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Sniffles, coughing, stuffy head, full blown flu ― it's that time of year again. We are more susceptible to illness when our immune system is stressed or compromised. Taking a little extra care of yourself and employing some strategies to boost your immune system can help protect you from sickness.
Start by making sure you are well hydrated. Good hydration is key to allowing your immune system to function at its best by providing the proper balance for hormones, enzymes and cells to work. When you are well hydrated, your lung and nasal secretions are thinner, and this helps move bugs and irritants out of your body.
If you are not a water drinker, consider unsweetened green or black teas. Both are good sources of anti-oxidants, which help repair cell damage and fend off harmful free radicals.
How much fluid do you need? The color of your urine is the best indicator. (It should be light colored.) Also, you should need to take a bathroom break at least every 4 hours to 6 hours.
Next, get enough sleep. Poor or inadequate sleep results in a lower immune system and fewer cells that fight germs and disease. Your body doesn't have the chance to recuperate from the day's stresses. Chronic sleep deprivation contributes to heart disease, gastrointestinal problems and other illnesses. If you are tired when you wake up in the morning, you're not getting either enough sleep or enough quality sleep.
If you smoke or are frequently exposed to second hand smoke, it’s more likely you will be susceptible to respiratory tract infections, asthma complications and allergy symptoms. Cigarette smoke contains many chemical compounds that cause damage to cells, making it harder for you to fend off germs. Reducing your exposure to all chemicals, including pesticides, mercury and other environmental toxins, will help keep your immune system strong.
Undoubtedly, stress is an immune buster. When we have physical or mental stress, our immune system's ability to fight disease is compromised. Learning to manage stressful situations can keep you from getting sick. Keeping a positive attitude helps, too. Optimistic people have been shown to have stronger immune systems than pessimists. Use laughter to help decrease stress hormones.
Get some exercise. Aerobic exercise helps the body keep white blood cells, key immune system components, in circulation and on duty. More than 50 million Americans suffer from illnesses, including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and diabetes, that could be prevented or controlled with exercise, diet and weight control. The standard exercise recommendation is 30 minutes of exercise, five times a week.
Adequately feeding your immune system can help boost its fighting power. Adding specific foods and vitamin sources can work to keep you healthy this winter. Start by adding more onions and garlic to your meals. These foods contain a compound called alliums that help ward off illnesses and fight infections. Eating your cruciferous vegetables will ensure that you are getting plenty of glucosinalates ― a potent family of phytonutrients that have strong anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. The bitter, sulphury taste found in Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, kale, turnips and cauliflower is the glucosinalates in action.
Yogurts contain probiotics, which are healthy bacteria that keep the gut free of disease-causing bacteria. Probiotics can help shorten the duration of an illness. Yogurt also has vitamin D, which works as a flu preventive.Mushrooms contain beta-glucan, which is a type of soluble polysaccharide that helps improve immune response and enhances the action of white blood cells in warding off infection. Oats and barley also contain beta-glucan.Although zinc sprays, lozenges and supplements are no longer recommended to help fight a cold, it is important to get enough zinc in your diet. Zinc helps develop the white blood cells than recognize and destroy invading bacteria and viruses. Zinc is a common nutritional shortfall in many of our diets. The best sources for zinc are beef, oysters, pork and fortified cereals. Zinc supplements actually can inhibit immune function, so stick to food sources for this necessary nutrient.Healthy skin is the first line defense against bacteria and viruses. Vitamin A plays a major role in the production of connective tissue for healthy skin. Our bodies convert beta-carotene found in orange foods into the vitamin A that we need. Eat carrots, sweet potatoes, squash and pumpkin regularly.Do you take extra vitamin C in the winter to help prevent illness? Vitamin C can help shorten the duration and lessen the symptoms of a cold or flu. The best source for vitamin C is citrus fruits, not a pill. Including a serving or two of oranges, strawberries, kiwi or other citrus is enough to meet the requirements for vitamin C.Don’t forget that we need a little fat in our diets. Fat helps the body absorb the vitamins and nutrients from our foods. Fats, especially in the form of nuts and seeds, also contain vitamin E, which stimulates the production of cells that seek out and destroy germs. Fish not only is a good source of healthy omega 3 fats, but it also is a good source of selenium, which stimulates the activity of white blood cells that fight bacteria. Egg yolks are also a good source of selenium.Add a little spice to your food. Hot spices, like chili peppers, ginger, hot sauces, mustards and pepper, contain substances similar to the ingredient in over-the-counter cough expectorants that help liquefy thick mucus. Spices like oregano, turmeric and rosemary are high in antioxidants, which help fight inflammation.Taking a little extra care of yourself and your diet now just might help you avoid sickness all winter.Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.