This coming winter will be like no other. Along with the common cold and the seasonal flu, most places are in a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, making for a triple whammy of viruses potentially attacking our bodies. Our main defense system is our immune system. It’s a complex network of pathways involving multiple cells and organs. And what you do on a daily basis is crucial to whether your immune system is working in top gear or not. So here are five ways you can help your immune system this winter.
1. Wear a Mask
Probably the best way to prevent infection is to limit exposure to viruses. A mask can do that. The SARS-CoV-2, flu and cold viruses spread through the air in droplets from infected people. This can come from a sneeze, cough or normal breathing. These viruses commonly infect the body through the respiratory tracts, namely the nose and mouth. As a result, wearing a mask is like putting a shield in front of your face.
While common cloth masks aren’t foolproof, they are effective at stopping droplets. Places that have initiated mask mandates have reported fewer cases. In addition, masks can reduce the viral load resulting in less severe complications if you are infected. Any type of face covering will be of benefit, but ones with tighter weaves offer more protection. And the more layers of fabric, the better. Since it’s possible to be infected with only mild or no symptoms, wearing a mask can prevent others from infection. More information on types of masks and how to best use them can be found here and here.
2. Wash Hands
While infecting a living host is the preferred environment for these viruses, they can live for short times outside. This amount of time is highly variable, from minutes to hours. Factors such as light, temperature and the surface conditions all matter. Viruses tend to live longer on harder surfaces than softer ones (such as fabrics). Viruses can also live on skin. As a result, touching a contaminated surface and then touching your face is another common mode of infection. Therefore, regular handwashing is the best way to avoid infection from surfaces. Soap and water are the number one choice. But hand sanitizer (>60% alcohol) is a good alternative.
3. Good Quality Sleep
I’ve always been a proponent of sleep being the foundation for health and productivity. The average adult should be getting between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per day. However, not everyone consistently gets that amount and this lack of sleep can affect your immune system.
It’s when sleeping that our bodies create proteins needed for an effective immune system. In people who were sleep-deprived for one night, the infection-fighting ability of T cells was reduced. And people with insomnia have reduced immune function. Over a few days, sleep deprivation (less than 6 hours per night) can lead to a four-fold greater susceptibility to the common cold. In addition, shorter sleep duration in the days prior to receiving the flu vaccination can reduce its effectiveness.
4. Healthy Nutrition
What foods you eat plays a critical role in fighting off infections as nutrition provides the building blocks for a functioning immune system. At the extreme end, malnutrition can weaken the immune system and lead to greater chances of infection. While for most of us, malnutrition isn’t a concern, a diet comprising of mostly highly processed foods can lead to certain nutrient deficiencies weakening immunity.
In general, a diet rich in whole natural foods consisting of fruits and vegetables with healthy protein sources, such as the Mediterranean diet, will provide the nutrients your immune system needs. Foods with probiotics such as yoghurt, fermented vegetables and kombucha, along with high-fibre foods may be helpful to enrich the bacteria in your gut, which are important in fighting off pathogens.
Some people may be more at risk for nutrient deficiencies, whether due to lack of access to nutritious foods, greater needs of the body or changes in metabolism. These include people with lower incomes, pregnant women and older adults. In these groups a multivitamin may be advised to meet the body’s needs for micronutrients. However, mega-dose supplements are not needed, nor should supplements be used as a substitute for a healthy diet.
5. Be Active
In the past, exercise, especially vigorous exercise, has been blamed for suppressing the immune system. However, these early studies were poorly conducted and have since been debunked. In a study of 1000 people followed over fall and winter, those who exercised regularly had half as many infections compared to those who didn’t. And an eight-week training program in the fall resulted in a lower severity of infections over the winter.
The effects of exercise on the immune system begin even with a single bout. One session of exercise increases the number of cells and proteins in the blood that fight off infections. Even walking for 30 minutes can have an effect. And while the effects diminish with age, older adults still derive some benefit.
In addition, other actions may help ward off infection. As the cold weather comes, make sure you dress warmly. While being cold itself doesn’t lead to catching the flu or a cold (you still have to be exposed to the virus), there is some research to suggest being cold may lower your immune response. Getting outside in nature and being exposed to sunlight (raising vitamin D levels) can also help.
Practising these simple behaviours can reduce your chances of getting sick this winter. And while you may still catch a cold of the flu, it’s less likely to be as severe or long when keeping a healthy routine.
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