Worried about catching a cold or flu this winter? Here's how to boost your immune system to help your body’s defenses reach peak performance.
Every winter, adults can expect to come down with an average of two to three colds. And if we don’t take the right precautions, a bout of flu could be in store too. Though our immune system does a pretty good job of fighting off the viruses that cause these illnesses, it’s not foolproof. Germs can slip through our defenses, especially when we’re exposed to the elements or run down.
Despite what you might have read, no individual food, pill, or life change is going to bolster your body’s immunity enough to prevent you from getting sick. Your immune system is a complex, interrelated network of cells and biologic responses. It’s not easy to overhaul the entire system.
That said, making a few smarter choices could cumulatively lower your chances of getting sick this winter. Here are a few tips you can try to boost your immune system.
Get vaccinated to strengthen your immune system. The flu vaccine is the “single best way to prevent the flu,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The shot produces antibodies that help your immune system target the flu virus if you’re exposed to it. Although vaccine effectiveness varies from season to season, it can reduce your risk of getting sick by 50 to 60 percent if it’s a good match with circulating virus strains. And if you do get the flu, the vaccine will make your illness milder and help prevent serious complications like pneumonia.
Move more. A daily walk or yoga session will do more than tone your body. One study found people who worked out regularly had about 40 percent fewer colds and other upper respiratory infections than those who were sedentary. Researchers say exercise increases circulation of the immune cells that hunt down and destroy viruses and other invaders. Stay active, but don’t overdo it. Longer bouts of intense exercise can have the opposite effect, dampening your immune response to infection.
Boost your nutrition. Your immune system has the same needs as every other body system — a variety of vitamins and minerals, which a nutrient-rich diet provides. Vitamins A, C, and E are powerful antioxidants in fruits and vegetables that strengthen your body’s defenses against infection. Whether it’s worth taking vitamin C in supplement form is still up for debate. Research finds a daily dose of C doesn’t prevent colds, but it might make them milder and shorter.
Eat yogurt. Probiotics — the beneficial bacteria found in yogurt — might also be worth adding to your diet. A 2012 analysis found they had a “modest effect” in preventing colds. And if you’re already sick, probiotic supplements could help you feel less miserable. “Cold symptoms like a stuffy nose and sore throat are the body’s inflammatory response toward a virus, not a direct action of the virus itself,” said Tracey J. Smith, RD, an adjunct professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. “Probiotic microorganisms may soften your immune system’s reaction by reducing your body’s inflammatory response.”
Get plenty of rest. A full seven to nine hours of sleep each night won’t just make you feel more alert. Adequate rest could also help you avoid a cold or other infection this winter. A lack of sleep weakens the body’s defenses, leaving you more vulnerable to illness. One team of researchers set out to prove the idea when they exposed a group of volunteers to cold viruses and then monitored them for five days. Participants who’d slept fewer than five hours nightly were more than four times more likely to get sick than those who slept more than seven hours. “It goes beyond feeling groggy or irritable,” said lead study author Aric Prather, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. “Not getting sleep fundamentally affects your physical health.”
Try zinc. Zinc is a trace element that’s essential for healthy immune system function. Although taking zinc may not prevent a cold, it could make the illness more bearable. Researchers say zinc works by “tapping the breaks on the immune response.” When the immune system identifies a foreign invader like the cold virus, it launches a cellular response to wipe out the enemy. If that reaction spirals out of control, as it sometimes does, it can lead to excess inflammation and more severe symptoms. Taking zinc supplements at the start of a cold could help you feel better and recover faster, although you may have to deal with side effects like nausea and a bad taste in your mouth.
Reduce stress. Emotional stress has wide-ranging physical implications. Researchers are finding that a body under stress is less able to regulate the inflammatory response when confronted with bacteria or viruses. Stress can both lower your resistance — making you more likely to get sick — and prevent you from making a quick recovery once you are sick. Managing stress with relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, and yoga could keep you healthier, and help you get over your illness faster.
March 30, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN