Winter has settled in, the kids are back in school, and we’re all indoors more. Colds and flu seem to love this time of year. Science has not yet established whether it is because we are spending a lot more time indoors with each other or some other reason, but most of us seem to experience an uptick this time of year when it comes to catching these pesky diseases.
Your best defense against cold and flu is a healthy immune system, which can protect you against invading viruses. With that in mind, I wanted to look at how the things you eat and drink influence your immune system.
Many years ago, an eminent scientist named Linus Pauling proposed the idea that very high doses of vitamin C could protect a person from the common cold. That theory has been debunked, but it does not mean that getting an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals into our daily diet isn’t an important part of maintaining a healthy immune system.
The best way to get all those vitamins and minerals is to eat a varied diet filled with lots of fruits and vegetables and few processed foods. Fresh is best, but canned and frozen are great too. This time of year, I like to count a nice fruit pie made with canned fruit and with little sugar added as a good source of fruit in my diet. I also recommend cutting back on meat and getting more protein from beans, legumes and fish. If you are still concerned about your nutrient intake, consult with your health care provider about whether taking a daily multivitamin is right for you.
With holiday parties there is always an increase in the number of cookies, candies, fudge and other goodies showing up in our homes and offices. Try to control yourself. You know from experience that if you overindulge in those treats you don’t feel as well and that you put on those holiday pounds. They are a lot easier and more fun to put on than to take off. If you drink alcohol drink in moderation – that’s one drink if you are a woman and no more than two if you’re a man. Getting intoxicated reduces your body’s ability to fight off infections for up to 24 hours.
Although you don’t eat tobacco, you do take the smoke from it into your lungs through your mouth, so I am going to include it here. Smoking decreases natural killer cell activity in your body and immunoglobulin A and G levels in your blood and saliva. All three are parts of a healthy immune system. Don’t start smoking and if you do smoke, find a way to quit smoking that works for you.
Getting outside and exercising reduces stress, improves your immune system and battles seasonal depression. If you are sick with a fever and really feeling lousy, take it easy for a few days. Once you are starting to feel better, getting moving will help you feel better faster.
With the holidays upon us, you may be looking at all this advice and thinking about upcoming parties full of delicious food and drinks and getting stressed out at the idea of sticking to the changes I have suggested. My advice is to do your best, but do not beat yourself up too badly if you slip up once in a while because ongoing stress negatively impacts the health of your immune system. Just let it go, relax, promise yourself you will do better the next day and enjoy the holidays.
Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.
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