- A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behaviour that is acquired through frequent repetition.
Getting sick, even with a minor cold, is never a happy event.
This season there’s been an escalation of flu-related fear, mostly associated with the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, with world-wide incidence surpassing 100,000 cases early March.
Along with “new” bugs, strains that have previously been identified are constantly changing, making staying healthy during the cold and flu season an increasingly significant, and scary, challenge.
Avoiding illness is not always possible but there are several steps you can take to reduce the risk of getting sick, as well as minimize the intensity and duration if (and when) you do.
Power Habits for Cold and Flu Season
1. Focus on Food First
Eat more of this….
My #1 Power Habit recommendation, regardless of the goal, is to increase veggies and supporting immune health is no exception.
Vegetables provide fibre, which support a healthy microbiome (more on that later). They are a source of phytonutrients, including flavonoids, carotenoids, ellagic acid, and phytoestrogens. These phytonutrients have numerous health benefits and contribute to reduced rates of heart disease and cancer through their anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. Vegetables are also a source of vitamins and minerals, many of which are essential (aka we cannot make and therefore cannot live without).
By helping to prevent deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals, providing a source of anti-oxidants, and acting on the gut level to promote an optimal immune response, both the diversity and the density of nutrients in vegetables play an important role in supporting immune health.
The fabulous part is that benefits can be achieved with just a slight increase in vegetable intake. Several studies (1,2,3) have showed a 15-20% reduction in ALL-CAUSE mortality when people consumed 3-5 servings (compared to 1 serving) of fruits and vegetables per day, with stronger benefit coming from raw veggies. That’s an exciting reason to eat more broccoli (or cauliflower, green beans, asparagus, kale, sprouts, carrots, cabbage, turnip, spinach, sweet potato…I think you get my point).
Eat less of that….
You probably can guess what I’m going to say here…less sugar. If there is one change you can make to your diet to improve your immune health it would be to eliminate sugar. Of course I mean other than adding more vegetables ;).
By sugar, I am referring to the refined version that is added to everything from ketchup to cereals. Sugar is high in things like fruit juice, pop, and jams. Yes, fruit and vegetables contain sugar – but they are much harder to overeat AND fruits and vegetables provide a rainbow of nutrients (see Power Habit #1). Ever heard that sugar is “empty calories”? That’s because sugar provides only calories and none of the good stuff.
The occasional sweet treat is not the end of the world. We are talking about habits, remember? As a reminder, it’s the things you do on a daily basis, day after day, that have the biggest potential to either harm or heal. Sugar on a regular basis is harmful to your health. Sugar contributes to inflammation, promotes diabetes in children and adults, and is a major cause of obesity.
A study from the 1970s published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition watched how white blood cells behaved in response to a dose of sugar. Researchers found that, not only did sugar dramatically reduce the ability of the white blood cells to target and engulf bacteria, but the effect lasted for up to 5 hours!! Sugar did not impact the number of white blood cells but rather their function.
Further studies are needed to directly tie sugar consumption to an increased risk of infections, however we know for sure that sugar consumption contributes to chronic disease states (such as those mentioned above) and reducing sugar intake is definitely a Power Habit we should all embrace.
Oh, and by the way! Unlike sugar, vegetables are low in calories and rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre, and phytonutrients. (Are you noticing a theme here?).
2. Perfect your scrub!
Hand washing significantly reduces the risk of getting sick. The trick is washing frequently and for at least 20 seconds (about the same amount of time it takes to sing the alphabet). A recent study suggests soap and water are more effective against influenza A viruses than alcohol-based sanitizers, but these can definitely come in handy. Either way, it’s important to scrub!
3. The best remedy is rest.
We live in a sleep-deprived society. Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicated that 1 in 3 adults do not get the recommended minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night. Sleep loss has been linked to changes in cognitive health, poor mood, and an increase in cardiovascular disease. Lack of sleep has also been associated with an increased risk of obesity in children and adults.
Sleep studies have shown an association with sleep deprivation and an increase in inflammatory markers, including C-reactive protein, a marker of general inflammation, as well as an increased susceptibility to the common cold and impaired responses to vaccinations.
Humans spend, or at least they should, one third of their lives asleep – it might be something we want to ensure we are doing well. For more information on sleep and it’s health benefits (or consequences), I highly recommend this TedTalk by Dr. Matthew Walker.
For a deeper dive on what you can do to promote optimal sleep, keep an eye out for an upcoming post, “Power Habits to Support Sleep“.
4. Feed the good bugs
It may seem ironic that in a post about keeping out “bad” bugs we are also talking about feeding the “good” ones but everything really does come down to balance (or homeostasis).
Disruptions in the gut microbiome have been implicated in everything from cognitive decline to allergies, and the research in this area continues to grow at a rapid pace.
A balanced gut plays an essential role in a healthy immune response. To ensure you are doing what you can to keep the good bugs happy, consider the following Power Habits:
- Food first: eat your veggies! Yep, I snuck it in here again 😉 Veggies provide fibre and micronutrients that keep the good bugs and the gut wall happy and healthy.
- Supplement with probiotics: a daily probiotic may not always be necessary, but supplementation during times of stress, during and after antibiotic therapy, while traveling, and during cold and flu season, may offer additional protection.
- Reduce: Consumption of excess saturated fats and added sugar cause inflammation, which can lead to an imbalanced microbial population in the gut.
- Get a personalized plan: in some patients, adding more fibre or probiotic foods or supplements can cause digestive distress such as gas and bloating. This can be related to an overgrowth of an opportunistic organism, candida is a common example. A personalized approach is one that would first address the overgrowth before rebalancing. For a list of naturopathic doctors in Canada, visit www.cand.ca.
5. Take your vitamins…especially these ones!
I have a food-first philosophy – but I also appreciate the benefits of supplements. When used appropriately, nutritional supplements can fill in the gaps and provide a targeted boost when needed. Much of the benefit of the nutrients listed below is the result of addressing deficiencies, which are more common than you might think! Here are my top three nutrient recommendations to consider during cold and flu season.
Did you know humans cannot make vitamin C (a trait we share with guinea pigs) and need to get it through dietary sources? A deficiency in vitamin C (known as scurvy) is fatal if untreated. Hint, hint…it’s kinda important.
In terms of immune health, studies have shown that vitamin C increases the action of Natural killer cells, immune cells that respond quickly to help protect us from potentially harmful viruses. Vitamin C has also been shown to activate T and B cells. These specific cell types are part of an intricately orchestrated immune response that targets bacteria and viruses. These cells develop a memory that helps reduce the chance of illness the next time that same bug is detected.
Immune cells contain 10 to 100x more vitamin C than other human cells! This significantly higher concentration suggests vitamin C is extraordinarily important to the function of these immune cells.
A meta-analysis determined vitamin C supplementation in children shortened colds by 18% and also reduced severity.
The dose of vitamin C is important. Studies showing benefit used at least 1g (1000mg) per day, an amount that is challenging to achieve with food alone. A medium-size orange provides approximately 70mg. Vitamin C is generally well tolerated, although diarrhea may occur at high doses. Totally worth it 😉
Remember those natural killer cells? They are part of cell-mediated immunity, the response by the immune system that does not involve antibodies or memory. It’s the first line of defence and is focused on removing virus-infected cells. (FYI: Influenza viruses cause the flu).
Even a mild zinc deficiency (which, according to the World Health Organization, is fairly common at approximately 31% worldwide) contributes to a weaker cell-mediated immune response.
In populations at risk of zinc deficiency, preventive zinc supplementation has been shown to improve pregnancy outcomes, reduce death in children from infectious illnesses such as diarrhea and acute lower respiratory infections, lowers all-cause mortality, and increases linear growth and weight gain among infants and young children. Zinc supplementation during episodes of diarrhea reduced duration and severity.
Studies using oral zinc supplementation repeatedly show a significant reduction in duration of infection, with most of the research exploring effects of zinc on the common cold.
Side effects of zinc supplementation can include nausea and digestive upset, which I’ve rarely seen in practice, especially when taken with food. Long-term, high doses of zinc may cause a copper deficiency, but this again is also rare as most patients take zinc in moderate doses and for short periods of time.
This vitamin really does do it all. Well known for its impact on bone, positive benefits have also been seen in cancer, diabetes, cardiac, and gastrointestinal diseases. Research also demonstrates vitamin D modulates immune cells. This is important because both an under-responsive (re-occurring infections, poor wound healing) as well as an over-responsive (allergic and autoimmune diseases) immune system can be problematic. Vitamin D is the Goldilocks vitamin – meaning it helps the immune system stay “in the zone” – not too hot, not too cold.
Several studies have shown vitamin D plays a positive role in reducing respiratory infections and in prevention of influenza and influenza related complications. The impact appears to be more protective in patients who are vitamin D deficient.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it can be stored in the body and potentially reach toxic levels. This is extremely rare in healthy adults who are dosing appropriately. However, to determine the optimal dose, it is ideal to check vitamin D status which can be done through a blood test (25(OH)D).
I believe we should all feel empowered about our health. Understanding what you CAN do, including nutrition, lifestyle, self-care, and possibly supplements where appropriate, is part of an empowering wellness plan. Being empowered and making well-informed decisions to promote health are not the same as avoiding the truth or denying reality. Please don’t do that. I encourage each of you, when you are ill or have questions or concerns about your health, do not ignore those signs and do not attempt to self-treat. Never hesitate to make an appointment with your healthcare provider.
The POWER HABITS listed here are examples of practices and medicines that are supported by science and that I have seen work, personally and professionally. There are many others that could be incorporated. If you have a POWER HABIT you would like to share, please connect with me on social channels or send me an email.