It’s flu season—how’s your immune system?
The media is reporting an early and aggressive start to the annual flu season, as well as a surge in a new type of norovirus (“stomach flu”) and the highest number of cases of whooping cough (pertussis) in 60 years. As in previous years, the flu season and other viral illness are especially hard on people over 65, in large part because the immune response capability declines with age.
Beyond the media hype surrounding the flu there may be quite a few things you can do to avoid getting sick in the first place, and to help recover if you do contract a flu or cold virus. Taking these key steps to optimize your immune system could make a difference in your health:
- Improve your gut flora. The role of gut flora and probiotics to optimize health is gaining attention. Improving the bacteria in your digestive tract can have enormous impact on your immune response. You can improve your gut flora by avoiding sugars (which feed pathogenic bacteria) and eating foods that foster beneficial bacteria, such as traditional foods that have “active cultures” like plain yogurt or unpasteurized sauerkraut or kim chi. You can also purchase probiotic capsules or powders.
- Make sure you have adequate vitamin D levels. Numerous studies link Vitamin D to a stronger immune response. People with insufficient levels of Vitamin D have significantly more colds and flu as well as an increased rate of other chronic health problems like diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Scientific American reports that “three quarters of U.S. teens and adults are deficient in Vitamin D”, so it is no surprise that chronic disease is on the rise. Many sources recommend getting your Vitamin D level tested so that you know where you stand. You can improve your Vitamin D levels by exposure to the sun, although here in our northern climate the sun is at too low an angle from September to March to produce Vitamin D from sun exposure. Another option is to take Vitamin D3 supplements.
- Minimize sugar and processed foods. Sugar consumption reduces the ability of the immune system to fight pathogenic bacteria and viruses, and most processed foods contain some form of sugar. When you are sick you should especially avoid eating foods with sugar–including juices and other sweetened beverages–because they hamper your immune system’s response.
- Maximize nutritious foods, especially vegetables. Several research studies are looking at the connection between nutrition and immunity as we age. One common concern for the elderly is micronutrient malnutrition where a person lacks essential vitamins due to diet or digestive concerns. Focus on eating nutrient-dense foods to improve your overall health and immune response.
- Exercise improves cardiovascular health which improves your immune response. Exercise can also help control weight and blood pressure and helps protect against a variety of diseases.
- Reduce chronic stress. One of the best things you can do for your health is to minimize chronic stress. Seek support and community and share a laugh on a regular basis!
- Minimize contact with germs: Wash your hands often, and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Keep your distance from people who are sick, and stay home when you are under the weather.
Anything you do to boost your immune system will not only help you avoid or better deal with the flu, but will also improve your overall health and outlook on life.
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The information shared here is not intended as medical advice or treatment, but only to raise awareness of current research as well as possible treatment options you can explore in partnership with a qualified health care professional. Discuss the benefits and risks of all treatment options with a qualified health care professional before implementation.