Don't let this be you! Prep yourself for cold and flu season with the suggestions below!
I recently did a talk on preventing colds and flu (since we’re in that season!), and I wanted to share some easy tips that I talked about so everyone could benefit. Coming into the holidays, we’re often doing a lot of things that can negatively impact our immune system – eating more sugar, drinking more alcohol, and potentially feeling stressed because of schedule or company, or because it’s a hard time of year for other reasons. Make sure to balance the desserts and treats with a whole-foods based diet (vegetables, fruit, nut, and seeds all contain vitamins and minerals that support your immune system). Be moderate in your consumption of sugars and alcohol wherever possible. And find time for yourself! If your holiday season is so over-scheduled that you are running from event to event and not enjoying any of them, consider cutting back (if you’re busy and loving every second of it, and that works for you, that’s totally okay too!). Take time for yourself, be good to your body, and check out these specific tips:
Probiotics – regular use of probiotics may decrease frequency of infection, duration, and number of days missed of school or work due to acute upper respiratory infection (1). Make sure that if you choose to add a probiotic, you are using a high quality, with a variety of types of bacteria, and a reasonable amount of CFUs – I typically use 5 billion and higher except with certain specific strains. Some interesting new research is showing specific benefit for mucosal immunity with streptococcus salivarius, but this may be harder to locate, and it is likely important to use only the strains that have been studied to have benefit when used as a probiotic.
Vitamin D3 – consider talking to your doctor about whether vitamin D testing or supplementation is appropriate for you. Vitamin D had many important physiologic properties, but in this case, we’re talking about the immune supportive effect it can have. In the northeast US, we’re prone to low vitamin D because of low sun exposure throughout the year. I typically recommend 1000-2000 IU/d, but supplementing at a higher dose for a short period may be beneficial for some individuals. You need to be cautious with higher vitamin D doses because it is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it stays in your system for longer and may cause toxicity if taken at doses that are too high for a long period of time.
Hand washing – we all know this one, just make sure you do it! No need to use antibiotic soaps (they can contain hormone disruptors), just a good old fashion lather and rinse. Use this especially before doing anything that gets your hands in contact with your face or after touching common use objects like doors and gym equipment, or shared computers.
Exercise – when winter comes along, it’s easy to want to curl up on the couch and hide until the days get warmer and longer. Activity level tends to drop over the winter especially for those who typically get their movement in outdoors (unless you’re a skier that is!). While we don’t always equate exercise with our immune system, exercising 45 minutes per day at a moderate intensity has been shown to reduce incidence and duration of acute upper respiratory infection (aka colds), and number of days missed due to this type of illness (2). If you have an injuring or condition that prevents you from exercising this amount, the good news is that an equal amount of meditation had the same effect (2).
Bonus Tip: Spend time in nature – This ties in to what I was saying about exercise. It’s important to figure out an alternative to outdoor exercise for the days when you can’t get out, but on those more moderate winter days, and when we have some beautiful late fall days, find a nice place to walk outside. You’ll get extra benefit for your activity. There have been shown to be many benefits from time in the forest (a lot of research done in Japan on this), and one that is particularly interesting is an increase in Natural Killer cells (NK cells) following forest therapy (3). NK cells are a type of white blood cell that is important in viral infection, especially because they are able to recognize virally infected cells early on prior to antibody production.
Cook with Spices and herbs - Many common spices and herbs have antimicrobial properties. Don't be shy about adding a larger amount than usual! If you don't like it , you can always back off next time, but chances are it will add delicious flavor to your cooking. If you have gastrointestinal inflammation, you may want to be careful around spicy foods, but herbs such as thyme and oregano can add flavor and antimicrobial properties without kicking up the heat. Spices I love to cook with are cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, red pepper flakes, ginger, garlic, oregano, and thyme, and there's plenty more out there!
1 – Hao Q, Dong BR, Wu T. “Probiotics for preventing acute upper respiratory tract infections”. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2015, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD006895. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006895.pub3.
2 – Barrett, Bruce et al. “Meditation or Exercise for Preventing Acute Respiratory Infection: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Annals of Family Medicine 10.4 (2012): 337–346. PMC. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
3 – Mirazaki Y, Ikei H, Song C. “Forest medicine research in Japan.” Nihon Eiseigaku Zasshi. 2014;69(2):122-35.