The winter season can be a busy time as people gather for holiday parties, travel in planes, cars, and trains, and stray from their usual routines and environment. With an increase in social gatherings and a sharp drop in temperatures; germs, colds, and the flu start to run rampant. Due to these external factors, many people begin to wonder – what can I do to reduce my risk of getting sick?
Studies suggest that a person’s diet and lifestyle behaviors can strengthen and or weaken their immune system. It has long been established that nutrition and everyday behaviors can affect the gut microbiome, inflammation, metabolic health, and white blood cell function – all of which influence immunity. The immune system is a complex network that works to protect the body from harmful substances, germs, and cell changes that can make us sick. While it plays a vital role year-round in protecting our health, it is especially important to support our immune system during the winter months and cold and flu season. This article will explore actionable steps one can take to load their diet with immune-boosting nutrients and fine-tune behaviors to come out on top this season.
Consume Vitamin C
Vitamin C is an essential vitamin, meaning your body can’t produce it and it must be obtained from the diet. Vitamin C plays a variety of important roles in the body, including acting as an antioxidant. As an antioxidant, it is able to protect important biomolecules (proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, nucleic acids) from damage by oxidants stemming from normal cell metabolism and exposure to toxins. By blocking some of the damage caused by free radicals it is an effective nutrient in warding off the development of a variety of adverse health conditions. Vitamin C is also involved in the production of collagen, healing wounds, absorbing iron from nonheme sources and so much more.
You can find vitamin C in a plethora of fruits and vegetables including watermelon, broccoli, tomatoes, cauliflower, squashes, raspberries, bell peppers, and more. The amount needed per day depends on age and gender, but a good rule of thumb is to aim between 65-90 mg. Not sure how to add it to your diet? Have at least one cup of strawberries or kale daily and your daily vitamin C needs will be met. While supplementation exists, there is inconclusive evidence to support that taking a large amount of vitamin C daily is effective in minimizing illness. Choosing whole food sources is encouraged due to the other nutrients that are present such as fiber and potassium.
Load up on Zinc
Zinc is a trace mineral that is necessary for 100-plus enzymes to carry out chemical reactions. Zinc is required for the development and functioning of immune cells in both the innate and adaptive immune system. Innate immunity is the body’s first line of defense against pathogens while adaptive immunity is a type of immunity built up as we are exposed to diseases or vaccinations. Due to its ability to boost the immune system, zinc is a popular ingredient in cold and flu medications. However, it can also be found in a variety of foods. Zinc is present in animal proteins such as oysters, crab, lobster, meat, and poultry. A 3-ounce serving alone of cooked oysters provides 500% of the daily recommendation. It is recommended that women aim for 8 milligrams of zinc daily, while men should get 11 milligrams. If you do not eat animal sources of protein, be sure to focus on eating plenty of legumes, lentils, and whole grains to satisfy this requirement.
Focus on Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin found in specific foods that also functions as a hormone our bodies make. Vitamin D has many essential roles including building strong bones, supporting cognition, and reducing inflammation. Furthermore, vitamin D is crucial in activating our immune defenses, specifically the specialized immune cells known as T cells. T cells work to detect and kill bacteria and viruses and ultimately fight off infections in the body.
The RDA of vitamin D for adults 19 years and older is 600 IU (15 mcg) daily for men and women. For adults 70 years or older, the RDA is 800 IU (20 mcg) daily. Vitamin D can be obtained from sunlight exposure and a few dietary sources such as egg yolks, salmon, beef liver, sardines fortified milk, and juice. For individuals who do not consume the previously mentioned foods or those who live in the northern hemisphere and spend minimal time outside (especially during the winter months), supplementation may be warranted. Vitamin D supplements are available in two forms: vitamin D2 “ergocalciferol” and vitamin D3 “cholecalciferol.” Vitamin D3 has been shown to be more effective at raising and maintaining blood levels, however, be sure to work with a doctor to ensure that supplementation is right for you.
While we’re constantly reminded that sleep is good for us, between social gatherings, Netflix, and endless scrolling many people find themselves getting less and less sleep each night. When it comes to strengthening the immune system, sleep must be taken into account as seriously as dietary choices.
Studies demonstrate that inadequate sleep can negatively impact our immune system. During sleep, your body is given the opportunity to replenish its immune cells and help balance and regulate the activity of the immune system. While one night of poor sleep won’t sabotage your health status, chronic poor sleep is linked to an increased risk of numerous diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. Guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation recommend adults aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
If you are unsure of where to start when it comes to improving sleep habits, ask yourself how you feel upon waking up. If you feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle the day – that’s a good sign. Otherwise, it is time to get curious about your evening routine, sleep environment, and quality.
Regular physical activity is well known to be supportive of overall physical and mental health – but did you know it also enhances the immune system? While all forms of exercise yield health benefits, resistance training in particular elicits the release of cytokines and myokines which regulate immune cell activity. These peptides are released by contracting muscle fibers during and after physical activity and through a variety of mechanisms work to support immune health.
Going for regular walks is another effective form of physical activity that boosts immunity. One study found that participants who walked at least 20 minutes a day for 5 days a week had 43% fewer sick days than those who did not. If you know movement is a barrier in the colder months, think about your obstacles and make a plan to overcome them. For example – if it’s too cold to walk outside, find an indoor treadmill if able to. Is it too dark after work to hit the gym? Then try to fit in movement in the morning or do an at-home workout. Ultimately, our bodies were designed to move, so find a form of physical activity you enjoy and stick with it!
While it may seem like catching a cold or getting sick during the winter is inevitable, it doesn’t have to be. Additionally, you don’t have to wait for the new year to prioritize daily habits. To protect and prioritize your health, reflect on your current behaviors and consider where there is room for improvement. In order to come out on top always, but specifically during cold and flu season, consider focusing on at least one of the tips above to enjoy a happy and healthy holiday season!