‘Tis the season of sniffles and coughs. Whether the snot-nosed monster is only lurking in the shadows or has already got hold of you and reduced you to a miserable coughing, nose-dripping wretch, the following tips can help protect you against catching a cold or flu, or speed up your recovery time.
1. Cut back your sugar intake
In 1973, scientists at Loma Linda University gave study volunteers 100 grams of sugar to consume – that’s about 20 teaspoons of sugar or roughly the amount in one liter of soda1. They then drew some blood from the participants and infected the samples with some bacteria. And this is what they found:
The results of the study showed that when sugar is consumed, it negatively impacts the immune system’s ability to fight off infection. So not only is sugar bad for your health in general, but it can also make you more susceptible to getting sick.
The white blood cells (aka fighters of bacteria, viruses and all that’s bad) of the volunteers who were given sugar gobbled up significantly fewer bacteria, with the effects lasting a few hours following high sugar consumption. In other words, large amounts of sugar may curb your resistance to infection. So if you’re trying to avoid getting ill, or have already been struck down with a cold or flu, now’s really not the time to be suppressing your immune system by eating high sugar foods.
A more recent study also suggests that sugar can inhibit the proper functioning of white blood cells in other ways, too; sugar may thwart the transformation of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that can change into B-cells (develop into plasma cells that secrete antibodies), T-cells (attack foreign cells and destroy antigens) Natural Killer cells (fight microbes).2
Though there isn’t a ton of research linking sugar consumption to a weakened immune system, it’s generally accepted that refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup isn’t good for you. So, cutting back on sugar can only have positive effects on your health, including reducing your risk of obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and other health problems.
2. Get enough sleep
Scientists have found that individuals who sleep less than 7 hours are 3 times more likely to catch a cold than those who sleep for at least 8 hours. So if you’re looking to avoid getting sick this winter, make sure you’re getting enough rest!
The quality of your sleep matters, too: people who spent less than 92% of their time in bed asleep were 5.5 times more likely to get sick compared to those who were asleep for at least 98% of their time in bed. A lack of sleep or sleep disturbances may suppress the immune system and make it less resistant to infections.
3. Add zinc to your diet
Zinc is an essential mineral that the body needs for many different functions. One of its main purposes is to help boost the immune system and fight off infection. A zinc deficiency can make a person more susceptible to illness, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough zinc in your diet.
Research shows that supplementing with zinc may decrease the duration and severity of a cold if taken early (within 24 hours of symptoms onset).4 Before you start popping zinc pills, there are several side effects that can afflict some people. The most common downsides of zinc supplementation are altered taste and nausea. Zinc for colds is popular and you’ll easily find combos of zinc and vitamin C in almost any store.
4. Don’t forget selenium
Selenium is a vital trace mineral that has been shown to play a critical role in the proper functioning of the immune system. Studies have demonstrated selenium’s ability to help increase the production of white blood cells, bolstering the body’s natural defenses against sickness and infection.
A selenium deficiency has also been linked to the flu virus becoming more virulent.6 In fact, a selenium deficiency may cause the cold virus to mutate into a new strain that can affect even those with normal selenium levels. These findings are alarming and underscore the importance of maintaining adequate selenium stores in order to protect against illness.
5. Top up on Vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential for stimulating your immune system to produce things like defensins and cathelicidins, which help to kill viruses. 7 However, we get the majority of our Vitamin D from sunlight, so there is a big seasonal variation in our Vitamin D levels. Vitamin D levels are highest during summer and lowest in winter, just when we need it most.
In fact, many scientists believe that the reason we’re susceptible to colds and flu in the first place is due to the decreasing Vitamin D levels in winter. So if you want to boost your immunity this season, make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin D!