During cold and flu season, it’s crucial to keep your immune system strong so that you’ll be able to fight off all types of invaders. That’s especially true if you have any kind of chronic condition that already affects your immunity, such as diabetes or a heart disease.
There are plenty of supplements — such as vitamin C, echinacea, elderberry, zinc, and others — that claim they will support your immune system and ward off colds and flu. But there’s no convincing evidence that any supplement can prevent or treat colds or the flu.
Instead, you can boost your immune system with a few simple steps that don’t involve taking any pills. Not only will they help your immune system during virus season, but they also establish good habits that can increase your overall well-being. Here are four strategies to try:
1. Take time to de-stress
Can a good mood really make that much of a difference when it comes to immunity? Absolutely, says Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., author of “Habits of a Happy Brain.” She notes that when you’re stressed or feeling negative, it increases the stress hormone cortisol, which is responsible for your “fight or flight” response. When cortisol is high, the body suppresses your digestive and immune systems.
When you you’re less stressed and happier your body produces less cortisol and produces more “happy hormones” like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Breuning says these are hugely beneficial in supporting your immune system. A good way to de-stress fast is to do some deep breathing exercises, take a yoga class, or go for a walk in a natural setting if you can.
2. Move more
Ambling through a park or woods not only increases your brain’s happy chemical reactions, but it also creates other shifts throughout the body as well. Breuning says that physical activity causes changes in antibodies and white blood cells, which the immune system uses to quash disease.
Activity also helps to flush bacteria out of the lungs, lowers blood pressure, and improves cardiovascular health, which all lead to stronger immune responses. Best of all, recent research suggests that increasing movement throughout the day, even in small amounts, can make a big difference in both physical and emotional health.
3. Stay hydrated
Dehydration can really hurt your immune system because it causes your body to take more time eliminating toxins and waste materials. That means your immune system will have more to deal with, and when it gets overwhelmed, it can weaken.
Water, of course, is the best way to increase your hydration levels, but you can also boost the effect through what you eat, says Tiffany DeWitt, R.D., a registered dietitian in Columbus, Ohio. Sports drinks contain electrolytes — minerals like magnesium and calcium that help your body absorb fluids better — but you can also get these through foods such as bananas, avocados, Greek yogurt, nuts, kale, and spinach.
4. Develop good sleep habits
The connection between sleep and immune function is strong. According to recent research from the University of Washington, sleep deprivation — especially if it’s chronic — can depress the immune system, which is why many people report getting sick if they don’t get enough sleep.
No matter how well you sleep, it’s worth the effort to look at your sleep habits to see if they can be made more efficient. For example, try to get seven to nine hours per night, and set regular bedtimes and wake-up times — even on weekends. Try to stop watching TV and scrolling through your smartphone at least one hour before you go to bed.
Also, if you have trouble falling asleep, avoid the temptation to get up and do something else, like reading or catching up on email, says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Virginia. Not only does that tend to make you more awake, but it also reduces the time you could be spent simply resting, he says. Even if you’re not sleeping, the body is relaxing, and that will help your immunity.
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Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. Her articles have appeared in SELF, Men’s Health, CNN, MyFitnessPal, and WebMD, and she has worked on patient education materials for Mayo Clinic and UnitedHealth Group. Find her on Instagram at @bossykind and on Twitter at @EMillard_Writer. Her online portfolio is at elizabethmillard.pressfolios.com. When not writing, she’s also a yoga teacher and organic farmer.