Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, the holiday season is in full swing. At the same time, though, we are in the midst of cold and flu season. In addition to the natural spread of cold and flu viruses at this time of year, the holiday season itself, with hectic schedules, stress, and lack of sleep, can weaken your immune system making you more susceptible to getting sick.
For starters, getting a flu vaccine is the most sensible thing you can do to prevent seasonal influenza (flu). If you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, it’s not too late. I have written about flu previously, including the fact that exercise may make your flu vaccine even more effective!
Another basic step in preventing sickness is to wash your hands regularly. Soap and water is best, and there is no additional benefit in using an antibacterial soap. If you can’t wash your hands, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is an acceptable alternative. Keep in mind that hand sanitizers don’t actually clean your hands and aren’t as effective if your hands are dirty.
Cold and flu viruses are spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so avoiding close contact with people who are sick is important. If you are sick, you should stay away from others as much as you can. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or cough or sneeze onto your sleeve to help keep the germs from spreading through the air or on your hands.
You can also be exposed to cold and flu viruses by touching something with virus on it (a doorknob, for example) and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes. You can protect yourself by not touching your face and by washing your hands frequently.
People who participate in moderate exercise on a daily basis have fewer and less severe colds than people who aren’t regularly active. This is because exercise has the effect of stimulating the immune system, making it better able to respond when you are exposed to cold or flu viruses.
More exercise isn’t always better, though. Research shows that immune function is depressed in the weeks after running a marathon, leading to an increased risk of becoming sick. Athletes who engage in vigorous and prolonged training also tend to be more susceptible to upper respiratory infections. The bottom line is that regular exercise improves your immune system, but very vigorous exercise may not.
Good nutrition is also essential for optimal immune system function. Deficiencies of certain nutrients can have a negative effect on immune function, so eating a balanced diet is essential. That said, there is no support for “boosting” the immune system by taking high doses of vitamins, minerals, or other supplements, despite the claims made by supplement companies.
You can get benefits from two more common-sense recommendations: getting adequate sleep and reducing stress. Poor sleep habits are associated with suppressed immunity and more frequent illness. High levels of stress increase susceptibility to colds and flu and can lead to more sick days from work or school. Stress and poor sleep habits tend to occur together, creating a double negative effect on the immune system.
By taking these steps, you can improve your chances of celebrating the holidays in good health. As a bonus, eating a healthy diet, exercising every day, managing your stress, and getting enough sleep will give you a head start on what are likely to be New Year’s resolutions.