Immune Boosters

Beat a winter cold by pumping up your immune system

Immune Boosters
Beat a winter cold by pumping up your immune system

With cold and flu season in full swing, it may be tempting to flee to a deserted island, far from the sniffling, sneezing population. Take heart. There are better, and less expensive, ways to stay healthy and turn your immune system into a well-tuned, virus-fighting machine.

First of all, forget the hocus-pocus cures. Your immune system reaps ample benefits simply from healthy
living. Louise Lambert-Lagacé, a Montreal-based dietitian and author, says keeping bugs at bay starts with good basic lifestyle habits. Mom was right: You should get enough sleep (7- 10 hours a night is recommended) and eat properly so your body is primed and pumped to fend off viruses. Lambert-Lagacé suggests that if you’re like the 50 percent of Canadians who don’t eat five servings of fruit and vegetables every day, you should increase your intake of this important food group or, at the very least, supplement your diet with a multivitamin.

However, even if you’re the poster girl for good nutrition (skip the multivitamin if you are), stress and demands on your time may be your downfall. “Any kind of unusual stress makes you more prone to getting sick,” says Lambert-Lagacé. Studies show stress is linked to the suppression of the immune system, likely because of the slew of body-weakening corticosteroid hormones that are unleashed. Managing your stress level will help keep you out of the drugstore’s cold-and-flu-remedies aisle, and exercise also remains one of your best strategies for fighting viruses. A recent study, published in the American Journal of Medicine, saw a 50 percent reduction in the number of colds experienced by postmenopausal women who walked for 45 minutes, five days a week, over the course of a year. So get moving!

When it comes to herbal and nutritional supplements and their assistance in preventing illness, the research is more inconclusive than proof of the Loch Ness monster. However, some supplements – vitamin C, zinc and Echinacea – have each been legitimately proven to play a role in successfully shortening the duration of a cold.

So there are some glimmers of hope in the fight against viruses. In fact, a 2003 Harvard University study found that those who drank five cups of black tea a day for four weeks produced 15 times the virus-fighting interferon than non-tea sippers. Research also points to yogurt’s good probiotic bacteria as potentially reducing susceptibility to catching colds by 25 percent.

Still, good hygiene remains the best strategy of all. Dr. Monika Naus, an associate and medical director at the BC Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, suggests washing your hands after coughing, sneezing, shaking hands and touching surfaces such as the buttons of an ATM, doorknobs and handrails. Viruses often make a trip from sick people to healthy ones via hands. After touching someone or something carrying a cold virus,

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you might scratch your nose or rub your eyes, which essentially rolls out the red carpet for germs to enter your body. Thankfully, scrubbing (it’s the vigorous rubbing of your hands that really counts) with ordinary soap and water for at least 15 seconds destroys most viruses.

Avoidance is a fine tactic to adopt when you’re confronted with a wheezing, coughing, congested person. Those minuscule, invisible, virus-infused droplets that are launched into the air with every sneeze can also make you sick. If you’re stuck in a meeting with Ms. Sneezy, give her a box of tissues (an effective blocker for expelling droplets) and politely nix a handshake. She’s at her most contagious during the first three days of infection. If she’s kind and smart, she’ll stay home from work. Remember, unlike chocolate and juicy gossip, germs are best kept to oneself.

According to researchers from the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University in Wales, rhinoviruses (the main culprits behind 30–50 percent of colds) can linger on surfaces for up to 48 hours, lying in wait to hitchhike and settle into the mucous membranes of your nose (where it happily thrives and incubates in the moist, warm environment). If you’re lucky, you may be one of the 25 percent of people who acquire a cold virus infection and don’t develop symptoms at all, but the odds are stacked against you at this point, so use those first sniffles as a sign to stock up on fluids and, if you have a fever, stay in bed.

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