Boost Your Immune System This Flu Season

With the flu season upon us, all of us should take steps to get our immune systems ready to fend off germs. Boosting your immune system is a very good idea if you want to stay cold- and flu-free. Let's start with the very basics: good sleep, balanced diet, physical activity, and avoidance of tobacco smoke.

1. Good sleep

Why do we sleep? During sleep, our bodies rest and rejuvenate. Getting adequate amounts of sleep every night may even boost the immune system. According to a study reported in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine (2003), people who were vaccinated against Hepatitis A and got a good night's sleep afterwards had almost 2 times the level of antibodies than the group of vaccinated people who did not sleep after the vaccination . The moral here is that sleep is important to keep your immune system in shape, so get at least 8 hours of sleep every night. School-age children and adolescents need at least 10 hours of sleep, so do not let your children convince you otherwise. Remember, there is always "tomorrow" if it comes to playing computer games or watching movies!

2. Balanced diet

Eating three meals a day, and nutritious snacks in between, will help your immune system work efficiently. By eating healthy, you provide your immune system as well as the rest of your body with all the necessary nutrients for optimal functioning. When your body is well nourished, it can fight off infections better. Therefore, fill your plate with fruits, vegetables, and lean meats or fish. Also, do not forget about 3 servings of dairy products to keep your teeth and bones strong! Good hydration is also very important, so have at least 5 glasses of water a day in addition to the other fluids that you usually drink.

3. Physical activity

Moderate physical activity improves the efficiency with which our immune systems fight viral and bacterial infections. Despite the efficiency of the immune system increments while exercising, when the exercising session is over, the efficiency reduces to baseline within a few hours. However, if you exercise regularly you may prolong this beneficial boost in the function of your immune system. The American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine issued new guidelines for physical activity for adults. Detailed guidelines are available at americanheaart.org/fitness. The recommendation stresses the importance of moderate physical activity for 30 minutes, 5 days a week, or vital physical activity three times per week. According to the guidelines, short bouts of activity can be combined to meet the 30-minute-a-day goal, so get off the couch and engage in an immune booster activity!

4. Avoidance of tobacco smoke

Did you know that exposure to cigarette smoke not only gives us wrinkles but also decrees levels of vitamin C in our bodies? This possibly lowers the efficiency of the immune system leaving us prone to catching colds and other infections. In addition, inhaled cigarette smoke damages cilia, tiny hairs that line up the respiratory system. Their function is to continue beat in one direction and move secrets from places where they are not suppose to stay for too long. When they get destroyed and mucus (produced during viral illnesses such as colds or the flu) is not clear efficiently anymore, we are more prone to bacterial sinus, ear, and lung infections. The key is to avoid cigarette smoke filled places and if you smoke, seriously consider quitting. Talk to your health care provider to discuss options for quitting smoking. You may also access information about how to quit here.

There is no cure for a viral illness. However, let's talk about 3 potential immune system boosters that may help you in ward off the viruses: zinc, vitamin C, and Echinacea.

1. Zinc

So far, there are conflicting results as to whether zinc is effective in treatment of colds in adults. There is no sufficient evidence for its effectiveness in children and adolescents. Therefore it is not recommended for these age groups. The adult studies that determined zinc to be effective, claim that it may shorten the duration of a cold by 3-4 days if started within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. Zinc has an unpleasant taste and may cause an upset stomach. Long-term use is not recommended because high levels may interfere with absorption of copper so leading to deficiency. Adults wishing to use zinc to treat their colds should follow package directions for dosage and limit zinc use to a week or shorter.

2. Vitamin C

Vitamin C does not prevent colds. However, if it is taken regularly, vitamin C may shorten the duration of cold symptoms. People with medical conditions, such as kidney disease or blood disorders, need to talk to their health care providers before starting the supplement. Mega doses of vitamin C are not recommended, because vitamin C's effectiveness in cold treatment is very slight. Therefore, just make sure that your diet contains the recommended daily amount (90 mg for men, and 75 mg for women).

3. Echinacea

For years, scientific studies would deliver contradictory results as to whether Echinacea helps banish colds. Today, the herb is in! A large meta-analysis suggested that the herb decreases the duration of a cold and lowers chances of catching one! Echinacea is believed to stimulate the immune system, so it's advantageous to start taking it at the first sign of cold symptoms and continue until all the symptom are gone. Buy products that have a mark "USP verified" and follow package directions while taking the herb.

What's USP?

The United States Pharmacopeia (USP) is the official, science-based, public, standard-setting authority for all prescription and over-the-counter medicines, dietary supplements, and other healthcare products made and sold in the US USP sets standards for the quality of these products. By the federal law, prescription and over-the-counter medicines must meet the standards of the USP. To learn more about USP go to http://www.usp.org/aboutUSP/ .

An ounce of prevention will also go a long way:

1. Frequently wash hands with regular soap and rub hands for 15 seconds

2. Avoid contact with sick people

3. Clean the telephone receiver and door knobs with Lysol

4. Keep your hands away from the nose, eyes, and mouth

5. Cover you cough and sneeze with your sleeve