Getting the flu vaccine is your first (and most obvious step) in preventing a nasty bout of flu this season, but after you’ve crossed that off your to-do list, your work isn’t over. There are other steps you can take to help keep you and your family healthy all flu season long.
But first, can we take a minute to say “thank you” to our immune systems? Your immune system is your body’s way of fending off all the nasty germs the world throws at you every day. Unfortunately, a variety of lifestyle factors and unhealthy habits can keep your immune system from operating at full capacity, leaving you susceptible to infections like the flu.
You’d be surprised how much your daily decisions impact your body’s ability to fight off infection. Make these healthy habits part of your everyday routine to help keep your immune system functioning at its highest level.
1. Feed your immune system with the right nutrients.
Obviously, your diet impacts your overall health. So, it follows that eating a healthier diet helps keep your body operating as it should. To give your immune system an extra boost for flu prevention, make sure you prioritize a diet rich in vitamins and amino acids.
Why amino acids? An appropriate intake of amino acids, carbohydrates and some fats improves your ability to make the proteins needed for immune system function. Think: antibodies and cytokines. Cytokines are proteins that help regulate your body’s immune response by sending cells to fight infection.
A diet rich in fruit and vegetables helps us get the right amount of vitamins and minerals. A multivitamin supplement should only be used if your diet is deficient in one of these areas. If you’re worried about any deficiencies in your diet, talk to your doctor about whether vitamin supplementation is the right move for you.
Otherwise, look to your diet as the source of these critical vitamins and minerals, including:
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
2. Get a healthy amount of sleep.
Adequate sleep is very important for immune system function. In general, adults need at least seven hours of sleep, and children and adolescents need 9-11 hours. I can’t underemphasize the importance of getting a healthy amount of sleep — for your general wellbeing and for flu prevention especially.
We are more susceptible to viruses like the flu and the common cold when our bodies are running on inadequate sleep. A week of sleep deprivation has actually been shown to reduce immune system responsiveness to the flu vaccine.
So, make sure you’re not skimping on sleep this flu season.
Related: What staying up late is doing to you
3. Make exercise a regular habit.
Regular exercise habits improve your overall health and therefore can reduce your risk of acute illness. Making time for regular physical activity also helps reduce anxiety, depression and risk of chronic illness, meaning your body will be happier overall when you’re getting in a healthy amount of activity.
Immune system reactivity is actually slightly lower immediately following exercise but improves afterward. This is not surprising since exercise itself is a temporary stress on the body — a good kind of stress. Whether it’s running, yoga, pilates or lifting weights, get up and get moving!
4. Wash your hands.
It might sound like common sense, but proper handwashing definitely reduces the risk of illness and infection. Some infections are spread by respiratory droplets, but many others such as the common cold, influenza and norovirus can be spread by contact with surfaces or body fluids.
Soap and water reduces the amount of these infectious agents on your hands. This is especially important for illnesses like norovirus and clostridium dificile (C. diff) bacteria, both of which cannot be destroyed by alcohol-based hand cleaners like hand sanitizer. However, soap and water does the trick for these infectious agents.
5. Be smart and get a flu shot.
The most important precautionary measure you should take is getting the flu vaccine. Although vaccine effectiveness varies from season to season, it does provide you with a layer of protection and has been shown to reduce the severity of illness should you contract the flu.
If a family member or friend gets sick, encourage them to take precautions against spreading the illness to you and others around you. Wearing a mask can be helpful to reduce the spread of a respiratory illness from an infected individual. People infected with the flu should quarantine themselves by staying home during the illness.
Be sure to clean commonly touched surfaces like door and appliance handles, faucets, toilets, etc. regularly to help keep any nasty germs at bay.
About the author
Mark Hinds, MD, is a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Hillcrest. He has practiced outpatient and hospital medicine in Waco since 1995. He attended medical school at UT Health Science Center San Antonio and completed his residency in Waco. He currently lives in Crawford, Texas, with his wife Michelle.