9 Ways to Stay Healthy During Cold and Flu Season
Cold and flu season comes every year, but that doesn’t mean you have to get sick. The typical flu season lasts approximately 12 weeks, which means there is a much higher concentration of the flu virus for about three months! We want you to stay healthy during cold and flu season (and year round!), so we’ve put together a list of nine ways you can boost your immune system and overall health to decrease your chances of picking up that nasty little virus everyone around you seems to be getting.
1. Get more Zzzzs. With all the hustle-bustle and endless demands of the modern world, adequate and restful sleep is often one of the first things put on the backburner. While less sleep may help you check a few more things off the to-do list, it doesn’t help you stay healthy. During sleep, our bodies repair and regenerate damaged cells. Sleep is also when we manufacture large volumes of red blood cells that supply our bodies with oxygen and remove carbon dioxide waste. Adequate sleep also improves memory, decreases inflammation, helps you maintain a healthier weight, and reduces stress and anxiety.
It’s best to get between 8-9 hours of sleep each night, but you may want to opt for more sleep or an afternoon nap if you start to feel sick. Some researchers feel that every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours of sleep to our bodies, so aim to be in bed sleeping between 9:30-10:30p every night.
2. Eat a rainbow. Our bodies rely on many nutrients to keep things running optimally. The best way to ensure you provide your body with all the important vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. Different colored fruits and vegetables are higher in certain nutrients than others, so eating produce that encompasses all the colors of the rainbow means you won’t miss out on nutrients you need!
Vitamin A plays an especially important role in protecting the body against bacterial, viral or parasitic infections because it maintains the integrity of our mucus membranes. It has been called “the anti-infective vitamin” and is found in higher amounts in sweet potatoes, carrots/carrot juice, pumpkin, spinach, collard greens and kale.
3. Stay hydrated. Over half of your blood is composed of water! In essence, water is a very important component of blood, so it’s no surprise that dehydration negatively impacts our ability to transport blood and stay fully oxygenated. Because every cell relies on water for the removal of toxins and metabolic wastes, all bodily functions are diminished when we aren’t adequately hydrated. Even our ability to create ATP, the energetic currency of our bodies, is impacted by insufficient water intake.
Hydration status has a direct effect on our immune system by affecting our lymphatics. Lymph carries white blood cells and other immune cells throughout the body and removes toxins from the blood. Our bodies require water in order to produce lymph, so inadequate water means our infection-fighting cells have a much harder time travelling to where they are needed most. Additionally, staying hydrated keeps our mucus membranes moist and aids in mucus secretion, meaning bacteria and viruses will find it more difficult to invade our bodies.
A good rule of thumb is to drink half your body weight in ounces each day (drink 75 oz. if you weigh 150 lbs., for example), but you should always consult your physician to determine the amount of water that is most appropriate for you.
4. Decrease sugar. Sugar acts as a food source for germs, depresses immune function, and increases inflammation in the body. While you will want to avoid sugar during an acute infection, limiting your intake during cold and flu season will decrease your chances of getting sick in the first place. Be mindful when drinking fruit juices because various forms of sugar are often added. It’s always best to eat the whole fruit, but if you must indulge in juice, choose an unsweetened version. Stick to drinking an amount of juice that would be comparable to a normal serving size of the whole fruit. For example, it takes approximately 4 oranges to produce 8oz of juice, so don’t drink 5 glasses of OJ in a day (that’s approximately 20 oranges!).
To our bodies, alcohol and simple, processed grains are very similar to sugar. Decrease your alcohol intake during cold and flu season, and avoid it altogether when you aren’t feeling well. Stick to whole grains (those you buy that are virtually unchanged in appearance from when they were harvested) instead of simple or processed grains (breads, pastas, crackers…any grain that does NOT resemble its natural form and comes in a package).
5. Exercise regularly. Exercise stimulates immune function and can make your immune system more efficient at destroying viruses, the culprit of flus and most colds. Movement stimulates the flow of lymph, which, as you read above, carries white blood cells and other immune cells all over the body so they can fight infections. Regular exercise also results in decreased stress levels, another important component for staving off illness (below).
Avoid overstressing your body with exercise that is too intense, as this will have detrimental effects on your immune system and overall health. Do more gentle forms of exercise if you feel cold or flu symptoms developing, such as walking, yoga, or Tai Chi. It’s best to consult your physician before starting a new exercise regimen.
6. Test your Vitamin D levels. Vitamin D modulates immune function and may help prevent infections. It has been suggested that lower Vitamin D levels during the winter (due to less sun exposure) might explain the higher incidence of influenza in winter months versus other times of the year. Even in sunnier climates, many people are found to be low in Vitamin D. Have your doctor test your levels, and begin appropriate supplementation with Vitamin D3 under your provider’s supervision if your results indicate a deficiency.
7. Get a handle on stress. Chronic stress wreaks havoc on your immune system, increasing your chances of catching a cold or the flu. In one study, scientists found that people under stress were twice as likely to develop a cold. It appears that chronic stress lowers our sensitivity to cortisol, allowing inflammation, which can manifest as redness, itchiness, swelling and pain, to run rampant.
Inflammation occurs naturally when our immune systems spot an infection and is a natural first line of defense. However, chronic inflammation, like that associated with chronic stress, raises the risk of colds and many other illnesses. There are many techniques available for reducing stress levels, and the only way to know what works for you is to try them out. Exercising, deep breathing, spending time outdoors, meditation, counseling, and mind-body practices like yoga are all great options for decreasing your stress levels.
8. Cut back on dairy. There are lots of reasons to avoid dairy, but when it comes to infections, consuming milk-based products can thicken, and may even increase the production, of mucus secretions. While it’s true that mucus secretions naturally increase during infections to help our bodies trap and eliminate germs, thickened or copious mucus is much more difficult to expel, and if left in the body, can create a breeding ground for more infectious bugs.
Dairy is a pro-inflammatory agent, and chronic, excessive consumption could lead to chronic inflammation, which, as you read above, raises the risk of colds and many other illnesses. Many people are sensitive to dairy (60% of the world or more!), and it’s no surprise considering humans are the only species in nature who 1) drink the milk of another species and 2) consume milk after the introduction of solid foods. Do your body a favor by decreasing the amount of dairy you devour during cold and flu season, and consider completely avoiding dairy during an infection.
9. Do hydrotherapy. Long, hot showers, though extremely relaxing, cause your superficial blood vessels to dilate and release heat. Ending your shower in a 30-60 second cool/cold water spray causes these same blood vessels to constrict, which creates a pumping action we like to call “vascular exercise” (the colder the water, the greater the effect). This sudden constriction of the superficial blood vessels causes blood flow to increase to your internal organs, supplying them with fresh oxygenated blood and allowing them to eliminate toxins and carbon dioxide.
If you have a removable shower head, it’s best to direct the spray of cool/cold water from your extremities towards your heart. Regularly ending your shower with this invigorating, refreshing form of hydrotherapy provides your arteries and veins with a beneficial workout and actually keeps you warmer as you dry off (great for winter months!). By enhancing your blood and lymph circulation, this cool/cold water spray keeps your immune system ready to take on whatever germs might come your way. In addition, you may also want to consider implementing warming socks at the onset of any symptoms indicating a potential infection.
There you have it! We hope you have found these suggestions helpful as you strive to stay healthy and vital during cold and flu season. Don’t forget to wash your hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer to reduce your risk of catching germs and spreading them to others. Always cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your sleeve instead of your hand to further minimize the spread of bacteria and viruses to those around you. Prevention is the best medicine! Be well!
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