During the last week of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that “influenza activity increased sharply in the United States,” with the most frequently identified virus being the “A(H3).” They’ve now gone so far as to call this year’s flu season an “epidemic.” On January 9, 2018, USA Today reported that 13 children had died of the flu so far, with several more weeks of flu activity anticipated.
Typical symptoms include fever, body aches, cough, headaches, and fatigue. Health officials are advising those who are at high risk of hospitalization, including the elderly, children, and those with heart disease, asthma, or obesity, to check with their doctors for possible treatment. Even healthy adults who get the flu may benefit from viral medications if they can start taking them early enough.
Meanwhile, if you’ve escaped so far, you may be wondering: How can I increase my odds of remaining flu-free? Even though the flu shot has not been as effective as hoped, doctors still recommend you get one, as it can reduce the severity of the flu if you do contract it. Meanwhile, we’ve got eight tips to help you shore up your defenses naturally.
Don’t Forget the Basics
First, the most important thing is to try to avoid getting the flu from others. You already know some of the basic prevention tips, but here they are again:
- Don’t touch doorways and other surfaces with your hands. Use your arm, shoulder, or back instead.
- Wash your hands frequently. Take hand sanitizer with you when you can’t wash.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Wear gloves as often as you can to avoid touching contaminated surfaces.
- Wash your hands after pressing buttons on an elevator or otherwise touching public surfaces, such as doorknobs, microwaves, copy-machine keys, etc.
- Use antibiotic wipes to regularly clean your cell phone, keyboard, laptop, and other frequently used technological gadgets.
- Keep your own pen with you to use whenever you need it. Don’t touch strange pens.
8 Ways to Boost Your Defenses Against the Flu
In addition to the prevention tips above, you can also take some steps to boost your immune system so it’s more likely to fight off any invaders. Here are eight of the most likely to help.
- Keep exercising.
Staying active keeps your immune system humming. Researchers followed a group of about 1,000 adults for 12 weeks during the fall and winter seasons. They found that those who exercised the most were the least likely to suffer from a cold, and even when they did, it was much less severe than in those who were less likely to exercise. Those who did five or more days of exercise a week experienced 43 percent fewer days with cold symptoms than those who did one day or less of exercise.
Exercise also helps to ease stress, and less stress equals improved immunity. Keep in mind, though, that too much exercise can weaken immunity. Running at a high intensity, for example, such as when training for a marathon, can actually cause your immune system to leave you unprotected for a bit. You need to find your sweet spot—a gentle jog, daily walk or bike ride, etc.
If you haven’t started meditation yet for all its many health benefits, now may be the time. Research suggests that it can help boost the immune system and even temper the symptoms of the cold and flu.
In a recent 2016 review, for example, researchers found that mindfulness meditation was associated with reducing inflammation, increasing cell defenses, and increasing the enzyme activity that guards against cell aging.
In an earlier study, researchers found that meditation even outperformed exercise when it came to reducing illness severity and increasing quality of life. Both were helpful, but the scientists suggested that meditation may be the “more potent of the two interventions.”
- Take probiotics.
Much of the immune system resides in the gut, where a thriving microbiota of both good and bad bacteria live. If that balance is disrupted, however, the immune system can suffer, and you may be more vulnerable to illnesses.
In 2014, researchers reported that probiotics affect the immune system in many ways—all of them positive. In an earlier study, they reported that probiotic therapy helped improve the immune response while reducing damaging inflammation.
Other studies in children have found that taking probiotic supplements helped reduce fever, coughing, and stuffy nose significantly more than placebo, and also reduced the number of school days they missed. Yet another study found that college students suffering from the common cold who received a probiotic supplement got better two days faster and experienced symptoms that were 34 percent less severe than those who took a placebo.
You can eat foods high in probiotics, including yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, and other fermented foods, but you may need to use a supplement to get enough probiotics to truly boost your immune system.
- Consider vitamin and mineral supplements.
Several supplements have been found to be helpful in both preventing and reducing the severity and length of an illness.
- Zinc: This mineral plays a critical role in immune health, but you may not be getting enough, particularly if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you are a strict vegetarian, or you have inflammatory bowel disease. Even if you don’t fit any of these profiles, you may still benefit from taking a zinc supplement during flu season.
- Vitamin D: This vitamin helps regulate the immune system to fight off infections. If you live in the northern latitudes where the sun shines less often in the fall and winter, you may not be getting enough. Take a daily high-quality supplement.
- Vitamin C: This vitamin has a reputation for fighting off colds, and for good reason—it’s been found in studies to help bolster the immune system. A vitamin C deficiency, in fact, results in reduced resistance against disease.
- Consider herbal supplements.
In addition to vitamins and minerals, some herbs may offer protection from the flu.
- Echinacea: Studies have found that Echinacea is particularly effective when it comes to reducing recurrent infections, and to preventing the common cold. Others have shown that it helps boost the immune system.
- Astragalus root: This herb has a long history of helping fight disease, with recent studies also suggesting it has a positive effect on the immune system.
- Garlic: Garlic has been used for centuries to prevent disease. Recent studies have also found that it cannot only kill bacteria and reduce inflammation, but make the immune system operate more efficiently.
- Elderberry: This herb is high in antioxidants and has been shown to help activate the immune system. Taking it at the first signs of the flu may also help to shorten its duration.
- Sleep at least 7-8 hours a night.
Lack of sleep decreases all your defenses, particularly your immune system. That’s why if you go through a period where you don’t get enough sleep, you’re more likely to get sick.
In a 2012 study, researchers found that severe sleep deprivation affected the immune system in the same way as stress—badly. In a more recent study, scientists took blood samples from 11 pairs of identical twins with different sleep patterns, and found that the twin with the shorter sleep duration had a depressed immune system compared to his or her sibling.
Scientists recommend seven to eight hours a night for optimal health.
- Laugh more.
Go ahead—punch up those hilarious cat videos. It could help boost your immune system, and make it less likely that you’ll get the flu this season.
When researchers had one group of women watch a humorous video and another group view a tourism video, they found through blood tests afterwards that the women who watched the humorous video had higher levels of natural killer cells (part of the immune system) than those who watched the tourism video. The laughter also decreased stress.
An earlier study found that laughter not only reduces stress, but affected the immune system, increasing production of antibodies and activating the protective immune cells, including the natural killer cells.
Get together with your friends and family, attend comedy night, watch a funny movie, and laugh more often this season. You may just laugh your way to a strong and healthy body.
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