Many of us consider cold and flu season to be winding down by late winter, but it’s not time to let down our guards quite yet. Influenza actually peaks in January or February most years, and can even drag on into May. To stay healthy through the rest of the winter and into the spring, give your immune system the natural ammunition it needs to fight that “bug” that’s going around the office or that your child brings home from school.
A strong immune system is essential for protecting us from colds and flu and for maintaining overall health. When immunity is compromised by a nutrient-poor diet or unhealthy lifestyle factors, we are vulnerable to every passing “bug.”
A cold is an infection of the upper respiratory tract caused by a virus. Most of us catch about two colds a year. While more than 200 viruses can cause a cold, most are caused by rhinoviruses. We all know the symptoms—congestion, sore throat, sneezing, headache, and coughing. Most colds clear up in a week to 10 days.
The flu, on the other hand, is more serious. It is also an upper respiratory tract infection, but it’s highly contagious and caused by a type of influenza virus. Because the flu is spread easily through coughing and sneezing, flu epidemics are common, particularly in winter. Symptoms begin much like those of a cold, but in many cases, a fever develops followed by hot flashes and chills. The flu can make you feel weak, achy, and extremely uncomfortable and can last for 12 days or more followed by residual fatigue and coughing.
A healthy diet is the first step to giving your body the solid foundation it needs to fight colds and other infections. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables provides antioxidants, which your body needs to boost immunity. Colorful fruits and vegetables are also sources of vitamins A and C, essential for keeping your immune system strong. Also, be sure to drink plenty of fluids.
The most well known immune-boosting nutrient is vitamin C. While this vitamin does little to protect you from getting a cold, it can help decrease the duration and severity when you do get one. Vitamin C helps strengthen the immune system by increasing the number of white blood cells, which are important for fighting viruses. For children, look for a vitamin C supplement specifically formulated for kids. It will contain calcium ascorbate, which is gentler on the stomach.
Vitamin E can boost the immune system and enhance your body’s resistance to infections. This vitamin enhances the body’s ability to produce antibodies, which help eradicate viruses, stimulates the activity of natural killer cells, which destroy virus-infected cells, and lowers levels of substances that cause inflammation. It also protects the immune system from the wear and tear of constantly defending the body. Immune cells produce large quantities of free radicals to kill bacteria, and yet they are highly susceptible to free-radical damage themselves. Vitamin E quenches free radicals and protects immune cells from damage.
Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant and immunity booster. It enhances white blood cell function, increases resistance to infections, and helps maintain skin and mucus membrane (such as the eyes and nose) defense to infection. Vitamin A works synergistically with vitamins C, E, and the mineral selenium.
A powerful immune-system stimulant, zinc is best taken at the first sign of stuffiness and a sore throat. It can shorten a cold’s duration and may even stop it altogether. Studies show that zinc can help restore a weakened immune system.
Finally, garlic has both antiviral and antibacterial properties. Taking a garlic supplement may help reduce your risk of getting an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold or the flu. Garlic boosts immune function by stimulating infection- fighting T-cells. Take some garlic when you feel a sore throat coming on. Add plenty to your diet when you’re stuffed up, too—it’s also a decongestant.
When you’re physically and mentally worn down, you are in no shape to fight a virus or infection. Adequate sleep is important year round and even more so during cold and flu season. Rest will help restore your energy and make you less susceptible to complications like pneumonia.
Exercising regularly helps reduce your risk of colds and flu. As an added bonus, exercise reduces stress, which weakens the immune system. Practicing yoga and other forms of relaxation on an ongoing basis can also help reduce stress and decreases your risk for viruses like influenza