One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is how to stay healthy during cold and flu season. Unfortunately, there’s little you can do once you pick up a cold or infection, except let it run it’s course. I like to focus more on keeping my immune system strong and healthy as a preventative measure.
Going beyond eating healthy (because that’s a given, right?) below are some things you can do that will make a big difference in your health during cold and flu season and beyond.
Wash Your Hands
First things first, the BEST defense against getting a cold or other illness is to wash your hands often. You should also be vigilant about not touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Make it a habit to wash your hands after you return from public places, especially your child’s school (germ-fest!), the gym (bigger germ-fest!) and places like the metro and other public transportation (biggest germ-fest!).
Stop Stressing Out
It doesn’t matter what you eat if you’re always stressed out. It’s pretty well established that people who are under chronic stress are more likely to catch colds. Why? It’s linked to how stress changes your body’s inflammatory response. Researchers have identified an immune factor called glucocorticoid receptor resistance or GCR. When GCR is increased, your immune cells don’t respond as well to the signals that turn off inflammation. Cytokines play a role, too. Cytokines are inflammation-inducing chemical messengers that cause most cold symptoms. It appears that the higher the GCR you have before exposure to a virus the more cytokines you produce after infection. I know it’s easier said than done, but getting your stress level under control is a top defense against getting sick.
Meditation is a great way to reduce stress. As previously mentioned, the less you stress, the stronger your immune system gets. In a 2012 study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), meditation was tested against exercise as a way to reduce acute respiratory infections during cold season. Surprisingly, the meditation group had shorter and less severe colds and lost fewer days of work than the exercise group! Exercise alone had some benefit, but not as much as the meditation group did. I think that’s pretty cool. It illustrates the power we have within us to keep ourselves healthy. The New York times has some great resources for learning how to meditate. I also love this column called Meditation for Real Life about creating mindfulness in your everyday activities.
Clean Out Your Nose
If you’re like me, the thought of shooting salt water up your nose is not high on your to-do list. This is coming from a non-swimmer who still holds her nose. But, people do it. And they love it. Whether your go-to is a neti pot (an ancient Ayurvedic remedy) or another device (bottles, sprays, pumps, or nebulizers) the idea is the same: nasal irrigation provides relief from sinus congestion, allergies, and colds. It can also be used as a preventative measure by clearing out nasal passages and thinning mucus.
Sip on Broth
I’m not a big medication person so my favorite remedy for a cold is homemade chicken soup. I roast up a whole chicken, give my husband most of the meat, and then simmer the bones (the carcass, as we like to call it) in chicken broth with sauteed carrots, celery and onion. It’s as soothing and comforting as it is rich in immune-loving minerals. Broth also contains minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, and sulphur in an easily absorbed form, as well as chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine, which are amazing for your joints.
Strengthen Your Gut
Studies show that probiotics reduce the duration of illness in healthy children and adults who develop common acute respiratory infections. The flora in your digestive tract protects you by strengthening the cells lining your GI tract and regulating the inflammatory immune response. Increasing the good bacteria in your gut is key to keeping yourself healthy. Natural sources like yogurt, kefir, miso soup and tempeh are great ways to keep the balance. Try my 5-Spice Tempeh Salad here.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep deprivation has been shown to suppress the immune system. Studies show our T-cell numbers decrease and inflammatory cytokines go up when we’re sleep deprived. A weakened immune system means you’re more susceptible to a cold or flu virus. To get your zzz’s (7-8 hours per night) it’s important to stick to a sleep schedule. Don’t stimulate your brain late at night with electronics or TV. Stick to the same sleep and wake times so you get eight hours of restorative shut-eye each night!