The cold and flu season was off to an early start this year and it has been a nasty one. Whether or not you’re one of the victims basically depends on two things: one, whether or not you’re exposed to a cold or flu virus and two, how strong your immune system is.
We live in a sea of bacteria, viruses, protozoa and other microbes, “germs” for short. We are discovering that the vast majority of these microbes are harmless or even beneficial.
However, some are bad actors and can cause us grief. Cold and flu viruses fall into this category. Fortunately, our immune system generally does a great job of protecting us. But it’s all too easy to let our immune system get run down. When that happens, problems arise.
Not everyone who is exposed to cold or flu virus get sick. To keep from being one of the victims, here are some tips to strengthen your immune system.
Get Your Vitamin D Levels Checked
A tremendous amount of research in the last several years demonstrates that vitamin D is important for much more than just maintaining normal calcium metabolism and bone strength. Many of the biochemical processes that vitamin D affects are crucial for proper immune function.
At the same time, research has shown that a large majority of the population is vitamin D deficient. In regions north of Philadelphia, roughly 85 percent of people are deficient most of the year.
Our bodies normally produce vitamin D in the skin in response to sunlight. Fifteen or twenty minutes of exposure during the brightest parts of the day are plenty. However, most of us don’t get close to that. There are several reasons.
One reason is the weather. In the north, winter days are short, the sun’s too low in the sky for the UV rays to stimulate vitamin D production, and who’s going to sunbathe in zero degree weather anyway?
Paranoia about skin cancer also prevents many people from getting adequate sun exposure. That is the subject for another article, but let me just say for now that the pendulum has probably swung too far in the direction of avoiding sun exposure.
The bottom line is that most of us should probably supplement with vitamin D. The best way to know if you need to supplement is to have your blood levels checked.
Typically, a blood level of 20 ng/mL is reported as “normal.” That probably is not the optimal level for best immune function. I generally recommend that people aim for a level between 40 and 60, while keeping it less than 100.
How much vitamin D you require varies from person to person. As a starting point, I generally recommend 1000 to 2000 units of vitamin D3 per day. Often, more is needed.
For example, my level last winter was 56 ng/mL. At the time, I was taking 7000 units per day. I do not recommend taking that much unless you’ve had your blood levels checked.
In fact, to ensure optimal health, always check with your doctor before taking any supplements.
Manage Stress the Healthy Way
Stress is a fact of life. We can not avoid it completely, and probably wouldn’t want to even if we could. After all, there is good stress (getting a challenging promotion) and bad stress (losing your job).
One of the life skills we need to develop to maintain optimum vitality is an ability to manage and modulate stress.
Again, this is too big a topic to cover completely in this article. Besides, we hear so much about stress and stress management that you are probably tired of the subject anyway.
But the fact remains that your stress level definitely affects your immune system and in particular, your susceptibility to catching colds. Researchers have actually collected a bunch of volunteers, evaluated the amount of stress they were experiencing in their lives, and then exposed them to cold viruses.
Not everyone got sick. Whether or not an individual got sick and how severe their symptoms, or both, depended on their stress level at the time of exposure. The more stress, the more likely they were to get sick, the worse the symptoms were, and the longer they stayed sick.
Even high achievers in high-pressure jobs can minimize the negative effect of stress on their health. There are many ways to do it. Meditation is great, but that’s not for everyone, or at least not at first. Listening to guided imagery recordings works for a lot of people.
A brief catalog of other options would include deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, getting out in nature, the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), HeartMath, journaling, cognitive restructuring, and practicing appreciation.
The point is you have lots of options. Find some that work for you.
Eat Right and Include this Food
A good diet is the foundation of good health, and that certainly goes for supporting immune function. A good diet helps, a bad diet hurts. And a diet that is good for your health in general, is also good for your immune system.
I bet you already know how you should be eating: lots of vegetables, some fruit, lean protein, and a bit of healthy fat. Of course you know you should avoid fast food, processed foods, and most things made with white flour and sugars.
Highly refined foods and sugars encourage the development of pro-inflammatory compounds in your body. In addition, eating sugar has been shown to reduce the ability of white cells to attack bacteria for several hours.
On the positive side, one food to definitely include in your diet is garlic. People make a lot of health claims for garlic. Studies support most of them.
One study of particular interest involved 146 volunteers. Half got capsules containing a garlic extract including allicin and the other half got placebo capsules. Everyone took the capsules from November through February, the cold and flu season, and reported in regularly on their health.
The volunteers lucky enough to be in the garlic group got sick much less frequently, and if they did catch a cold, they got over it more quickly.
Given that garlic can also improve blood lipids, lower blood pressure, slow the progression of hardening of the arteries and also (maybe) reduce the risk of cancer, it makes sense to include it in your diet. I think supplements are helpful, and I also think it best to get your nutrients by eating real food. The study I just mentioned used garlic supplements because it’s hard to get a sugar pill to look just like a clove of garlic.
If you use fresh garlic, it’s best to let it sit for a few minutes after you chop it before heating it. Several beneficial compounds are produced by enzymes that activate when the garlic is chopped. However, heating the garlic right away destroys the enzymes before they have a chance to work.
If you don’t like garlic (I had trouble believing it, but I have heard that some people don’t), then by all means supplement.
Putting It Together for Healthy Immunity
Living a vital, healthy life isn’t all that complicated. Eat well, stay active, manage your emotions and psychological state, avoid poisons, live a balanced life and your body has a remarkable ability to both stay well and heal itself if need be.
During the cold and flu season, it makes sense to do your best to get enough rest and manage your response to stress. Also, nourish your body well and consider the benefits of vitamin D and garlic.
Don’t miss your opportunity to discover the secrets to defusing ticking health bombs that could be lurking in your body.
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Zen-Jay Chuang, MD, is a primary care physician and Chairman of the Whole Health Alerts advisory board.
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