Don't be at the mercy of winter's cold and flu season. A little creative immune boosting, such as massage or a daily dose of laughter, might just keep nasty germs at bay.
Winter—the season of snow, skiing, holidays, and maybe even a little hot cider or wine in front of the fireplace with your loved one. Unfortunately, along with fun and passion, it’s also cold and flu time. Because we’re indoors more in winter, we’re likelier to play pass-the-bug with family, friends, and co-workers.
Nevertheless, we don’t have to avoid others or live outside permanently during winter to stay healthy (though a nice brisk walk or engaging in winter sports does wonders for the mind and body). There are many ways to boost your immune system, making it harder for colds and flu to take up residence.
Remember the old telephone ad, “Let your fingers do the walking,” which encouraged us to use the Yellow Pages? If you don’t already have a massage therapist, now is a good time to look one up and let their magic fingers do the walking—over your body.
Numerous studies have shown that massage boosts your immune system by
- increasing the number, kind, and distribution of good white blood cells throughout your body, making it less susceptible to disease
- reducing inflammation and edema, which can lower the body’s immune system
- stimulating your brain to release endorphins, producing calm, happy feelings
- decreasing cortisol, a stress hormone that suppresses your immune system
There are many different types of massage, ranging from gentle stroking to deeper tissue kneading. Speak to your health care practitioner before beginning a massage treatment if you have blood, vein, or bone problems.
- Aromatherapy massage uses plant-based essential oils on the skin to enhance the healing and relaxing effects of the massage.
- Lymphatic massage concentrates on improving the flow of lymph, a fluid that helps fight off infection and disease.
- Shiatsu uses gentle finger and hand pressure on specific body points to relieve pain and enhance the flow of energy (qi) through the body.
- Swedish massage blends a variety of strokes and pressure techniques for all-over body health.
Laughter is the best medicine
Laughing is good exercise for the body, releasing mood-boosting endorphins, decreasing stress hormones, and increasing the type of white blood cells that fight infection. Scientists may not be the funny people of the world, but their research indicates a good laugh could be another tool in your disease-fighting arsenal.
Studies have investigated self-reported sense of humour, exposure to humorous stimuli, and smiling versus laughing. Computer geeks may be right: laughing out loud (LOL) had the most consistently positive immune-enhancing effect.
Find out what tickles your funny bone. Books. Movies. Silly songs. Sign up for a joke-a-day website and get your morning chuckle delivered right to your mailbox. Surround yourself with people who like to laugh and you’ll find yourself laughing with them.
When it comes to preventing colds and flu, let funny be your friend. Laugh, chuckle, or guffaw yourself healthy.
Sleep: Nature’s remedy
While you don’t have to hibernate to escape cold and flu season, getting enough sleep reduces stress, elevates your mood, and gives your immune system the resources to fight off disease.
If you’re sleep-deprived, your body’s cycle is thrown off and your immune system is disrupted. Even mild sleep deprivation—a couple of late nights—can have an adverse effect by overstimulating white blood cells. The greater and longer the deprivation, the more pronounced the effect and the more difficult it is for your immune system to recover its natural balance.
Aim for seven to eight hours. Sleeping fewer than seven hours makes you three times more likely to get a cold. And don’t count on the flu shot to make up for too many late nights; sleep deprivation can cut the effectiveness of the flu vaccine by 50 percent.
Socialize to stay healthy
Strengthening your social network strengthens your immune system. Good friends keep you feeling connected to others, warding off feelings of loneliness. Researchers have known for years that people with strong social ties are more likely to survive serious illnesses.
Newer studies point to the effects of isolation on your immune system. Loneliness actually changes the immune system on a cellular level, decreasing your body’s ability to fight disease.
Colds and flu are not generally life-threatening, but they’re not a lot of laughs either. Family and friends may accidently pass on a virus, but their social support helps your immune system fight it off. They’re also likely to bring you chicken soup if you do get sick.
If you already have a strong social network, don’t take those people for granted. No matter how busy you are, make time to connect, even if it’s only a short phone call or an email. If you want to build up your circle of friends, take action. Volunteer, enrol in a course, take up a winter sport, or join an interest group to give you something to talk about.
Think positive for better health
The mind-body connection is a two-way street. Being unhealthy can make you feel stressed and overwhelmed, while a negative mental state can lessen your immunity, causing illness. So it’s no surprise that research showed positive people fought off both cold and flu viruses better than those who were anxious, hostile, or depressed.
Rose-coloured glasses? Not necessary. Instead, strive for realistic optimism, which accepts that bad things happen but emphasizes keeping negative thoughts and fears at a manageable level. Staying positive allows your body to be its own doctor—releasing endorphins to cope with pain, gamma globulin to fortify your immune system, and interferon to fight viruses. Negative thoughts short-circuit this process.
The good news is that other immune boosters—sleeping, eating properly, social networking—also help keep you more upbeat, creating a positive feedback loop on the highway to health.
Eat a rainbow
Is it feed a cold and starve a fever or the other way around? Eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables daily, and you’ll be less likely to have either. The pot of gold at this rainbow’s end is a stronger-functioning immune system.
Each colour group tends to be high in particular vitamins, antioxidants, and other disease and inflammation-fighting compounds. In general, the darker the colour, the more nutrients. By regularly eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, you’ll get the widest range of nutrients, vitamins, and antioxidants—tools your immune system needs to keep running at its best.
Orange and yellow
The orange and yellow family owe their colour to beta carotene, which converts to vitamin A in the body. Many are also high in vitamin C and folate. Foods in this family include apricots, cantaloupe, mangoes, nectarines, butternut squash, carrots, yellow peppers, sweet potatoes, and citrus fruits.
The red family aren’t blushing; they’re just filled with lycopene or anthocyanins, heavy hitters on the keep-healthy team. Good choices include strawberries, raspberries, grapes, apples, red peppers, beets, red cabbage, and cooked tomatoes.
The green family get their eco-friendly shade from chlorophyll and may contain other health-enhancing compounds such as lutein, indoles, folate, and vitamin E. Members to munch on include green apples, grapes, limes, spinach, kale and other dark leafy greens, green peppers, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and avocado.
The blue and purple family are coloured by anthocyanins, powerful protectors of cells in the body. Grab some blackberries, blueberries, raisins, figs, purple grapes, prunes, or eggplant.
The white family may not be found on a real rainbow, but they have a place in your daily diet. They get their colour, which ranges from white to brown, from anthoxanthins. Some also contain allicin and potassium. Members in good standing include bananas, onions, parsnips, turnips, jicama, and potatoes. Garlic has long been known for its antiviral and antibacterial properties, while reishi, maitake, and shiitake mushrooms are believed to directly boost immune function.
Supplements that boost immunity
Great! You’re trying your hardest to get massages, laugh, sleep enough, eat properly, surround yourself with friends, and have a positive attitude. But let’s face it: life can get in the way of even the best intentions.
Adding vitamins, minerals, herbs, and supplements to your diet can help you this cold and flu season—and all year round for that matter. Many of them do double duty, helping your immune system while protecting you from a wide range of other diseases.
A daily multivitamin, especially one that contains selenium, zinc, and magnesium, is a good way to enhance your immune system. Don’t overdo it, however, particularly with vitamins A and E and zinc: too much of even a good thing can be bad, so enjoy the most immunity-boosting benefits by taking the recommended daily dose of these supplements.
Certain herbs and supplements also look promising for increasing immunity. Garlic, ginseng, milk thistle, and astragalus possess protective properties that have been shown to fight viruses and infections. Probiotics—healthy bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium—may also support immune function.