Despite all of the tremendous medical advances of the last century, strategies to fight the viruses that cause seasonal flu and the common cold remain largely unchanged. There are no cures for either which makes prevention all the more important. Last year, we suffered through the first flu pandemic in 40 years courtesy of a new and very different flu virus named H1N1. Although there are thousands of fatalities attributed to the flu every year, getting a cold is usually less serious though still very unpleasant. What are your options besides just rolling the dice and stockpiling Kleenex?
Most experts believe that viruses spread mainly by droplets made when infected people cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might also get sick by touching a surface, hand or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes or nose.[i] Avoiding people who are sick, coughing or sneezing into your elbow rather than your hands and frequent hand washing are all effective staples to help you avoid getting sick or spreading the virus if your are sick. What about hand sanitizers?
I am not a proponent of the ubiquitous hand sanitizer gels. We seem to have become a germ-phobic society. This is reinforced in the media with all of the TV segments showing us how many germs are on various surfaces we encounter everyday. What is downplayed (or excluded) is that most of those strains are not disease causing strains. Germs are everywhere, some essential and beneficial. Several studies have correlated the lack of early childhood exposure to germs with an increased frequency of colds, allergies and autoimmune conditions later in life[ii]. Even the effectiveness of hand sanitizers has recently been called into question. A new University of Virginia study found that hand sanitizers failed to “significantly reduce the frequency of infection from either the rhinovirus or the influenza virus”[iii].
So what can you do? You may be able to help your immune system ward off infections with adequate rest, good nutrition and regular exercise:
- Sleep deprivation suppresses immune system function. One study found that sleeping less than seven hours per night resulted in a three-fold increased susceptibility to cold viruses[iv].
- Eating real, high quality, natural foods are a great source for the vitamins and nutrients needed to prevent colds. Get generous amounts of immune-boosting foods like green leafy vegetables, berries, apples, oranges, nuts, artichokes and beans. Saturated fats and sugars contribute to a weaker immune system.
- Supplementing your diet with vitamin C & D, selenium and zinc is also essential for most individuals. Vitamin D was found to be essential for immune cell activation[v].
- Even more so than nutrition, exercise has the capacity to protect and even enhance the immune response. Experimental studies have shown that a regular exercise program of brisk walking can bolster many defenses of the immune system, including the antibody response and the natural killer (T cell) response[vi].
[ii] Platts-Mills. Paradoxical Effect of Domestic Animals on Asthma and Allergic Sensitization. JAMA, 2002
[iii] Turner R, University of Virginia, 50th Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC): Abstract V-444. Presented September 12, 2010.
[iv] Cohen S, et al. Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2009;169:62
[v] Kongsbak, Martin, et al, “Vitamin D controls T cell antigen receptor signaling and activation of human T cells,” Nature Immunology 2010; 11: 344-349
[vi] Romeo J, Warnberg J, Pozo T, Marcos A. “Physical activity, immunity and infection”. Proc Nutr Soc. 2010 Aug;69(3):390-9. Epub 2010 Jun 23.