As cold and flu season approaches, many of us have heard varying advice on how to prepare; exercise more, eat healthier, and try to get more sleep. While it all sounds easy, in a perfect world we would be doing all of that already. Is it really possible, or even feasible, to make lifestyle changes simply because the seasons change?
Unfortunately there is no easy button for boosting immunity, but small changes to our daily routine here and there can help us stay healthy all winter.
Our immune system is precisely that—a system. Just like how doing exercises to target one area of our body is ineffective (we’re looking at you, crunches), our immune system is a complicated network that affects us as a whole.
The biggest workhorse of the system is white blood cells, which essentially remember every microbe they come in contact with and learn how to protect us against them. They don’t act alone, however, relying on other bodily functions in our spleen, skin, and bone marrow, to name a few. Keeping all of these healthy and functioning goes a long way toward a healthy immune system and preventing sickness.
Why Does Winter Matter?
If our immune system is always working, it may seem strange that we focus on it more during the cooler months of the year. Whether or not we are physically cold doesn’t necessarily affect our immunity, but it does make a difference in how viruses spread. As weather cools down and humidity decreases, the air becomes thinner. According to Harvard Health, this allows viruses to travel much more easily, increasing their footprint and ability to infect new hosts. Additionally, cold weather generally means more people are indoors in small spaces, which creates a sort of concentrated petri dish of germs that would otherwise expand over a larger area.
Factors Affecting Our Immunity
Since being physically cold doesn’t change our susceptibility to viruses, adding layers to our wardrobe won’t help (much to the chagrin of mothers everywhere). A few things that do affect our immune system are our age, underlying illnesses, and our daily lifestyle choices.
When it comes to age, it is important to understand that older populations are more susceptible to disease. Scientists aren’t entirely sure why this is, so those of us who are under 65 can help out our elders by distancing ourselves when we’re sick. The same goes for people with underlying illnesses, such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, which weaken the immune system.
What about our daily lifestyle? A few activities that can severely influence our body’s ability to fight off infection are drinking, smoking, and eating an unhealthy diet. Getting poor sleep can also contribute, as nighttime rest is when our body has a chance to heal and rejuvenate for the next day.
Clean Hands: Easy and Effective
While there is no magic pill to ensure a flawless immune system, we can focus on a few lifestyle tweaks throughout the day to try and boost it. Perhaps the biggest help is also one of the easiest: good hand hygiene. Using soap and hot water to scrub the front and back of hands, and in between fingers for at least 20 seconds is key. A great way to time yourself or your kids is to sing “Happy Birthday” twice while scrubbing.
If soap and water is unavailable, hand sanitizer can be used in a pinch, using the same diligence to clean all surfaces of your hand. Avoid touching your face or mouth, and cover coughs with your elbows and not your hands.
Vitamins and Activity are Key
A diet rich in vitamins and minerals is always important, but zinc, folate, iron, and vitamins A, C, E, B6 and B12 have been linked to a healthy immune system. Additionally, some research points to spices having antibacterial and antiviral properties both when ingested and when used in essential oils. According to a review in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, two such spices are cinnamon and cloves—pumpkin spice latte lovers rejoice!
Finally, everybody’s favorite: more exercise. Maintaining a fitness routine helps fight off seasonal depression and stress, but also promotes good circulation, which can help cells of our immune system to move freely and efficiently through the body. While exercising in the cold can be uncomfortable and even lead to a sore, dry throat, there are plenty of options throughout the Black Hills for indoor activities. There’s no need to go overboard, either, as even family fun such as going to the pool or indoor playgrounds can help boost activity levels.
Staying healthy is not only important for each of us individually, but it can affect our families too. Being mindful of how our daily activities influence our immune system is a great first step toward staying healthy all winter long, so we can enjoy all the fun of the season.
WORDS: ASHLEY JOHNSON
GRAPHICS: CHRIS VALENCIA