Cold and flu season will be in full swing before you can say "achoo." Taking action now can help fend off sniffles, sneezes and chills before they start. But don't look for a magic elixir or powerful pill to keep you healthy between now and spring, says Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Connecticut.
"The healthiest, longest-lived, least illness-prone populations on the planet do not rely on a silver bullet," he says. "They rely on the power of a health-promoting lifestyle."
With that in mind, here are a few things you can do to boost immune system health this cold and flu season.
1. Don't overlook the obvious
When viruses, bacteria and other pathogens enter the body, the immune system responds by attacking the invaders before they reproduce. The stronger your immune system, the better prepared it is to hunt down and kill illness before it starts.
A potent immune system starts with a healthy body. Simple, smart lifestyle choices give you the best chance to avoid becoming sick, says Katz, who is also author of "Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well."
"People want to boost immunity with some superfood or nutrient while neglecting what we know massively influences immune function -- overall health," Katz says.
To keep your body strong, Katz recommends you:
- Avoid toxins like tobacco and excess alcohol
- Remain active
- Keep your weight at a healthy level
Another tip for how to improve immune system health is to ward off germs by washing your hands regularly. And get the flu shot. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that every person who is at least 6 months old get a flu shot or other form of the vaccine by the end of October.
"I get one every year," Katz says.
2. Get enough sleep
The body uses sleep to relax and refresh. Sleep is also a time when healing takes place. Some research has indicated that being chronically sleep-deprived can suppress your immune system's ability to function properly.
"I think perhaps sleep gets the least respect," Katz says. "If there is one thing you can do to reduce your risk of a cold when exposed, it probably is having slept well the night prior."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one-third of U.S. adults do not get enough sleep, defined as at least seven hours nightly.
3. Eat a healthful diet
Eating a balanced diet is one of the best ways to keep your immune system at the top of its game, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian and manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Lyndhurst, Ohio.
She suggests consuming a balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean sources of protein. Certain vitamins and minerals are especially important for keeping your immune system running at its peak powers. They include:
- Vitamins A, B6, C, D and E
- Folic acid
Kirkpatrick also recommends eating foods rich in antioxidants. "Think color and variety when choosing foods to boost immunity (and) to get the best antioxidants available," she says.
Examples of "colorful" foods known for their antioxidant content include broccoli, carrots and blueberries.
Don't worry about finding fresh produce. Frozen vegetables are chilled at their peak ripeness. That means they will be especially rich in antioxidants and disease-fighting compounds, Kirkpatrick says.
Some foods are best avoided. "Steer clear of inflammatory foods like white grains," Kirkpatrick says. She also recommends avoiding eating foods high in sugar, which can lower your immune defenses.
4. Take supplements – but don't expect miracles
Supplements can play a role in staying healthy. Kirkpatrick says that as your exposure to sunlight falls during the winter months, it can make sense to take a vitamin D supplement.
Katz says taking supplements can help strengthen the body for the fight against illness. He says he takes a probiotic, omega-3 supplement and vitamin D.
However, he warns that supplements should be used only as their name implies – as an adjunct to a healthful diet and lifestyle.
"They are supplemental to -- never a substitute for -- the fundamentals of healthy living," he says. "As a minor, added measure of defense, it can be a reasonable strategy."
However, using supplements as your primary line of defense is almost certain to result in defeat in the battle against illness.
"You may as well run up the white flag and get it over with," Katz says.