Winter is upon us! It's an exciting season for many reasons — but it also means we'll likely be spending more time indoors, less time exercising, more time on crowded trains and planes and experiencing increased stress overall.
And all of these factors can up your risk of catching a seasonal cold.
So, to combat our fears of flu and sniffles, many of us load up on vitamin C when December comes along. But although there might be some benefits to getting more vitamin C this time of year, there are also many other healthy living strategies you can employ to lessen your chances of feeling under the weather.
Here are five (research-backed) ways to boost your immune system and feel your best throughout the "most wonderful time of the year":
1. Consume key vitamins with a whole-food, plant-based diet.
Vitamin C has long been correlated with stronger immune function, so keep eating those fruits high in vitamin C, like oranges and blueberries. Still, more recent research suggests that vitamin D and vitamin A might be just as important as vitamin C.
In other words, the key to staying healthy isn't focusing on one vitamin or supplement but rather on eating a whole foods, nutritious diet. Aim to eat lots of “in season” vegetables such as yams and carrots — they're both very rich in vitamin A and antioxidants. Studies have shown that those who eat more fruits and vegetables have a boosted immune system and report fewer trips to the doctor.
Research also shows that vitamin D deficiency can increase our susceptibility to infection. It's often hard to get enough vitamin D in the winter. Although a few foods, like fish, naturally contain vitamin D, the best source is the sun. Try to get daily exposure by taking a walk in the afternoon, or if necessary, consider taking a supplement.
2. Feed your gut good bacteria.
Research suggests that our gastrointestinal system might be the center of immunity. That means that maintaining a healthy gut flora is key to strengthening our immune system and helping to prevent the sniffles.
Probiotics, or "good" bacteria, have been found to diminish inflammation in the gut and in this way help fight illness.
So, during this season especially, make sure you're consuming probiotic-packed foods, like yogurt and miso. If necessary, you can also add on a probiotic supplement.
3. Stay active — but don't go overboard.
When winter hits, we're suddenly tempted to ditch our workout routine and hibernate for the rest of the season.
But exercise is actually a powerful tool for keeping the flu at bay. Studies have again and again shown that staying active can boost immunity and help keep us healthy. While researchers aren't exactly sure why, exercise seems to cause positive changes in white blood cells, the cells in the immune system in charge of fighting disease.
When we live an active lifestyle, there's also a regular rise in body temperature, which might be the reason our body is able to fight infection effectively. Exercise has been shown to not only improve your gut bacteria but also lower stress hormones, which can increase our chances of getting sick.
However, it's also really important not to push yourself into prolonged strenuous exercise this season, which can actually result in a temporarily weakened immune system. Instead, try to stick to a moderate schedule of 30 to 45 minutes, three to five times a week.
4. Manage your seasonal stress.
Stress hormones like cortisol weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to infection. In fact, studies have shown that people who are under more stress are twice as likely to develop a cold after being exposed to the virus.
So one of the most effective strategies for maintaining a healthy immune system is to de-stress. If you aren't already using stress-management techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing, now's the time to add them into your weekly routine.
And throughout the season, try to relax as much as you can.
5. Focus on restorative sleep.
There's a reason you feel less energized in December than in July — the cold weather and early sunsets set the tone for earlier bedtimes. You might need longer rest periods this season, so listen to your body. When you feel like you could use an extra hour to rest, take it.
That's because getting enough sleep is essential to preventing a cold. A recent study found that adults who slept just five or six hours a night were four times more likely to catch a cold after being exposed than those who slept at least seven.
This season, you officially have our permission to hit the snooze button.
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