Thursday, December 29, 2011

4 keys to staying well during cold and flu season

Image Credit:  William Brawley (Flickr)
We're smack dab in the middle of cold and flu season, and I'm sure that you'd like to avoid catching the bug, right?  Aside from practicing good hygiene, there are four key lifestyle behaviors that have been determined to be true guardians of health during this time of year.  Practice these behaviors and you'll better protect yourself from the misery of cold and flu season.

Eat enough nutrient-dense, immune-supportive foods.
One of the first lines of defense against cold and flu season starts in the grocery cart.  Make sure that you're including plenty of nutrient-dense, immune-supportive foods that will bolster your immune system.  What foods are these?  Eat fish for vitamin D, which helps regulate the immune system.  Include a variety of produce, especially citrus fruits, cruciferous vegetables, winter squash, and dark leafy greens, for immunoprotective vitamins A and C.  Also be sure to incorporate high quality meat and dried beans for protein, iron, and zinc, which help the immune system function at its best.  For more information on foods that support a strong immune system, check out this blog post that I wrote last year.

Get 7-9 hours of sleep every night.
When we sleep, the body's immune system recharges.  The release of infection-fighting cytokines from the immune system surges during sleep.  When we are sleep-deprived, the levels of cytokines and other immune-supportive cells in the body declines.  In fact, one study found that individuals who slept less than seven hours each night were nearly three times more likely to develop colds than those who slept at least eight hours or more.  So make sleep a priority!

Manage stress effectively.
Short-term, long-term, real or perceived, the body does not discriminate against the type of stress we experience.  When we experience stress, a cascade of biochemical reactions that lower the body's immune function begins.  When stress becomes chronic, the immune system becomes weaker.  While we cannot completely eliminate all sources of stress, we certainly can find ways to better manage it.  In fact, relaxation actually boosts certain activities of the immune system, including sending more infection-fighting cells into action in the bloodstream.  Remember that relaxation is not necessarily 'doing nothing', but rather, it is a learned behavior.  For more tips on managing stress effectively, check out this  advice from the American Psychological Association.

Perform at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on 5+ days of the week.
Studies have found that exercise may boost the number and function of certain cells of the immune system.  Investigators also believe that exercise enhances the transport of these cells throughout the body making them more effective at eradicating the bacteria and viruses responsible for the cold and flu.  One study detected a 46% lower frequency of colds for participants that exercised at least 5 days a week compared to those who were sedentary.   Another investigation observed that women who performed 45 minutes of moderate-intensity activity 5 days a week experienced 50% fewer colds than women in the control group who stretched daily.  While getting enough exercise is essential, keep in mind that performing prolonged or intense exercise can actually depress the body's immune system.  If you participate in these types of activities, such as marathons or ultra-endurance events, adequate recovery time is vital and make sure to practice the other lifestyle behaviors listed above.

What are your best strategies for practicing these behaviors?  What behaviors would you add to this list?  

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