Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York have discovered why we’re more susceptible to flu viruses over the frigid months. The microscopic organisms live longer in cold and dry conditions, giving them a better shot at being passed around in tiny drops of water in the air. And with more than 200 viruses causing the common cold, we’re all likely to run into at least a few of them this coming winter. ” Recent research shows that some of the most promising ways to ensure a healthy immune system aren’t the old standbys. Here’s how to survive the season.
1. Think positively
A positive outlook may mean the difference between catching a cold or not. “Happier people are less likely to develop colds when exposed to cold viruses,” says Sheldon Cohen, PhD, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. In his research, people who described themselves as less happy, lively, and calm were about three times more likely to get sick as those who rated themselves higher in those categories. People with high positive emotion scores produce just enough cytokine (a protein) to help recruit other immune cells to fight off infections, Cohen explains.
2. Exercise regularly
Taking a pass on exercise may increase your risk of catching a cold, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Medicine. Scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle compared the incidence of colds in 115 women, some of whom worked out five days a week for 45 minutes, others who attended once-weekly 45-minute stretching sessions. The “stretchers” had nearly four times as many colds as the “exercisers” over a one-year period. “We believe there’s a temporary increase in immune-fighting cells with each episode of exercise,” says Cornelia Ulrich, an associate member at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the study’s senior author.
3. Wash your hands
“Handwashing is probably the most revolutionary public health measure—right up there with immunization—for stopping the spread of infection,” says Pierre Plourde, MD, medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. After all, you only need to make contact with a cold or flu virus and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth to get infected. But do it right: Wash for 20 seconds using soap and warm water.
Experts recommend frequent hand washing throughout the day—before and after eating, after using the washroom and after coughing, sneezing or touching surfaces that may have been touched by sick people. And stay away from antibacterial soaps, hand washes and gels—they make it easier for bacteria to build resistance. Use alcohol gels instead, advises Dr. Plourde.
4. Snack on yogurt
“It’s too early to say for sure that they prevent colds and flu, but probiotics may promote a healthier immune system,” says Eric Gershwin, MD, chief of rheumatology, allergy and clinical immunology at the University of California at Davis. Probiotics are supplements of live microorganisms added to foods such as yogurt, and are also available in capsule form.
In a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, athletes who took a probiotic supplement had half as many days with respiratory symptoms as those in the placebo group. To benefit, a person should consume between one and 10 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) of active probiotics per day, adds Carolanne Nelson, a professor in the department of family and nutritional sciences at the University of Prince Edward Island. Look for grocery products that state how many CFUs they contain.
5. Eat your broccoli
Research indicates that brightly colored vegetables and fruits boost immunity better than most supplements. Eating at least eight servings a day helps keep the immune system in top form, and prevents it from overreacting—the cause of many immune-related diseases.
6. Give herbs and algae a try
The herb ginseng has been shown to help prevent colds when taken as soon as symptoms develop. Researchers at the University of Western Ontario are conducting a study to determine what type of ginseng works, and how much.
Spirulina, a blue-green algae available at health food stores, is also promising. German researchers found that spirulina preparations containing zinc and powdered acerola (a vitamin C-rich tropical fruit) have high anti-inflammatory and antioxidant potential. Further testing is required to determine whether long-term use of spirulina preparations strengthens immune defense and reduces cold and flu risk. (Consult with a doctor or a trained practitioner before trying any dietary supplements.)
7. Boost your vitamin D
A Finnish study found that those with low vitamin D status were one and a half times more likely to get a respiratory infection than those in the control group. Likewise, researchers at Winthrop-University Hospital in New York who were investigating the effects of vitamin D supplementation (up to 2,000 IU daily) on bone mineral density in African-American women determined that participants in the non-placebo group reported three times fewer cold and flu symptoms than those who were taking the placebo.
8. Get vitamin B12 from foods
You may have heard that getting a vitamin B12 injection will boost your immunity, but no studies have been conducted to prove that it can protect you from the cold or flu. “Most people who eat healthily are getting enough vitamin B,” says Gershwin. “A vitamin B12 shot for otherwise healthy people is a waste of money.”
As for sugar-free vitamin waters, while they are better than sugary sodas, they contain only trace amounts of vitamins—nothing that will prevent a cold or boost short-term immunity, says immunologist Aileen Burford-Mason, PhD.
9. Get vaccinated
Though the effectiveness of the annual flu shot varies, it’s still one of the best defenses we’ve got, says Dr. Plourde. Some fear that because the flu vaccine contains several influenza strains in one shot, it can actually tax the immune system—but don’t worry. “Your immune system has a phenomenal capacity,” he says. It is estimated that in the United States, each year on average 5 to 20 percent of the population gets the flu and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from seasonal flu-related complications. The shot’s benefits, says Dr. Plourde, far outweigh the risks.