It’s our second cold and flu season during the era of COVID-19, and we could all use some help and guidance in our efforts to guard our health. The good news is, there’s a lot anyone can do to give their immune system a helping hand.
Your immune system is made up of organs, cells, and proteins that work together to protect your body from external elements that might harm it, such as bacteria, viruses, toxins, and fungi. When we’re stressed out, fatigued, or not eating well, our immune system can’t operate at peak effectiveness, so we’re more susceptible to illnesses that leave us feeling terrible (and may pose serious health problems). Here are some ways to reduce your risk of getting sick this winter.
The flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccines are your first line of defense against these potentially life-threatening viral infections. The vaccines are safe and very effective. They not only prevent illness (the yearly flu vaccine is 40 to 60 percent effective in preventing the flu) but also greatly reduce symptom severity in people who do fall ill. (Read “Fight the Flu: It’s Not Too Late to Take Your Shot.”)
COVID-19 infection rates are still high in many parts of the U.S. — we are still living through a pandemic. So although the holidays are a time of family events and gathering with friends, and we all crave and need social interaction, caution is still warranted. Avoid crowded events, especially with people whose vaccination status is not known. Anyone feeling ill should avoid socializing with others. If you have any reason to be concerned about exposure, get a COVID-19 test. Continue wearing a mask and social distancing in public places. And if you are gathering with loved ones, talk beforehand about vaccination, and make plans to keep everyone safe and healthy. (Read “Navigating Tough Conversations About the COVID-19 Vaccines This Holiday Season.”)
Always wash your hands after using the restroom, before eating, and after being in public or touching surfaces that other people have touched. Keep hand sanitizer in a pocket when you’re out and about. Viruses and bacteria can thrive on surfaces, but washing hands in warm water with soap for at least 20 seconds can wash away germs that might make you sick.
When your body is overworked or overtired, it’s more difficult for all the systems in your body to perform optimally, including your immune system. During sleep, your body repairs cell damage and restores itself. Getting plenty of sleep is one of the best things you can do to keep your immune system operating at its best. The CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends between seven and nine hours a night for adults.
Stress has been shown to make us more susceptible to infection — in part because corticosteroid (a hormone produced by the body when we are under stress) can suppress the immune system’s effectiveness. Stress can also have an indirect effect on the immune system — as a stressed-out person may resort to unhealthy coping strategies, such as drinking alcohol and smoking. (Read “Take Steps to Alleviate Stress in Your Life.”)
Physical activity is a key component of a healthy lifestyle, and it's an important part of keeping your immune system healthy. (Read “Tips on Restarting a Fitness Routine — or Starting a New One.”)
Research has shown that drinking alcohol in excessive amounts weakens the immune system and can make a person more prone to getting sick. The CDC defines excessive drinking as eight or more drinks a week for women, and 15 or more drinks a week for men.
Eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grains helps you get the nutrients you need for your immune system to work well. If you’re concerned that your diet lacks an essential nutrient, talk to your health provider about supplements. Key vitamins and minerals for fighting off illness include:
Vitamin C — Found in red bell peppers, strawberries, and citrus fruits, vitamin C is an antioxidant that may help prevent infections and shorten the duration of symptoms. Vitamin C is found in so many different fruits and vegetables that most people don't need to take a supplement.
Vitamin A — Try carrots, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, winter squash, and dark green leafy vegetables like kale (along with many other foods) to get your daily dose of vitamin A, which helps your body fight off infections.
Vitamin E — An antioxidant like vitamin C, vitamin E helps eliminate free radicals in the body. Free radicals are created naturally by stress, diet, and other factors, and they can damage cells. Vitamin E is found in almonds, peanuts, and sunflower seeds among other foods.
Vitamin D — Our body makes vitamin D when we are exposed to the sun. In the winter, shorter days and more time indoors can make it difficult for many people to get the vitamin D they need. Vitamin D helps your body use calcium and helps the immune system respond when a virus is detected; it’s found in fortified foods, like milk and yogurt, as well as fatty fish, eggs, and liver.
Zinc — An important mineral needed to create new immune cells, zinc may also help prevent cold and flu viruses from proliferating and may shorten symptom time. Zinc is found naturally in poultry, beans, dairy foods, and shellfish.
A note of caution about herbal supplements such as elderberry and echinacea, which have gained popularity in recent years. There is some evidence to suggest that elderberry and echinacea may shorten symptoms of colds and the flu. However, it is important to remember that even herbal or “natural” supplements can interact with other medications and can have unwanted effects. Before adding any supplement to your diet, discuss it with your healthcare provider.
If you have questions or concerns about immunity and staying healthy this winter, make a virtual or in-person appointment with a Carbon Health healthcare provider today. We’re here to help you through this season — and throughout the year.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.