(Updated December 31, 2020) | We’ve made it through 2020. And, the year ended with some hope on the COVID-19 front, thanks to the vaccine. You can even calculate your place in the “vaccine line” here (hello from position number 268.7 million). While we’re on that subject, it’s still not too late to get your flu vaccine. The coldest winter months are still ahead of us and so, your risk of getting sick is still higher, according to health experts. This is because many viruses survive longer in cold temperatures and the chilly weather forces more of us to stay indoors. Thankfully, there are several precautions that you can take to help strengthen your immune system during cold and flu season.
Can You Boost Your Immunity?
Your immune system defends your body against infection. But, is there a way to give it a boost to lower your chances of getting sick? To say that you can “boost” your immune system isn’t exactly accurate.
“There is still much that researchers don’t know about the intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response,” Harvard Health explains. “For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function.”
However, researchers are exploring the link between a strong immune response and factors including age, diet, exercise levels, and stress. Harvard Health adds: “In the meantime, general healthy-living strategies are a good way to start giving your immune system the upper hand.”
Here’s how to do it.
1. Eat Vitamin-Rich Foods
Food plays a massive role in staying healthy, it’s not surprising that it can also support the immune system.
It’s well-known that vitamin C is effective at strengthening your immune system (and it’s great for your skin) and plant-based foods have no shortage of that. When we think vitamin C, we usually think of citrus fruits (or more specifically, orange juice), so try snacking on oranges, tangerines, mandarins, and grapefruit. Bonus: citrus fruits are in season during winter, so they taste best now.
Produce including bell peppers, spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes (sweet potato tacos, anyone?), and winter squash are also rich in vitamin C. Like with citrus fruits, winter squash is best around this time of year: try butternut, acorn, carnival, and kabocha. Vitamin E also boosts the immune system. You can get that from broccoli, almonds, sunflower seeds, and avocado (see: a lot of guacamole).
2. Reduce Stress for a Healthy Mind and Body
According to the Cleveland Clinic, chronic stress can weaken the immune system. The best course of action here is to try to reduce the stressor in any way you can. The caveat here is that we are currently going through a pandemic and facing an economic crisis—and most of us are probably having trouble shaking anxious feelings about that. Not to mention, the source of stress isn’t always so easily removed, if you’re going through certain hardships or dealing with mental illness. But, thankfully, there are ways to reduce stress. Try to take things one day at a time and make space for yourself to do something that helps you love, be that meditation, chill sessions with friends over Zoom, doodling, journaling, some “you time,” you name it. And remember: be kind to yourself.
3. Get Enough Sleep
It’s tempting to stay up late, tempted by the ease of binge-watching an entire series on a streaming service or having literally all of the information in the world at your fingertips through the indistinct rectangles that we call smartphones. But googling the best vegan mac and cheese or creative uses for the “Catapult” spell in Dungeons & Dragons six hours before you need to wake up has a downside (unfortunately). Studies show that not getting enough sleep can negatively affect your immune system—and if you’re already sick, it can make your cold last longer.
When we sleep, the body releases proteins called cytokines. These not only help you sleep, but they’re also needed for your body to fight infection or inflammation, so a lack of sleep can leave you more vulnerable to getting sick. For adults, a good night’s rest is between seven to eight hours of sleep a night. If you have trouble sleeping, try listening to music or use an app like Headspace or Noisli.
4. Wash Your Hands
If COVID-19 has done one thing, it’s solidified healthy handwashing techniques—and with good reason. Washing your hands is one of the best proactive measures for reducing the risk of getting sick. This is because people habitually touch their faces and eyes throughout the day (including habits like biting your nails—I’m working on stopping, okay?), giving germs an easy open to get into the body through our eyes, nose, and mouth. This is also why we should always wash our hands before cooking or eating. Germs can also spread to anything we touch, be it doorknobs, the faucet, a Nintendo Switch, books…anything.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), handwashing can reduce your risk of respiratory illnesses like the common cold and diarrhea. This is also why we wash our hands after using the bathroom. Germs like salmonella and E.coli thrive in feces (yeah, we’re talking about poop). So, always wash your hands properly. Sanitizer alone isn’t enough; lather them with soap for at least 20 seconds.
5. Don’t Smoke, Drink Responsibly
Smoking has been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, plus cancer. It also harms the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight infection and disease, according to the CDC. It can also increase the risk of several autoimmune disorders.
Drinking too much alcohol can also leave you more susceptible to colds by impairing the body’s ability to defend against infection. Chronic alcohol consumption is also linked to impaired immune function in the upper airways, increasing the risk of pulmonary diseases like tuberculosis. Experts say that moderate alcohol consumption (like a glass of wine with dinner) is still perfectly fine.
6. Exercise Regularly
Cold weather and shorter days can make us feel less motivated to stick to a workout routine. But, regular exercise can actually strengthen your immune system. This is because exercise improves circulation, which allows immune cells to move more efficiently through the body. In addition to that, exercise can help you build muscle and stamina, plus studies show that it can make you happier, something we could all use to help fight the winter blues. Regular exercise can reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes and heart disease and it can help you sleep better—see point #2.
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