Your guide to staying healthy this cold and flu season
Simple, practical and evidence-based tips to ramp up your immune system for the coming flu season. Take your health into your own hands and have a flu-free winter.
Supporting your immune system has never been more crucial. Another wave of COVID-19 is still a possibility and flu season is upon us. With so much information available on the Internet, let’s look at some simple, time-tested and proven approaches to staying healthy during flu season.
Stay hydrated! This sounds a little foreign in the context of flu season, but you’ll soon see why it makes sense. The most basic reason has to do with how our first line immune defenses operate. We come into contact with pathogens through our “mucous membranes” – the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat. These body areas are moist in order to protect us from potential pathogens (everything from dust and mold to bacteria and viruses). A portion of our immune system lives in our secretions – tears, saliva, nasal mucus, etc. – and it requires a moist environment to function optimally. When we are well-hydrated, we are promoting the best possible environment for our first line immune system to defend us. Hydrating fluids include filtered water, herbal teas, coconut water or carbonated (sugar and sweetener-free) water like La Croix, Bubly, Polar and Spindrift. Aim to drink between 64 and 100 oz. of fluids daily, depending upon your size and activity level. Another way to check your hydration status is to see if your urine remains light yellow all day long.
Also, check your vitamin D status. This generally requires a trip to your family physician, but more and more labs are offering direct-to-patient options. So, if you can’t get in to see your PCP right away, you may be able to order a Vitamin D test and get your blood drawn at a local lab to fulfill the request. Vitamin D is a crucial regulator of the immune system. It is a common deficiency, especially for anyone who lives in the northern half of the United States. Studies even suggest that a vitamin D deficiency predicts a worse outcome for COVID-19 patients. Getting at least 20 minutes of sunshine during the warmer months generally allows the body to make enough of its own vitamin D. Supplementing it with a high quality vitamin D3 can help maintain your levels through the winter, but you first need to know your status. I generally take 5000 IU of vitamin D3 daily from October-May and get plenty of sunshine the rest of the year.
It is wise to get more Vitamin C. I wish I could say just get it through your diet: citrus fruits, strawberries, peppers, broccoli, kale, and kiwi are all good sources. Unfortunately, the food we eat today is not nearly as nutritious as it once was. One study cited by Scientific American found that Vitamin C levels were 30% lower in 1997 than in 1975 because of soil depletion. So, whenever you have the option of produce grown in organic or composted soil, the food will likely be more nutritious. But even with good dietary choices, most of us would benefit from a high-quality Vitamin C supplement. Vitamin C has been shown to prevent as well as decrease the severity and duration of the common cold.
I tend to recommend between 2 and 5 grams (that’s 2000-5000 mg) of Vitamin C spread throughout the day, especially if you are around anyone who has been sick or is feeling under the weather. Vitamin C has a myriad of other benefits, including being a potent antioxidant, protecting the cardiovascular system, and promoting collagen synthesis for wound healing and skin health. It is generally well-tolerated. If you take too much Vitamin C, the body will stop absorbing it, and you will get loose stools or diarrhea. That is one reason why it is good to spread out your intake during the day. Generally, the body is smart and will absorb as much vitamin C as it needs. If you do get GI symptoms, decrease your dosage. The very best Vitamin C is “buffered” or “liposomal.” If you have a natural practitioner, they will recommend a reputable brand.
Elderberry (sambucus nigra) is native to North America and is a gentle immune-boosting herb. It is safe to take every day as a preventive measure. Take 1 tsp of elderberry syrup daily (for adults) for prevention and 1 tsp every 4 hours if you feel sick. Elderberry syrup is easy to make at home if you buy dried elderberries.
Get lots of sleep. Sleep is when we heal and repair. The immune system is constantly in surveillance mode, fighting off potential invading pathogens. It needs plenty of time to reset. And your body is smart; it will allocate limited resources. If you are not getting enough sleep, your body will prioritize survival, and you will not feel your best.
Some final thoughts: other supplements that support immune function are Vitamin A, zinc, selenium, and vitamin E. There is a combo product called, “ACES + Zinc”, that combine all these nutrients (plus vitamin C). It’s a good idea to have this on hand if you start to feel a cold/flu coming on. Act quickly. If you feel a little “off”, immediately prioritize hydrating fluids (water, herbal tea) and avoid caffeine (coffee, black/green tea). Try to get extra sleep if you have the sensation of coming down with something. See your natural or holistic practitioner for tips to boost immune function even further. This might include Echinacea, which I only recommend if someone is sick. It is not a good idea to take certain herbs all the time. This is why starting care with a reliable holistic doctor is a smart, proactive step. Don’t try to diagnose and treat yourself with “Dr. Google.” Follow these steps to have your best winter ever.