Keeping our immune system in tip-top shape is always at the top of our list as we head into the cooler months.  But this year, while in the midst of a pandemic, it’s perhaps even more essential.  So what can you do to keep your immune system at its best to help combat colds, flu, or Covid-19? 

1.  Wash those hands, wear a mask and social distance. 

These words are nothing new in this day and age but as we enter into the cold and flu season they perhaps resonate even more intensely.  Washing hands with soap and water or using an alcohol based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available will help you from transporting germs to your eyes, nose or mouth.  Wearing a mask will help stop the spread of germs as will keeping your distance from others.  

2.  Eat healthy. 

As the days get shorter and the temperature drops you may find yourself wanting to curl up on the sofa with your favorite high calorie snack.  Eating enough and the right nutrients as part of a varied diet is required for the health and function of all cells, including immune cells. Certain dietary patterns may better prepare the body to fight off viruses, but it is unlikely that individual foods offer special protection. Each stage of the body’s immune response relies on the presence of many micronutrients. Examples of nutrients that have been identified as critical for the growth and function of immune cells include:

-Beta Carotene.  Found in plant foods, such as sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots, mango, broccoli and tomatoes.

-Vitamin C-rich foods.  These include citrus fruits, berries, melons, tomatoes, bell peppers and broccoli.

-Vitamin D.  Found in fatty fish and eggs. Milk and 100% juices that are fortified with vitamin D can be sources of this important nutrient as well.

-Zinc. Beef and seafood offer the most bioavailable sources.  Vegetarian sources include wheat germ, beans and nuts.

-Protein.  Both animal and plant-based sources, such as milk, yogurt, eggs, beef, chicken, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils.

3.  Exercise and get plenty of sleep. 

When it comes to your health, sleep plays an important role. While more sleep won’t necessarily prevent you from getting sick, skimping on it could adversely affect your immune system, leaving you susceptible to illness.  Without sufficient sleep, your body makes fewer cytokines, a type of protein that targets infection and inflammation. Cytokines are both produced and released during sleep, making sleep deprivation a double blow to the immune system.  Additionally, exercise has been shown to help support the immune system.  Regular bouts of short-lasting (i.e. up to 45 minutes) moderate intensity exercise can help keep the immune system strong.  While it may be tempting to skip workouts or stay up late binge watching your favorite show during the coming winter months, your immune system will thank you for sticking to your regular healthy routine.

4.  Get vaccinated and keep those regular doctor appointments. 

Avoiding routine doctor’s visits can put you at risk.  Doctor’s offices are now equipped for regular visits or video visits.  Screenings are important for overall health and catching potential problems early, before they may be harder to treat.  Although COVID-19 has taken center stage recently, don’t forget about traditional threats, such as the flu.  Along with the flu vaccine, adults should also consider the shingles vaccine as well as staying current on tetanus.  Older adults may want to also consider the pneumococcal vaccine to protect against a type of pneumonia.  

Though it may be tempting to skip workouts in the coming cooler weather and decide to snuggle on the couch with a less-than-healthy snack, letting healthy nutrition and exercise habits slide at the end of the year leads to weakened immune systems.  It’s just as tempting to let routine doctor’s appointments slide, vaccinations go or no longer follow social distancing, mask wearing or hand washing.  Taking preventative measures and paying attention to your health is more important now than ever.  Learning to be proactive about health is one of the best ways to enjoy the exciting activities the fall and winter season bring.

Erika Niedernhofer, RD

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