When the weather starts cooling off, there’s an uptick in cases of sore throat, cough, runny nose, and congestion. Strengthening your immune system has perhaps never been more important than it is now. So what can you do to prevent the seasonal cold and flu? I’ll help answer this question so you can feel your best all season long.
Why are We More Likely to Get Sick During the Winter?
A quick drop to cold temperatures can make you more susceptible to getting sick ‒ but not because cold weather makes you sick. Viruses actually live longer in colder temperatures. As temperatures drop, they take humidity levels down with it, and viruses tend to get stronger. Research shows that “viruses survive and proliferate more effectively at colder temperatures, allowing them to spread and infect greater numbers of people.”
When your body temperature drops, your immune system takes a hit. Your body is put under stress as it’s forced to adjust to the new environment. Cold weather can dry your skin, your eyes, and mucus membranes, weakening the body’s first line of immune defense (in your nose). The combination of these two things is what increases the likelihood of your getting sick during the winter.
Thanks to recent events, we’re all well versed in the ways we can keep from getting sick. In addition to minimizing exposure to viruses, there are some other things we can do to make our immune systems stronger, in both the short and the long term.
Seven Things You Can Do to Prevent Seasonal Cold and Flu
1. Wash your hands.
Keeping your hands clean is one of the most important ways to not only keep yourself from getting sick but also prevent spreading germs to others. Feces distributes germs like Salmonella and E. coli, and it can spread respiratory infections like adenovirus, common viruses that can cause cold- and flu-like symptoms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a single gram of human feces ‒ which is about the weight of a paper clip ‒ can contain one trillion germs, and handwashing can ensure these germs don’t end up where we don’t want them. We touch surfaces all day long; we can’t be sure if others are washing their hands, but we can be sure we’re washing our own!
2. Avoid touching your face.
Consciously or unconsciously, the average person touches their face 16 times per hour. Human hands are filthy, since they come into contact with almost innumerable surfaces per day. The mucous membranes of your nose, mouth, and eyes are practically magnets for bacteria and viruses, which is even more reason to be more conscious of keeping your hands away from your face.
3. Limit processed foods.
Following a diet that’s heavy in fast foods and highly processed foods can lead to chronic inflammation and leaky gut, which means the gut walls become more permeable. As a result of this gut permeability, bacteria can make their way into the gut, causing oxidative stress ‒ which can then lead to a weakened immune system.
4. Take your vitamins.
Supplements are one option for getting the necessary vitamins and minerals you may be missing in your diet, but you should always check with your doctor before starting a supplement routine.
The following can be especially helpful during the cold winter months, to keep your immune system functioning properly:
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that not only fights free radicals (thereby lowering inflammation) but also supports multiple cellular functions in the body. Foods rich in vitamin C include citrus fruits (lemons, oranges, grapefruit, tangerines), strawberries, spinach, kale, and broccoli.
Vitamin D is important for making sure the immune system stays balanced. Not surprisingly, vitamin D levels are also lowest during the winter months. You can increase your sun exposure and intake of vitamin D‒fortified foods like dairy, orange juice, soy milk, cereals, beef liver, and egg yolks.
Zinc is critical to sustaining proper immune function. When it comes to the common cold, this mineral appears to lessen the symptoms and shorten the duration of illness. Since zinc is not stored in the body, it must be consumed in the diet; it can be found in red meat, poultry, fish, nuts, and whole grains.
Quercetin is a flavonoid found in a range of foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains. Like other antioxidants, it fights free radicals, which can harm the body by accelerating aging and causing inflammation. Quercetin also works in tandem with other immune-boosting nutrients to act as an antiviral agent. It’s thought to be useful in the prevention and treatment of a wide array of viruses, including upper respiratory infections. In fact, researchers have discovered that quercetin inhibited cells from becoming infected with influenza virus, Zika virus, and even Ebola virus. The main dietary sources of quercetin are apples, berries, capers, onions, tomatoes, kale, broccoli, nuts, and buckwheat.
Elderberries are a rich source of vitamins and antioxidants that support immune function. Elderberry extract has been used medicinally for centuries, to lower inflammation and fight off infections. For this reason, some experts recommend it to prevent and ease cold and flu symptoms.
Anti-inflammatory spices have long been used for medicinal purposes as well as for their flavorful aromatics ‒ think turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, oregano, cumin, and garlic! I always load up on anti-inflammatory spices when I’m cooking, and I encourage others to do the same.
5. Supercharge your immune system.
Eating a real, whole, nutrient-dense diet, along with foods that are high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, seems to support the growth and maintenance of a healthy microbiome. The results are a stronger, healthier immune system that can ward off a multitude of pathogens, including those that cause the cold and flu.
6. Move your body.
Physical exercise is a powerful modulator of the immune system. Studies have shown that moderate-intensity exercise can cut down on the number of colds you get.
Exercise promotes changes in white blood cells and antibodies, allowing them to circulate much more rapidly and resulting in a stronger immune system. Thirty minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week is recommended, to keep your immune system (and your body) in top shape.
7. Get enough sleep.
It’s no secret that lack of sleep can make you sick! Studies show that people who don’t get enough sleep or don’t get quality sleep are more likely to get sick if they are exposed to pathogens like viruses.
Sleep is linked to our immune system by the production of protective cytokines, which help fight infections. On the contrary, not getting enough sleep leads to the production of inflammatory cytokines, contributing to a slew of other cardiovascular and metabolic disorders. Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
Fighting the Good Fight
It’s important to note that no matter how many precautions we take, germs and pathogens will always be present. While we may be powerless against their existence, we are not powerless in our response to them.
As a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I’ve learned that where our health is concerned, so much is in our power ‒ and that power comes in the form of the lifestyle choices we make. There’s no magic solution that will promise you a healthy immune system, but eating the right foods, exercising, getting quality sleep, laughing, making social connections, and avoiding toxic substances will go a long way in improving our overall health.