Winter is upon us and ‘tis the season to be sneezing! Winter colds and flu bring on days of miserable symptoms, with sore throat, coughing and congestion, and they are also a leading cause of lost work and school days.
What does weather have to do with it?
The risk of getting sick during the winter months is greater, not because of the cold weather, but because we spend more time indoors, closer together and the low humidity during the winter months makes it easier for viruses to thrive.
Is it a cold or flu?
Colds and flu are both caused by viruses. Colds are typically caused by rhinoviruses and the influenza virus causes the flu. While some of the symptoms are similar, such as aching, sore throat and congestion, here is where they differ: the flu causes a sudden onset of severe aching, pain, headache and high fever (39-40°). Colds develop more slowly, symptoms are milder and they don’t usually cause fever.
Who is at greatest risk of getting sick?
Children get the most infections, typically nine to 12 bouts a year. The reason for this is that they have poor hand-washing practices; more hand-mouth contact and their immune systems are still developing – they haven’t developed resistance to viruses. Other groups at greater risk of getting sick include the elderly and those with a weakened immune system due to chronic diseases such as diabetes or autoimmune disease, or taking medications that hamper immunity.
Our immune system is a complex network of cells, glands and tissues that is continuously at work to fight off potential invaders such as bacteria and viruses. Many factors can hamper immune function such as stress, smoking, and drinking high amounts of alcohol. Steering clear of these lifestyle habits will put your immune system in a better position to fight off potential bugs.
So what can you do to stay healthy this season?
Be prepared. There are a number of lifestyle strategies, including foods, supplements and other measures that you can take to bolster your defenses and cut your risk of getting sick this season.
Practice good hand hygiene. Cold and flu viruses are highly contagious and spread by close contact, for example if you are next to someone who has a virus and they cough or sneeze you may inhale those virus droplets and develop an infection. Viruses can also be spread by hand-to-hand contact. For example, touching an object that has been contaminated with a virus such as a phone, doorknob or keyboard and then rubbing your eyes, nose or mouth. Washing your hands frequently with soap and water can not only protect you, but if you are sick it also helps to prevent the spread to others.
Get adequate sleep. During sleep our body recovers and regenerates and produces many important compounds for the health of our immune system.
Exercise regularly. Several studies have shown that regular physical activity can help to enhance immune function. Bundle up and get some fresh air with a brisk walk or when weather is harsh visit a community center or shopping mall to get some exercise.
Manage your stress. Stress not only hampers immune function but it also has a negative impact on sleep and overall physical and emotional wellbeing. Try yoga or deep breathing exercises.
Fortify your diet. Certain foods can help by providing essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that support immune function. Include more of these foods in your diet: garlic, onions, ginger, citrus fruits, elderberry and green tea.
Consider supplements. Nothing can replace the need for a healthy diet but even if you eat healthy there are certain supplements that can provide additional benefits for immune health. Here are the most important ones to consider:
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Vitamin D: This vitamin is most popularly known for its role in bone health but the health benefits of vitamin D extend well beyond the bones. Recent research has shown that vitamin D is essential for the immune system, heart health, and emotional well being. A deficiency of vitamin D has been linked to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), heart disease, certain types of cancer (breast, lung, colorectal and prostate) and a greater risk of getting influenza.
Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because our body can make vitamin D upon exposure to sunlight however during the winter months it is virtually impossible (for Canadians) to make enough vitamin D because we don’t have exposure to the UVB rays needed by the skin to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is present in fatty fish (mackerel, salmon and sardines) and some foods are fortified with vitamin D, such as milk and cereal, but it is still really tough to get enough through diet alone. Most health agencies recommend adults have a minimum of 1000 IU of vitamin D daily. A supplement is a smart way to ensure you are getting enough of this critical vitamin. Most multivitamins provide about 400 IU of vitamin D. When choosing a multi look for a product that is free of artificial colors, flavors and potential allergens such as dairy, soy and gluten.
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Probiotics: These beneficial or friendly bacteria line our digestive tract (from top to bottom) and are known scientifically as our microflora. Over the past decade research on probiotics has exploded and revealed that these tiny bacteria have a huge impact on our health. Probiotics can help support digestive function, support immune function, and improve nutrient absorption.
Our levels of probiotic bacteria can be diminished by poor diet, stress, travel to foreign countries and use of antibiotics. Taking one course of a broad-spectrum antibiotic can impact your normal flora for six months afterward.
Probiotics are present in fermented dairy such as yogurt and kefir, but since the bacterial cultures are highly unstable (easily destroyed by changes in temperature and humidity) it is hard to know how much beneficial bacteria you are getting through food. Taking a good quality probiotic supplement is a good idea to help to fortify your immune defenses and keep your digestive system working well.
Echinacea: The herb has been shown in numerous studies to help support immune health, prevent cold and flu, and reduce the severity and duration of symptoms if you do get sick. There are many different types of Echinacea. Recent research has found the greatest benefits with wild organically grown Echinacea purpurea. Check with your pharmacist for a recommendation and advice on dosage.
Zinc: This mineral is essential for the health of the immune system. A deficiency can increase the risk of getting sick. Zinc lozenges can help to speed healing if you do get sick. The only drawback with zinc is that it leaves a metallic taste in your mouth.
Zinc is often found in multivitamins and prenatal supplements. It is used in our bodies to support immune function, reduce severity and duration of the common cold, and delay the progression of macular degeneration. It is also involved in numerous enzyme reactions and is required for growth and development, immune and neurological function, reproduction and regulation of genes and to stabilize the structure of proteins and cell membranes.
Although a severe zinc deficiency is rare, except in those with a genetic disorder, severe malnutrition or malabsorption, severe burns, or chronic diarrhea, marginal deficiencies are common in malnourished people, vegetarians, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, colitis, and sickle cell anemia.
Zinc deficiency symptoms include impaired growth and development, skin rashes, severe diarrhea, immune system deficiencies, impaired wound healing, poor appetite, impaired taste sensation, night blindness, clouding of the corneas, and behavioural disturbances.
Some people that are on prescription drugs may deplete their store of zinc. Drugs that deplete zinc include: diuretics, anticonvulsants, iron supplements, penicillamine, ACE-inhibitor drugs, acid-reducing drugs, and oral contraceptives.
Zinc supplements can reduce copper levels, so look for a multivitamin that contains copper as well as zinc. Zinc supplements can also reduce absorption of antibiotics (tetracycline and quinolones), so separate intake of zinc supplements from these products by two hours. Since the average zinc intake is below the RDA and many conditions and drugs deplete zinc levels, a supplement should be considered. Most multivitamin and mineral complexes provide at least the RDA for zinc.
Foods that are rich in zinc include: red meat, shellfish, eggs, whole grains, and fortified cereals. Too much zinc can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. High dosages of zinc supplements may reduce copper levels.
Looking for advice on what supplements to take this fall? Check out my video segment on CH Morning Live to find out why multivitamins are so important for health, especially during the fall and winter season when we are at risk of getting sick.