Who would have thought that banana could ever be bad? While no research exists to back this one up, clinically we see that banana can have a similar effect to that of dairy, thickening secretions and mucous. This is a problem because we need to get the mucous out to get the infection out. Thicker secretions are harder to expel and move. So, pause the banana and welcome in the bone broth!

Mucous busting tools

Ear Oil: Another simple trick to stay healthy in the winter is to utilize ear oil. You can use ear oil when you feel a cold starting to set in or when your child comes home with the sniffles. The oil works amazingly well at keeping the lymphatic system moving, which helps clear out the excess mucous and drain toxins from the body. Especially relevant in young children, as their eustachian tubes are more horizontal when younger, making drainage more difficult.

Here is how to make an ear oil that you can use when infection strikes:

In a small saucepan heat 1 cup olive oil on medium heat.  Add 1 clove of garlic, chopped and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the garlic chunks and let oil cool down until it is warm to the touch. Be sure to test the temperature on your hand before dropping it into the ear. It may go without saying, but hot oil will burn.  

With a medicine dropper at bedtime, put 2-3 drops of warm oil into each ear and block with a cotton ball to prevent the oil from running out. Massage around the ears to help move the oil through.

During a cold, put warm oil in the ears every hour for 3 hours. After the third application you’ll notice everything is draining and the cold will dissipate more quickly.

*NOTE: This treatment is NOT to be used if the eardrum is perforated or if there are ear tubes in place. See your family doctor or naturopathic doctor to ensure ear drum is intact before attempting this treatment.

Mustard poultice: This home treatment is great when mucous has moved down from the head and into the chest (cue the cough!). This poultice is not to be used as prevention, but only when all other attempts at fighting off the monster have failed. Mustard is a rubefacient, which means it stimulates blood circulation. This treatment will increase blood flow to the lungs and encourage movement of mucous that may be trapped in the lung cavities.

Mix one part dry mustard with eight parts flour. Add enough warm water to make a paste. Spread the paste on a piece of cloth large enough to fold over and cover the entire chest of your patient (cheesecloth, flannel, or kitchen towel all work). Voila, you’ve made a poultice! Apply your poultice to the bare chest and relax, covering up to prevent any chill. For adults, leave on for 15-20 minutes. For children, leave on for 10 minutes. Check every 2-5 minutes to avoid burning the skin (this can actually happen). Do not use on children who cannot communicate to you that it is becoming too hot.

Incorporate one, or all of these simple things into your routine, and enjoy a healthy winter season, free from the mucous monster.

For more individualized support this winter see my clinic contact info on my website to book your naturopathic appointment.

Dr Jennifer Kaster ND

Helping you achieve wellness…the natural way. 

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