6 Tips to Keep Your Immune System Heroic This Cold Season

Maia Kurnik, Arivale Coach, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Maia Kurnik
Arivale Coach, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Faster than a speeding sneeze cloud! Stronger than your boss’ germy handshake! Able to stop a stampeding rhinovirus with a single cell! Protecting you in planes, trains, and automobiles…

It’s your IMMUNE SYSTEM!

This silent superhero is defending your body against infectious bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other invaders right this very moment. An impressive collection of tissues, cells, and proteins, your immune system wields physical shields, as well as chemical and guerilla warfare, to keep you healthy. It’s the hero we deserve and the hero we need right now as we head into cold and flu season.

Your body is well-equipped to fend off the bugs that would seek to make you sick, but it could use a little extra help from a trusty sidekick armed with the following six immune-boosting habits:

1. Wash your hands and avoid touching your nose, eyes, and mouth.

Seriously. Just do it. Many diseases and conditions are spread by not washing our hands. Our skin forms a physical barrier against harmful bugs, but our eyes, nose, and mouth are weak points in that armor where viruses and bacteria can enter. Handwashing can reduce respiratory illnesses, like colds, by 16 percent to 21 percent in your community1,2.

Pro tip: Sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” the “Alphabet Song,” or “Happy Birthday” twice through while annihilating your germy foes with warm, soapy water. As Kanye West says, “Every superhero need his theme music.”

2. Get enough sleep.

Experts agree that most adults need at least seven hours of sleep per night3. Studies show people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus like the common cold4,5. Furthermore, getting enough sleep can help you recover faster if you do get sick6. To make your Fortress of Solitude more conducive to sleep, avoid electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, finish exercise and your last meal three hours before bedtime, and develop a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine7.

3. Manage your stress.

Chronic stress is your immune system’s kryptonite. Stress weakens your immune system by reducing the number of white blood cells available to fight off infection8Stress can also cause higher levels of inflammation, which is linked with several chronic diseases9. Mindfulness meditation and deep breathing help to counteract the effects of stress by reducing cortisol, a stress-related hormone, and improving mental focus10,11.

Try this simple, one-minute meditation: In a comfortable seat, breathe in for four counts, pause, and breathe out for four counts. Repeat the cycle and notice where you feel your breath – your nose, your chest, your belly. As thoughts drift into your head, simply notice they’re there and return your attention to your breath.

4. Nourish your body.

One of the most frequently asked questions I get as a dietitian is, “What specific food can I eat to ________?” But, just as Captain America couldn’t defeat Loki and his Chitauri army alone – he needed the whole Avengers team – no single food is super all on its own. Similarly, individual nutrients from a variety of whole foods work together to defeat bacteria and viruses. Meet your own Immunity Avengers12:

  • Brightly colored fruits and veggies provide vitamins A and C, in addition to dozens of other phytonutrients and antioxidants. For the most benefit, eat from the entire rainbow of colors.
  • Protein is a necessary building block for your body’s defenses. Most folks need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. That’s 65 grams for a 180-pound person.
  • Zinc is an immune-boosting superhero found in oysters, chicken, beans and peas, almonds, cashews, yogurt, and oats13.

Immunity Avengers assemble! Try teaming these foods together with these fall recipes.

  • Pumpkin Spice Smoothie: 1/2c pumpkin + handful of kale + 2 tsp chia seeds + 1/2c plain nonfat Greek yogurt + milk of choice + cinnamon, ginger, and a touch of honey
  • Not-So-Chicken Soup: Double the veggies, swap noodles for chickpeas, and add a clove or two of garlic to your favorite chicken noodle soup recipe. Enjoy with a steaming cup of green or herbal tea.

5. Trust in the power of lifestyle habits, not supplements.

Your “immune booster” supplement might help, but it’s no match for the evils of poor nutrition, chronic stress, and not enough sleep. Not all supplements are created equal, but all healthy habits can make a difference! Make handwashing, quality sleep, stress management, and solid nutrition daily habits. With these powers combined, your immune system can shine like the superhero it is!

6. Power up with a flu shot.

Talk to your doctor about whether a flu vaccine is right for you. The CDC recommends vaccination for most people before the end of October. But, better late than never!

References

  1. Rabie T and Curtis V. Handwashing and risk of respiratory infections: a quantitative systematic review.Trop Med Int Health. 2006 Mar;11(3):258-67.
  2. Aiello AE, Coulborn RM, Perez V, Larson EL. Effect of hand hygiene on infectious disease risk in the community setting: a meta-analysis.Am J Public Health. 2008;98(8):1372-81.
  3. Watson NF, Badr MS, Belenky G, et al. Joint Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society on the Recommended Amount of Sleep for a Healthy Adult: Methodology and Discussion. Sleep. 2015 Aug;38(8):1161-1183.
  4. Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Alper CM, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB. Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(1):62–67. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2008.505
  5. Ibarra-Coronado EG, Pantaleon-Martinez AM, Velazquez-Moctezuma J, et al. The Bidirectional Relationship between Sleep and Immunity against Infections. J Immunol Res. 2015 Aug; 678164
  6. Imeri L and Opp MR. How (and why) the immune system makes us sleep. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2010 Mar; 10(3):199-210
  7. “Healthy Sleep Habits.” Sleep Education. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Web. 10 Oct 2018. http://sleepeducation.org/essentials-in-sleep/healthy-sleep-habits
  8. Sorrells SF and Sapolsky RM. An Inflammatory Review of Glucocorticoid Actions in the CNS. Brain Behav Immun. 2007 Mar; 21(3):259-272.
  9. Vitlic A, Lord JM, Phillips AC. Stress, ageing and their influence on functional, cellular, and molecular aspects of the immune system. Age (Dordr) 2014; 1169–1185. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4082590/
  10. Vago DR and Silbersweig DA. Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Front Hum Neurosci. 2012; 6:296 Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00296/full
  11. Eckberg DL. The human respiratory gate. J Physiol (2003); 548(2): 339-352.
  12. “Protect Your Health with Immune-boosting Nutrition.” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Web. 17 Oct 2018. https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/preventing-illness/protect-your-health-with-immune-boosting-nutrition
  13. “Zinc.” Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Web. 17 Oct 2018. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/