It may be the end of the holiday season, but it’s also cold and flu season. And these days may not always be merry and bright; they can also feel stressful and dark. As such, self-care may be more important now than any other time of year.
You need not take extraordinary measures or rack up added expenses. You can help prevent illness through your everyday actions. We all need to eat and sleep, right? Read on for five immunity-boosting strategies that take what you are already doing and place the focus on how you do it.
1. Put your body in motion
Sedentary living takes a toll on our bodies in many ways, so it’s no surprise that several studies link exercise to improved immunity. Exercise not only helps combat bacterial and viral infections, it also decreases your chances of developing heart disease, osteoporosis and cancer. MedlinePlus cites several theories as to why: It flushes bacteria from the lungs, speeds the rate at which antibodies and white blood cells travel through the body, increases body temperature to prevent bacterial growth, and slows the release of stress hormones.
Unfortunately, the cold-weather months during which we seem more susceptible to illness are also when we tend to settle into couch-potato mode. Try to fit more motion into your day—it doesn’t have to be a death march on the treadmill. Take a brisk walk or climb stairs during your lunch break. Find a winter activity you can enjoy on the weekends, whether it be ice skating, cross-country or downhill skiing, or broomball.
Also make fitness a family affair. At your next gathering, get out and play together. Depending on what weather and access allows, go for a walk, break out the sleds, or start a game of kickball or football.
Boost your knowledge: Visit cdc.gov for adult exercise recommendations.
2. Get enough sleep
The need to accomplish all the tasks on our to-do lists, late-night get-togethers, anxiety over family dynamics—there are many things that keep us from getting a good night’s sleep this time of year. That can be problematic since sleep contributes to a healthy immune system, and sleep deprivation can make us more susceptible to illness and may impact our recovery time when we do get sick.
Make it a priority to get enough slumber on a nightly basis. In addition to helping your immune system stay on the defense, it can help you feel recharged, refreshed and even less stressed. The CDC recommends 7 to 8 hours of sleep for adults. However, as the National Sleep Foundation states, there is no “magic number” when it comes to how sleep; the amount required varies both by age group and individual sleep needs.
Boost your knowledge: Need help improving the quality of your zzz’s? Check out the National Sleep Foundation’s Healthy Sleep Tips.
3. Nourish with care
Practice moderation when it comes to cookies and cocktails. Getting drunk can reduce your body’s ability to fight infections for up to 24 hours, and eating sugary treats can suppress your immune system for several hours., What you eat can also give it power.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends the following nutrients to help boost immunity:
- Protein (i.e., lean meat, eggs, beans and peas, nuts)
- Vitamin A (i.e., kale, spinach, red bell peppers, eggs, apricots)
- Vitamin C (i.e., oranges, red bell peppers, strawberries, tomato juice)
- Vitamin E (i.e., almonds, vegetable oils, peanut butter, spinach)
- Zinc (i.e., lean meat, milk, whole grain products)
- Other nutrients such as Vitamin B6, folate, selenium, iron, and prebiotics and probiotics
Avoid making dietary choices another stressor. Be incremental and aware as you shift your habits. In the day to day and at holiday parties, pay attention to what you put on your plate and how much of it you consume; scale back a bit on harmful foods and beverages and sneak in a few more of those that keep you healthy.
Boost your knowledge: The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ EatRight.org website provides a wealth of information. Its Food & Nutrition Topics section includes content related to dietary guidelines, eating right on a budget or with a special diet, recipes, shopping and meal planning tips, more.
4. Manage your stress
Even in the short-term, stress can wreak havoc on the body, and your immune system can be among its victims. Stress tends to be unavoidable, no matter the time of year. Fortunately, how you manage it can make a difference.
Meditation, relaxation techniques, social contact and laughter are commonly cited ways to minimize the impact of stress. Don’t wait until the situation is acute; include these habits in your daily life to reap their benefits. Also employ them for an on-the-spot remedy the next time you feel yourself tensing up or feeling frazzled: Step out for a short walk, close your eyes and focus on your breath, talk it out with a friend, or watch a funny YouTube clip. If you feel overwhelmed, depressed, anxious or need help managing your stress levels, consult a mental health professional.
Boost your knowledge: Get relaxation techniques from MayoClinic.com. You can do some of them almost anywhere.
5. Practice good health habits
This may not be an immune-system booster, per se, but there are many hygiene-related practices that can offer your immune system (and others’) a little relief.
To prevent the spread of germs and avoid becoming ill, the CDC recommends you:
- Avoid close contact with others who are sick—or others when you are sick
- Stay home when you are ill
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing—use the crook of your elbow or upper sleeve if you do not have a tissue on hand
- Wash your hands frequently
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth
- Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects
Boost your knowledge: How you wash your hands matters. Learn more.
If you have concerns or need more information about boosting your immune system in a safe and healthy manner, consult your doctor or another healthcare professional. Check with your health insurance plan before appointments to ensure your provider is in-network and the care you receive is part of your covered benefits.
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 U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Exercise and Immunity.” MedlinePlus. Last updated May 15, 2012. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007165.htm.
 National Sleep Foundation. “What Happens When You Sleep?” N.D. http://sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep.
 Morgenthaler, MD, Timothy. “I’m Having Trouble Sleeping Lately. Does This Increase My Chances of Getting Sick?” July 10, 2012. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/expert-answers/lack-of-sleep/faq-20057757.
 National Sleep Foundation. “How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?” N.D. http://sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need.
 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Beyond Hangovers: Understanding Alcohol’s Impact on Your Health.” NIH Publication No. 13-7604. September 2010. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Hangovers/beyondHangovers.htm#chapter07.
 Reinagel MS, LD/N, Monica. “Why is Sugar Bad.” QuickandDirtyTips.com. Oct. 4, 2010. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/healthy-eating/why-is-sugar-bad.
 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Protect Your Health with Immune-Boosting Nutrition.” Reviewed February 2013. http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6442475026.
 University of Maryland Medical Center. “Stress.” Last updated June 26, 2013. http://umm.edu/health/medical/reports/articles/stress.