It’s that time of year again. The kids are back in school, the weather is getting colder, and office workers everywhere are lining up for their company flu shots. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 200,000 Americans each year are hospitalized and 36,000 die from seasonal flu complications. With the additional threat of the H1N1 virus, this season could be worse than ever. While the CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine as the first and most important step in protecting against influenza (locate a flu clinic near you), there are also other steps you can take to naturally boost your odds of surviving what could be a long and severe cold and flu season.
1. Wash Your Hands Frequently
You’ve probably heard it many times but it bears repeating – washing your hands is often the simplest, best defense against germs. Wash up before preparing food, before and after tending to a sick child or spouse, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, and after using the bathroom. Use soap and clean running water and scrub for at least 20 seconds. Having trouble guessing how long 20 seconds is? Trying humming “Happy Birthday” twice, but do it quietly unless you want to get strange looks in public restrooms!
Antibacterial soaps are popular these days. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, they are no more effective at killing germs than regular soap and might even lead to the growth of resistant bacteria, making it even harder to kill those germs in the future.
When soap and water aren’t available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer will do in a pinch. Antibacterial wipes or towelettes can be effective as well, but are not as good as alcohol-based sanitizers. Make sure to buy a sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol and stash it at your desk at work, in a purse, or in your gym bag. Use half a teaspoon’s worth and make sure it dries completely.
2. Exercise Regularly
Studies show that moderate exercise can help boost your immune system by causing white blood cells to travel more quickly through your body and fight off infections and viruses. People who are regularly active also have reduced rates of upper respiratory tract infection and, if they do get sick, tend to have less severe symptoms and recover more quickly than people who aren’t as fit. A brisk 45 minute walk five times a week can help reduce your risk of illness, however, too much exercise has the opposite effect and can actually stress your immune system and increase your risk.
If you already have the flu, though, it’s best to postpone your regular exercise regimen, let your body rest, and let it recover. Your immune system works best when it’s not overworked or stressed out.
3. Eat Immunity-Boosting Foods
Did you know that raw garlic has antiviral and antibacterial properties? Garlic contains allicin, a sulfur compound with a strong antibiotic effect that can be released by chopping or crushing the clove. Integrative medicine expert Dr. Andrew Weil recommends eating two cloves of raw garlic when you start to feel cold symptoms. If the thought of swallowing whole garlic doesn’t appeal to you, though, you can try chopping it very fine and mixing it into food. Here is a recipe for a garlicky soup, courtesy of Heather’s Natural Health, that is easy to make and sure to soothe that sore throat.
Heather’s Healing Soup
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup chopped carrots
- 1 cup chopped celery
- 1 cup onions
- 4 cups water
- 1 whole head of garlic (cloves peeled & coarsely chopped)
- 1 rotisserie chicken (already cooked to save time)
- 6 cups chicken broth
- 2 cups quinoa (rinse before you add it)
- 1/2 cup chopped flat parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the carrots, celery, onions, and garlic. Saute for four minutes.
Stir in the water and chicken broth and bring it to a boil.
Toss in the chopped chicken and rinsed quinoa, parsley, salt and pepper. Cover the pan, reduce heat to low, and cook for 20 minutes.
For an even easier, thermos-ready version, just saute the garlic in the olive oil, add the broth and heat until warm. Then, strain out the garlic and drink the broth.
4. Get Lots of Sleep
Getting regular shuteye can lower stress hormones and improve immune system function. Too little sleep can not only increase your odds of getting sick, it has also been linked to a number of chronic health conditions as well, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. The amount of sleep a person needs varies but, according to the Mayo Clinic, adults generally need seven to eight hours of sleep a night, while children need between nine and ten.
If you have trouble sleeping, try going to bed the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning. Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex, not for activities like reading, watching television, or listening to music. Distracting electronics like TVs and computers should be removed from the bedroom. Also, try to avoid physical activity and large meals a few hours before you hit the sack.
5. Reduce Stress
Studies have shown that chronic, long-term stress can suppress a person’s immune system. To combat it, try keeping a journal. Write down what caused the stress, how you felt both physically and emotionally, how you reacted, and what you did to feel better. By keeping track of what makes you frazzled, you might begin to see patterns or common themes emerge.
Yoga is also a popular tool for stress management and relaxation that nearly anyone can learn. Students are taught a series of poses – many named for the mammals, fish, or reptiles they resemble – along with controlled breathing and meditation. Many poses can be modified to make them easier or more challenging, or to work around a particular injury or condition. Classes are offered in many health clubs, gyms, and recreation centers..
A Couple of Extra Tips
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Don’t use your hands when you cough or sneeze. Use a tissue instead and throw it in the trash after you use it.
- Get some fresh air. Indoor heating systems can dry out your mucous membranes, making you more susceptible to viruses.
- Cut back on alcohol. It dehydrates the body and impairs liver and immune function.