Being sick is the pits, but it’s helpful to know that there are real steps you can take to improve your immunity and lessen the odds that you end up with that cold or flu bug flying around the office.  Here are 6 simple, effective ways to ensure your immune system is in good shape.  Keep in mind that most of these are long-term strategies, not 2 or 3 day cures.  By the time you’ve gotten the cold there are a few things you can do to weather it better, but it’s best to avoid it all together.

  • Take notice of your digestion Your gut and your immune system are so intimately linked that some experts state that “80% of your immune system” is actually in your intestines.  Healthy intestinal “flora” (read: good bacteria) not only help you digest your food an assimilate nutrients, but they help create an environment that allows your immune system to protect you from potentially dangerous viruses and bacteria.  If your digestion isn’t good take steps to fix it (read below).
  • Eat fermented foods, or take probiotics No, I’m not talking about beer.  Traditional fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and miso contain beneficial bacteria called probiotics that are excellent for your digestion.  The fermented vegetables, such as cabbage, have the additional benefit of excellent levels of vitamin C and some other nutrients which are also helpful for preventing and fighting bugs.  Amaze yourself by making your own sauerkraut. It has to be the real deal: frequently the stuff they sell in the store is actually pickled, not fermented, so you’ll have to ask or check labels.  If that’s too much work for you (it’s not that bad, I swear!) try taking probiotics.  A recent study found that probiotic supplements was effective in reducing the number of colds.
  • Take active steps to manage stress Too much negative stress (remember learning about eustress and distress in health class?) has very real consequences on your health – it’s well documented that depression can weaken the immune system.  Most of us live lives that contain daily stressors, so it’s important to counteract those stressors with things that de-stress.  Get a massage, take the time to read a good book, spend time enjoying your friends and family.  Make sure your support system is healthy and if it’s not, figure out how to get it there.  Life is short: find a way to live it that is enjoyable for you on a daily basis.
  • Eat seasonally It’s amazing how nature provides us what we need, when we need it.  Citrus is a winter fruit – it’s in season now – eat it up!  Loading up on winter fruits and vegetables will load you with vitamins, minerals, carotenoids and other micro-nutrients that will keep you healthy.  Think winter squashes, cold-weather dark greens, citrus, and traditionally preserved goodies (like sauerkraut).
  • Take garlic If you know me well, you know my love for garlic.  Garlic is both a broad-spectrum anti-biotic and has powerful anti-fungal and anti-viral properties.  I take a clove or two of smashed garlic a day when exposed to a cold.  Crush it with a blunt surface, remove the skin, and swallow it like a pill (a mouthful of rice or another soft food helps it go down).  I swear by it and so do other health experts.
  • Get your vitamin D – one way or another Vitamin D is critical immune system function, and unless you’re getting significant exposure year-round to direct sunlight, you’re probably deficient in it (estimates are 80-90% of people north of Atlanta are deficient).  A growing body of research links lack of vitamin D to an increasing list of health problems, from depression to cancer. You can get some vit D in some foods (dairy is supplemented, fatty fish such as sardines and salmon have some) but it’s hardly ever enough.  Take a D3 supplement, at least 1,000mg daily, to be sure.

All of this, of course, should be complimentary to a generally healthy diet and lifestyle.  Eating a rainbow of colors each day, getting regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight are foundational.