The winter brings about changes in temperature, gusty winds and well wishes from strangers and loved ones alike. Offices and schools are filled with parties and celebrations, the exclamations of the first snow of the year, and warm sweaters. Everyone seems a little cozier and ready to spend a few extra moments enjoying the warmth of inside.
As an allergist and immunologist, the winter months fill my office with patients suffering from colds, flu and asthma. They ask me how to stay healthy and beat the viruses that arrive steadily throughout the season, so they can enjoy the winter for all it offers. What is the key to staying healthy this winter season? What are natural ways to keep ourselves healthy and strong throughout the winter?
Our immune system is responsible for fighting off infection. The immune system is complicated, and we are still learning about how to keep it strong and healthy. Don't fret; the following three easy tips are proven to help prevent illness during the winter season.
Wash your hands. This is my number-one tip. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is the best way to prevent the spread of viruses and as well as from getting sick. Washing your hands with water (warm or cold) and soap for at least 20 seconds is an easy way to keep yourself healthy this winter. If soap and water aren't available, an alcohol-based antiseptic wash is a good substitute; you want to look for ones with at least 60-percent alcohol. Wash your hands before eating, when preparing or handling food, after using the bathroom, caring for someone sick, interacting with pets, changing diapers or a wound, or after blowing your nose or coughing.
Eat healthy. Filling your diet with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds and lean proteins will ensure you receive essential vitamins and nutrients that help your immune system work effectively. A goal of at least 500 milligrams of vitamin C every day has been shown to help prevent infection. Rose hip (the fruit of the rose plant) tea is an excellent source of vitamin C. Orange-colored vegetables like pumpkin, acorn and butternut squash, and carrots are rich sources of vitamin A, another key player in the immune system. Don't forget to get some sun to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D. If you're not able to step outside, dairy products are fortified with vitamin D. Order a salad filled with spinach, pumpkin and squash seeds, chickpeas and mushrooms to receive your daily zinc, another key player in the immune system. Our diet provides essential nutrients our immune cells need to fight off bacteria and viruses.
Exercise. Don't let the cold weather keep you from hitting the gym. Not only will exercise help you maintain a healthy weight and keep your figure in shape, but it helps your immune cells move about more efficiently. As little as 30 minutes of exercise a day can help your T cells (the immune cells responsible for surveying our bodies for infection) move faster through your body, according to researchers in Exercise Immunology Reviews in 2011. But be careful, as too much exercise may not be good and may impair your body's natural cell trafficking.
If you do end up getting a cold this winter, studies at Dartmouth, the Cleveland Clinic and the Heritage School show that taking zinc gluconate can shorten the duration of a cold by 42 percent.
How does this work? Cold viruses use a specific receptor to enter your respiratory system (the cells in your nose and lungs) called the intracellular adhesion molecule receptor (ICAM). Viruses must enter our cells to replicate. If they can't get inside, then they can't replicate and the symptoms and duration of a cold are reduced. Zinc gluconate blocks this receptor, thus preventing the virus to enter your cells.
Putting these easy tips of regular hand washing, healthy eating and regular exercise into practice should keep you strong this cold-and-flu season.