This article originally appeared on Live in the Now.
While flu infections typically peak in January and February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is noting an early increase in the number of people falling sick with the virus. But it’s not too late to prepare your immune system to defend you from infection.
It’s always a good idea to follow sanitary practices like frequent hand washing, staying home when you are sick and avoiding or being very careful when using facilities where you may be exposed to other sick people during cold and flu season (or any other time). But staying healthy and doing all you can to boost your immunity can make the difference between a mild cold or case of the flu and getting very sick.
So let’s get serious about cold and flu prevention. Here’s what you can do besides practicing common sanitary measures:
1. Eat healthfully. Getting those 5-9 servings a day of fruits and veggies is so important. Avoid sweets — more than 200 calories a day has been shown to depress your immune system.
2. Get plenty of sleep. If you have trouble getting at least 6 but preferably 7 or 8 hours of sleep, see your doctor. And if that’s not productive, see a sleep specialist. Don’t rely on quick solutions like sleeping pills, which can be habit forming. You may need to change your routine, develop a meditation or relaxation process or cut out caffeine. Melatonin can help some people.
3. Humidify your home. Flu bugs love cold dry air. If dry heat blasts all winter long in your home, find a way to humidify. It’s good for your protective mucous membranes and it may discourage bugs that somehow get into your home.
4. Keep up with your regular, moderate exercise. It makes immune cells circulate through the body more quickly, so they are better able to kill bacteria and viruses. Research shows that women who walk 45 minutes a day are half as likely to catch a flu or cold bug as sedentary women, and that active women in their 70s had immune systems that were as healthy as women in their 30s and 40s. No matter what your age, any exercise is better than none.
5. Get enough vitamin D. New research shows vitamin D to be a sure immune booster, and lots of older people just don’t get enough, especially during the short days of winter. Supplement with 1,000 IU a day of vitamin D3, also known as cholecalciferol. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with increased risk for pneumonia.
6. Add vitamin C. Japanese researchers have shown that older people with reduced stomach acid (atrophic gastritis) had fewer colds when they supplemented with 500 mg of vitamin C a day. Vitamin C helps white blood cells produce infection-fighting chemicals called cytokines. If you do feel a cold coming on, it’s best to boost your intake even higher, to 1,000-3,000 mg a day, in divided doses, until your symptoms subside.
7. Use garlic and onions. Both increase germ-fighting power in your respiratory tract. Garlic is known as “Russian penicillin,” while onions are China’s top choice for healthy lungs. Don’t like smelling like garlic? Try a garlic supplement that’s been deodorized. It doesn’t need to stink to protect you!
8. Use an herbal remedy. Echinacea can reduce the duration and severity of colds, if you start taking it at the very first sign of symptoms. If your immune system is weak because of other health problems, medicinal fungi such as maitake, reishi and cordyceps can help.
9. Take quercetin. Research shows that quercetin fights viruses. In animals that were stressed by extreme exercise, and then exposed to a flu virus, supplemental quercetin kept them from “catching the bug.” Quercetin is naturally found in apples, red grapes, blueberries and onions, among other foods. Researchers say quercetin may work the same way in humans, and be especially helpful for endurance athletes, soldiers and others undergoing difficult training regimens, as well as people under psychological stress.
10. Support your digestive system. Infections, antibiotic use and the aging process itself can damage the delicate balance of microorganisms within the intestines. Probiotics from supplements and from foods like cultured vegetables, yogurt and kefir can restore that balance and help keep this important part of our immune system functioning optimally. Be sure to make them a regular part of your diet!
Cold and flu season may be here, but you still have time to feast on healthy foods, get plenty of exercise, which will help you sleep better at night, and bolster your immune system with supplements. When it comes to the annual cold and flu game it’s best to play offense, not defense!