How to Lessen Your Chances of Getting Sick
There isn’t anyone who hasn’t come down with a nasty cold or virus just days before an big event. For some among us, it seems that being sick is just a way of life and days feeling well are few and far between. To be free of sniffles, sneezing, and headaches would be a dream come true. It is possible, but first you have to figure out what’s making you sick and what you can do to end it.
You Are What You Eat
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is an adage that speaks the truth. If you do not eat a well-rounded, balanced diet, your body may be unable to operate at peak performance. A poor diet may make you more susceptible to illness too.
In general, the better you eat, the healthier you are. Good nutrition is about getting all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals your body needs to work at its best. Different age groups have different nutritional needs and requirements, but the same general rules apply to people of all ages:
- eat a variety of fruits and vegetables daily
- choose lean proteins over fatty ones
- limit your daily intake of fats, sodium, and sugars
- eat whole grains whenever possible
Every system within the body depends on water. It helps carry nutrients and minerals to cells, and can keep your mouth, nose, throat moist—all vital processes for avoiding illness. Even though the body is made up of 60 percent water, you lose fluids through urination, bowel movements, sweating, and even breathing. Dehydration occurs when you don’t replace the fluids you lose.
Mild to moderate dehydration is sometimes difficult to identify, but it can contribute to feelings of being ill. That’s because symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration can be mistaken for a general aches and pains: fatigue, headache, and constipation. Chronic dehydration is severe and dangerous. Symptoms include:
- extreme thirst
- sunken eyes
- low blood pressure
- rapid heartbeat
The treatment is simple: sip water all day long, especially in hot or humid conditions. Eating foods that have high water content, such as fruits and vegetables, can also help keep you hydrated throughout the day. As long as you urinate often and don’t feel thirsty, you’re likely drinking enough to stay thoroughly hydrated.
People who don’t get quality sleep or sleep too few hours each night are more likely to get sick.
While you sleep, your immune system releases cytokines, proteins that fight inflammation and disease. Your body needs more of these proteins when you’re sick or stressed. If you’re sleep deprived, your body can’t produce enough of the protective proteins. This lowers your body’s natural ability to fight infections and viruses.
Long-term sleep deprivation also increases your risk of:
- heart disease
- cardiovascular problems
For adults, between six and eight hours of sleep is ideal for helping your body stay well. Teenagers and children need as much as 10 hours of sleep each day.
Your hands are exposed to countless germs throughout the day. When you don’t wash your hands regularly and touch your face, lips, and food, you can spread illnesses. You can even reinfect yourself.
Simply washing your hands with running water and antibacterial soap for 20 seconds (hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice) can help you stay healthy and ward off illness-inducing bacteria. When clean water and soap isn’t available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol.
Disinfect countertops, door handles, and electronics (such as your phone, tablet, and computer) with wipes when you’re sick. To prevent the spread of illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands:
- before and after food preparation
- before eating
- before and after caring for a person who is sick
- before and after treating a wound
- after using the bathroom
- after changing diapers or assisting a child with potty training
- after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose
- after touching pets or handling pet waste or food
- after handling garbage (CDC, 2012)
Bad Oral Health
Your teeth are a window into your health, and your mouth is a safe haven for both good and bad bacteria. When you are well, your body’s natural defenses maintain optimum oral health, and daily brushing and flossing can keep dangerous bacteria in check. However, when harmful bacteria are allowed to grow out of control, it can make you sick and cause inflammation and problems elsewhere in your body.
Long-term, chronic oral health problems can have bigger consequences. Poor oral health has been linked to heart disease, stroke, premature birth, low birth weight, and endocarditis, an infection in the inner lining of the heart. To promote healthy teeth and gums, brush and floss your teeth at least twice a day (especially after meals), and schedule regular checkups with your dentist so he or she can monitor you for potential problems.
Immune System Disorders
Immune system disorders occur when a person’s immune system does not fight antigens. Antigens are harmful substances like bacteria, toxins, cancer cells, viruses, and foreign blood, or tissues. In a healthy body, an invading antigen is met by antibodies. Antibodies are proteins that are meant to destroy harmful substances. However, some people have immune systems that do not work as well as they should or can’t produce effective antibodies to ward of illness.
Immune system disorders can be inherited, or they can be the result of malnutrition (not getting adequate vitamins and nutrients). Your immune system also may grow less effective as you get older.
Talk with your doctor if you suspect you or a family member has an immune system disorder.
The Nonallergic Nose
It’s possible to experience symptoms of seasonal allergies such as itchy eyes, watery nose, and stuffy head without actually having allergies. This condition is called nonallergic rhinitis. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), this condition affects 20 million Americans (AAFA, 2004).
The symptoms of nonallergic rhinitis are very similar to that of an allergic reaction, but instead of being caused by ragweed, grass, tree pollen, or another typical allergen, it’s caused by strong odors, certain foods, stress, changes in the weather, or even dry air.
Nonallergic rhinitis occurs when the lining of the nasal passages are irritated. The blood vessels in your nose expand, rushing blood into the nasal lining. This causes abnormal expansion and inflammation in your nose, which triggers the telltale allergy symptoms. Most people are diagnosed with nonallergic rhinitis after they have undergone allergy testing.
Treatment for the condition depends on:
- how much it bothers you
- what your triggers are
- if you have any other conditions that may complicate treatment
Most people can use a nasal spray to flush the nose of irritants and help reduce inflammation. Over-the-counter and prescription decongestants may also be used, but side effects of long-term use include high blood pressure, loss of appetite, and anxiety.
Too Much Stress
Stress is a normal part of life, and in small doses, it can even be healthy. However, chronic stress can take a toll on your body and make you sick. Research shows chronic stress can actually suppress your body’s natural immune response, which can prolong healing, increase the frequency and severity of infections, and aggravate existing health problems.
Practice stress reduction techniques, such as taking a break from your computer, avoiding your cell phone for several hours after you get home, or listening to soothing music after a stressful work meeting. Exercise can help reduce stress and improve your mood. You may find relaxation through music, art, or meditation. Whatever it is, find something that helps you reduce your stress and relax. Seek professional help if you’re unable to control stress on your own.
Kids Are Germ Central
Kids play on dirty playground equipment, aren’t the best at washing their hands after using the restroom, and don’t mind picking up strange things from the ground. Their hands carry plenty of germs on a daily basis. They pass those germs on to one another, their teachers, and their parents. If your child has been sick or if you work with sick children, odds are you’ll end up sick too.
Help teach your child good hygiene habits, like frequent hand washing, and bathe him or her every day. This will help stop the spread of viruses and germs around your household. Wash your own hands frequently, wipe down common surfaces when someone gets sick, and keep your child home until he or she is well.
Make friends with fresh air
Common wisdom has it that staying indoors, where it's warm and toasty, is easier on your immune system than being outside in the cold. Problem is, being inside puts you in close constant contact with other people—and their germs.
Not only does escaping into the fresh air give you a break from all those germs circulating inside, but going for a stroll can actually boost your immunity. "Exercise leads to an increase in natural killer cells, neutrophils, and monocytes, which ultimately increases immune function," says Ather Ali, ND, MPH, assistant director of Complementary/Alternative Medicine Research at the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center.
Relaxation fights off colds
There are a trillion reasons why taking time to chill out might be the last item on your to-do list. But here's why it should be a priority: "Being stressed will increase your susceptibility to catching a cold," says Ali. That may be because, over the long term, it leads to the ongoing release of stress hormones, such as glucocorticoids.
These impede your body's ability to produce cell-signaling molecules called cytokines, which trigger a disease-fighting response from your immune system. "You're also less likely to take care of yourself—get ample sleep, eat right, exercise—when you're stressed," says Ali, which is crucial to upping your immunity.
Clean hands are everything
Cold and flu can spread all too easily through touch. Keep your fingers away from your eyes, nose, and mouth as much as possible, and make sure to master the art of hand-washing. Soap and water remain your most effective tools there, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Germs can grow on bar soaps, so use the pumped kind—or better yet, a hands-free dispenser and choose regular soap over antibacterial. Lather for a solid 20 seconds before rinsing, and make sure to dry thoroughly (but not on your germy clothes!): "Damp hands are far more likely to spread bacteria than dry ones," says Dana Simpler, MD, a primary care physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
The magic bullet
An occasional restless night is nothing to worry about, but a continuous lack of zzz's can hamper your immune system's ability to function. Though experts often say that sleep requirements vary by individual, a 2009 Carnegie Mellon study found that anything short of seven hours nearly triples your odds of catching a cold—and that means seven straight hours, with no middle-of-the-night wake-ups.
"For many of us, the only quiet time we have to think through things is when we're lying down at bedtime. Unfortunately, problem-solving in bed interferes with sleep," says Leslie Swanson, PhD, a sleep specialist at the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Are you secretly envious of your co-workers and friends who, like superheroes, never seem to get sick? You know, the ones glowing with good health while everyone around them is sneezing, sniffling, and coughing like villains.
Don't hate the healthy people. Instead, steal the secrets of people who manage to stay above the sickroom fray and take steps to boost your body's immunity.
Training for the Body
Jennifer Cassetta, a martial arts instructor in New York City, claims she never gets sick, and neither do her father and grandmother, who also teach martial arts. "I believe it is the holistic approach to exercise that calms the mind and relieves stress," she says. "And the cardio, strengthening, and conditioning help boost the immune system."
Cassetta says her health has changed dramatically after she picked up martial arts eight years ago. Before then, she was a smoking, take-out-every-night, espresso-drinking girl in her 20s.
"As I started to train, I started to change my habits drastically," she says. "I cleaned up my diet, trained more, and quit smoking. Now in my 30s, I have more energy, I look better, and am stronger than I ever have been."
One bout of vigorous exercise can increase circulation, says Christiane Northrup, MD, author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom. "Whenever circulation is increased, you get far more white blood cells," she says, "so they check for foreign germs and are far more apt to be able to gobble them up."
Pay Attention to Your Mouth
Chicago public relations consultant Joanna Broussard says gargling regularly with an antiseptic mouthwash has helped improve her dental health and may have helped fend off other illnesses.
Twelve years ago, Broussard's dental hygienist convinced her to gargle consistently after brushing her teeth. "So I made the effort and got into the habit every morning," she says, "Since then I have not had colds. When people all around me have colds or the flu, I seem to be immune."
Another reason to bone up on your brushing and gargling is that poor oral hygiene and gum disease have been linked to more serious illnesses, including diabetes.
An Apple a Day Really Works
Your mom may have been right when she said, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." A natural antioxidant called quercetin, found in red apples as well as broccoli and green tea, may give an immunity boost to individuals under stress.
In a study conducted by David Nieman, PhD, professor at Appalachian State University, results showed that only 5% of cyclists who took 1,000 milligrams of quercetin every day for five weeks reported upper respiratory illness during a two-week period following extreme exercise, whereas 45% of the cyclists who took a placebo reported illness following extreme exercise. However, there were no significant differences in measures of immune system function in the two groups.
Additionally, researchers found that athletes taking the quercetin supplement maintained better mental alertness and reaction time over the placebo group. So go ahead, stock up on those red apples and you may be thanking Mom later.
Don't Worry, Conquer Stress
Stop worrying about getting sick. The fear and expectation of having something adverse happen actually lowers immunity, says Northrup."When people are worried about it all the time," she says, "they literally scare themselves to death."
Constant worrying causes cortisol and epinephrine levels to rise - and these stress hormones can weaken the body's overall immunity. "The immune system plummets when cortisol levels are chronically high," she says. "Your own body produces high levels of steroids when you're under constant stress."
Up Your Vitamin Intake
We have a worldwide epidemic of vitamin D deficiency, says Northrup. Everybody needs vitamin D, which can be found in foods like sockeye salmon, eggs, and milk.
Hyla Cass, MD, an integrative medical practitioner and author of 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health, adds that certain prescription drugs like acid blockers can deprive the body of nutrients like vitamin D.
Surveys show that Americans don't get enough vitamin C, says Elisabetta Politi, RD, MPH, CDE, nutrition director at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center.
Citrus fruits are a good source of vitamin C. "It's a myth that vitamin C prevents the cold," she says. "But having an appropriate amount of vitamin C from fruits and vegetables can boost immunity."
Mind Over Body
Atlanta interior designer Melissa Galt believes in a "mind over medicine" attitude. "I don't have time for sickness in my life," says Galt, who travels frequently and doesn't take anything to fight germs. "I don't believe in it and don't acknowledge it."
Every thought is accompanied by a chain of biochemical reactions in your body, says Northrup. So a positive attitude can increase levels of nitric oxide, which help to balance neurotransmitters, improve immunity, and increase circulation, she says.
"Whenever nitric oxide levels are high -- from anything ranging from positive thought to exercise -- you're actually improving your resistance to disease," she says.
Just Say Om
Santa Monica, Calif., yoga therapist Felice Rhiannon credits her meditation and breathing practices for improving her physical and emotional health. "Meditation practice helps to calm my nervous system and allows the immune system to function with less interference," she says. For Rhiannon, "A calmer mind means a calmer body."
"The greatest change is in my peace of mind and sense of ease," she says. "I don't get colds as often as I did when I was younger. My sleep is better and my ability to cope with life's inevitable stresses has improved."
In a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine in 2003, researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University found that volunteers who participated in eight weeks of mediation training produced significantly more flu-fighting antibodies than those who didn't meditate.
Increase Your Social Ties
There are personality factors associated with individuals who are resistant to getting colds when they're exposed to a virus, says Sheldon Cohen, PhD, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University whose research examines the effects of stress and social support on immunity and health.
For example, extroverts are less likely than introverts to get colds when exposed to a virus. "We actually control for their immunity," he says. "The explanation isn't that extroverts interact with more people, and therefore have immunity to that virus. There's something about being extroverted that seems to protect people."
Having a diverse social network is equally important, says Cohen. Individuals who belong to multiple social groups are less likely to develop colds when exposed to a virus. There's convincing literature in epidemiology that people who have more diverse social networks are also less likely to get heart disease and live longer, he adds.
Accentuate the Positive
Cohen's research suggests that people who have a positive emotional style -- described as happy, enthusiastic, and calm -- are less likely to catch colds.
Cohen and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University interviewed 193 healthy adults daily for two weeks and recorded the positive and negative emotions they experienced each day, and then exposed the volunteers to a cold or flu virus. Those with positive outlooks reported fewer cold symptoms and were more resistant to developing an upper respiratory illness.
"It's a stable characteristic of individuals," he says. "It's not driven by how happy they are on the day they get exposed to the virus."
Wash Your Hands - Over and Over
Hand washing may sound like obvious advice for combating germs, but surveys suggest that most of us are not vigilant about washing our hands after using the restroom.
"In order to prevent illness, it's important to wash your hands frequently," Cass says. "During cold and flu season, wash your hands with soap many times during the day because you're in contact with all kinds of pathogens -- door knobs, stair railings, other people. You really want to have clean hands."
According to the CDC, proper hand washing for 20 seconds is the most effective way to avoid the 1 billion colds that Americans catch each year, not to mention other infectious diseases.
Get Your ZZZs
Sleep is one of the best ways to stay healthy, Northrup says. "People who get a solid eight hours per night absolutely do better."
Sleep efficiency is the key, Cohen says. People who get into bed and fall asleep right away and stay asleep are more protected against colds than those who wake up repeatedly through the night.
A good night's sleep will restore the immune system, Northrup says, because when you get a good night's sleep, melatonin levels rise and that improves immunity.
And best of all, there are no side effects.
Many people I know, with & without small kids at home, expect to get sick several times a year. Every Autumn I watch my own Facebook newsfeed report the complete take-down of households all over the country as hundreds of people I know succumb to the stomach flu. Facebook also tells me how many of my friends and acquaintances are dealing with colds, flus, & sick kids.
If you’re like most of the folks I know, you probably keep getting sick year after year. Do you dread it when you find out there’s a stomach bug going around & start washing your hands over 100 times per day?
Here are 6 reasons why you keep getting sick (and what to do about it):
1) You’re not getting enough time outdoors.
Being outside is crucial for our health. It makes all of our organs function properly, including our brains – which determine our chemistry on many levels. Even when it’s Winter, we need to dress warmly and enjoy time outside during daylight hours. Walks in fresh air, skiing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, sledding, hiking & playing with the kids outside are crucial for our health. What to do about it? Spend more time outside!
2) You aren’t getting enough minerals & nutrients – especially magnesium.
Magnesium is a building block of energy. We need it to handle stress & we use it up handling stress. That means when it’s very cold outside we’re using it up, or when we are tending to any of our daily tasks. What to do about it? Epsom or sea salt baths are a great way to replenish magnesium stores in the body – we absorb it into our bloodstream through the skin. You can also use this magnesium oil externally on sore muscles, or in general.
3) You’re not getting enough Vitamin D.
Yes, you need sunlight to get Vitamin D, but that’s not all. If you live in a place that is cold, dark and cloudy in the winter, you likely need to supplement with Vitamin D. What to do about it? Take a daily Vitamin D supplement in the winter (there’s one for KIDS too). Cod Liver Oil is also essential for great health, as is fatty fish. Eat plenty of saturated fat from healthy, naturally raised animals, including pastured chickens, grass-fed beef & foraged pork.
4) You’re not getting enough sleep.
Whether it is anxiety, insomnia, or just a fondness for other night-time activities, our bodies need 8-10 hours per night of uninterrupted sleep on average. Sleep is crucial for hormonal health, mental health, liver health, and immunity. If your adrenals are functioning well, you won’t be able to fight off anything. If you’ve got a newborn, you may have to keep your expectations lowered temporarily, & make naps and rest-periods work for you. If you’re still losing sleep over your 3 year old it’s time to give your immune system a boost and get some solid shut-eye. What to do about it? Get some shut eye. If you lie awake at night, try some salt and honey under your tongue to reset your adrenals at bedtime.
5) Your diet doesn’t contain enough nutrient-dense foods.
You should be eating sauerkraut & other fermented/ probiotic foods every day. You should be eating meats cooked with the bone in and making soup out of the bones. You should be soaking your grains, limited refined white sugar, and limited overly processed white flours & products to about 20% of your diet. What to do about it? Start slowly by simply making one or two healthy choices per day. You will cover huge terrain in no time with a steady pace and continued willingness. A probiotic supplement is highly recommended for nearly everyone, even kids – at the very least for a three-month period to re-colonize your digestive tract with the healthy, good guys.
6) Your stress is getting the best of you.
If all of these other items are in place and you’re still getting sick all of the time, your stress is getting the best of you. The energy it takes to keep those internal emotions at bay is taking a toll on your body. You may not even realized you are stressed. What to do about it? Make a list of stressors. Cross out the ones you can do nothing about. Find ways to navigate your life to reduce the ones you can change, and if all else fails, work on managing your emotions. Panic, anxiety, and frustration are all a normal part of being human. Go to the batting cages, start journaling, stretch, or meditate. Whatever works for YOU is what is best for your body.