It is true that the best way to avoid getting the flu is to refrain from coming into contact with someone who has the virus, and wash or sanitize your hands before you touch your eyes, nose, and mouth. These actions are effective in cutting down your exposure risk, but they are still not fool-proof.
Do you know that you actually touch up to 300 different surfaces every 30 minutes and the average person touches his/her face 2-4 times per minute? Unless you quarantine yourself at home and do not come into contact with the outside world, it is unrealistic to believe that you can completely avoid coming across an infectious virus like the flu.
However, there is no need to panic yet. Being exposed to a virus does not mean you will get sick. The determining factor is the health of your immune system.
You Can Be Exposed To The Flu Virus But Not Get Sick
In a study by the University of Michigan, researchers found that when they infected 17 healthy people with the flu, only half of them got sick. The other half felt perfectly fine. Interestingly, the researchers also found that all the subjects elicited an immune response, regardless of whether they felt sick or not.
In the symptomatic group, the immune response included antiviral and inflammatory responses like the sniffles, fever, coughing, and sneezing that were related to the oxidative stress induced by the virus.
In the non-symptomatic group, these responses were muted. In addition, they showed elevated expression of genes that came from antioxidants as well as the activation of immune cells that fight viruses.
Therefore, you can greatly lower your risk of coming down with the flu by boosting your immune system. The key is to modify your daily lifestyle habits. If you want to join the ranks of those people who rarely get sick, start incorporating the strategies listed below.
Ways To Boost Your Immune System
1. Optimize Your Vitamin D
If you are vitamin D deficient, your immune system will not activate to do its job. Multiple studies have shown that the higher your vitamin D level, the lower your risk of contracting colds, flu, and other respiratory tract infections.
The best way to increase your vitamin D level is by sun exposure but that is more difficult for people living in the Northern hemisphere, especially in the fall and winter. The optimal level of vitamin D is 50-80 ng/mL which can be determined by a simple blood test.
If you do not get regular sun exposure, the next best option is to take a supplement. Most people need a daily dose of 5,000 to 8,000 IU to achieve the optimal level.
2. Exercise Regularly
Studies have clearly shown that if you have an active lifestyle and if your vitamin D level is optimized, the likelihood of you getting the flu decreases quite dramatically.
Researchers noted that each round of exercise may lead to a boost in the circulation of immune cells in your blood. These cells work to neutralize pathogens throughout your body. The better these cells circulate, the more efficient your immune system is at locating and defending against viruses and bacteria.
3. Maintain A Healthy Gut
Your gut flora plays a major role in the health of your immune system. There are about 500 species of bacteria, weighing over three pounds, residing in your digestive system. This so-called gut flora includes both beneficial as well as harmful bacteria. It is, therefore, critical to maintaining a healthy balance between the two. When there is an overgrowth of bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria, your immunity declines and you are more susceptible to getting colds and flu.
The following are some factors that pose the greatest dangers to your healthy gut flora:
- A diet low in fiber and high in sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Antibiotic use
- Excessive alcohol use
- Herbicides and pesticides in foods which can decimate your healthy bacteria in the gut
- Genetically modified foods which can alter your gut flora
To boost your immune system, here are several simple ways to get more healthy bacteria in your gut.
- Eat different types of fermented foods regularly. Fermented foods are living foods abundant in good bacteria. Different types of fermented foods have different strains of bacteria that can help increase diversity in your gut flora. (Remember we have over 500 species of bacteria!) Each mouthful of fermented food can provide up to trillions of beneficial bacteria. Examples include fermented vegetables (like sauerkraut, kimchee), miso, tempeh, kefir, kombucha, natto, raw cheese, and yogurt.
- If you are not eating fermented foods regularly, take a probiotic supplement daily. Look for one that has a high bacteria count (usually in billions) with multiple strains of bacteria.
- Last but not least, it is important to include the prebiotics, which is food that feeds the probiotics or good bacteria. Prebiotics are abundant in whole plant foods, especially jicama, chicory root, garlic, onions, leeks, Jerusalem artichoke, leafy greens, and bananas.
4. Make Sure You Are Not Zinc Deficient
Zinc is an essential trace mineral that is key to the normal functioning of the immune system. It is critical for proper T cell and natural killer cell function as well as lymphocyte activity. It is also directly involved in antibody production to help fight infection.
Zinc deficiency has become rather prevalent in the general population. As the body does not store zinc, it is important to get enough zinc from your diet every day. Additionally, people who regularly drink alcohol may have low zinc levels because the ethanol present in alcohol decreases zinc absorption and increases its excretion.
Zinc is found in oysters (which have the highest zinc content by far), Alaskan King crab, lobster, meats, beans, eggs, nuts, and seeds, especially pumpkin and squash seeds.
Normal supplementation is about 15-30 mg daily in men and 10-20 mg in women. You can use more zinc temporarily to correct a deficiency. However, for long-term supplementation, you should balance it with copper (1-3 mg) to prevent developing mineral imbalances.
Researchers found that zinc supplementation significantly reduced the occurrence of infections in older adults and improved their immune function.
5. Eat More Foods That Are Immunity Boosters
- Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, and turnips contain a chemical called sulforaphane that switches on a set of antioxidant genes and enzymes in specific immune cells.
- Garlic, onions, and ginger contain compounds that enhance immune function.
- Green tea is about 40% polyphenols by weight and is the most powerful of all the teas. Studies show that green tea contains compounds called catechin, which support a strong immune system.
- Berries are very high in antioxidants and consist of compounds that boost natural immunity.
6. Get Sufficient Sleep
Research into the effects of sleep deprivation on the immune system found that even short-term loss of sleep has a significant impact on how the immune system functions.
One reason the immune system is so closely tied to sleep is that certain disease-fighting substances are released during sleep. The body needs these hormones, proteins, and chemicals in order to fight off disease and infection. Sleep deprivation, therefore, decreases the availability of these substances and increases the susceptibility to attacks by viruses and bacteria. You may also be sick for a longer period of time as the body lacks the resources to properly fight whatever that is making you sick.
Adults generally need 7-8 hours of sleep a night while children and teens need more, ranging from 9-11 hours.
7. Learn How To Effectively Cope With Stress
Stress has a major influence on the functioning of your immune system, which is why you are more likely to get sick when you are under a lot of stress. So be sure to take time to de-stress and unwind using stress management tools like exercise, meditation, massage, and social support.
8. Be Optimistic
Your mindset has a tremendous influence on your physical health. Study after study continues to bear this out.
A sunny outlook will not only help protect your body from stressors that can lead to serious illnesses like heart disease, but it can also help boost your immune system’s ability to fight off colds and flu. Numerous studies support the belief that people with an upbeat and positive perspective tend to be healthier and enjoy longer lives than those who are gloomy and cynical about the future.
Being able to manifest positive emotions and happiness is one of the greatest gifts human beings possess. Yet, being happy is a choice you need to make, much like choosing to exercise or eat right.
Last but not least, remember to smile. The more you smile, the more you will look at things on the bright side.
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