7 Ways Women Can Protect Themselves from the Flu This Season
It’s been called the “flu-pocalypse” by some in the media, and by others, simply “bad.” We’re talking about the 2017-2018 flu season, and according to early predictions, it’s not looking good.
In December 2017, CNN reported that flu activity was higher in the U.S. than usual for that time of year, causing seven child fatalities and 856 flu-related hospitalizations. Brandan Flannery, co-author of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) flu report, stated that the flu was increasing, with steep increases across the country, and particularly in the South.
About the same time, reports from Australia showed that the flu vaccine used there, which is similar to the one used in the U.S., was only about 10 percent effective against the most serious strain of the flu. It’s called the “H3N2,” and is historically the worst type of influenza—the one that makes people the most sick.
“Unfortunately, it’s the one strain that the vaccine is really underperforming in, in every regard,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, who directs The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told the Business Insider.
How the vaccine works in Australia is usually seen as an indication for how it will work in the U.S. Obviously, these results aren’t promising.
Healthcare experts still recommend getting the flu shot, since it can help reduce the severity of the flu, even if you do get it. It also contributes to “herd immunity”—less cases of the flu overall and more protection for those who are vulnerable like children and the elderly.
But meanwhile, we all need to do more to protect ourselves this season. Below are the top seven ways you can boost your immune system during this particularly difficult flu season.
You may find it more difficult to exercise during the winter months because of the cold, but it’s important not to stop, because exercise boosts the immune system. In fact, in 2010, researchers reported that those who were fit and exercised frequently were much less likely to develop a cold over a period of 12 weeks. Even when they did, it was much less severe than it was in those who didn’t exercise.
In addition, those who got in five or more days of exercise a week experienced 43 percent fewer days with cold symptoms than those who got only one day or less of exercise per week.
Other studies have shown similar results, with one caveat: over-exercising can be just as bad as not exercising at all. In one study, those who exhausted themselves on a run were more likely to come down with the flu than those who rested comfortably. Yet in another study, those who jogged for a leisurely 20 or 30 minutes were more protected against the flu than those who were sedentary.
So the key is to exercise, but not exhaust yourself. Get in your daily jog or spin or whatever works for you to boost your immune system—just don’t push it until you drop.
2. Get enough sleep.
Sleep is important to many facets of health, and immunity is one of them. In a recent 2017 study, researchers took blood samples from 11 pairs of identical twins with different sleep patterns, and found that sleep deprivation depressed the immune system.
Other studies have shown that sleep-deprived people don’t respond as well to a vaccine, because the immune system is sluggish. Still others have found that when those who haven’t gotten enough sleep are exposed to a virus, they’re more likely to get sick than those who have gotten the recommended 7-8 hours a night.
Bottom line: if you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll be more likely to catch a cold or the flu if you’re exposed to it. Adults need 7-8 hours, teenagers usually need 9-10 hours a night, and school-aged children may need 10 or more.
3. Try probiotics.
You may have heard that fermented foods like yogurt and miso may help keep your digestive system working well. That’s because they contain “probiotics,” which are “good” bacteria that help balance the microbiota in your gut. We all have a balance of good and bad bacteria in the digestive tract, and our health depends on the good ones outnumbering the bad ones.
There are a number of things that can throw off that balance, however, including a poor diet, stress, illness, digestive problems, antibiotic treatment, and more. Probiotics can help replace the good bacteria that you may lose going about your daily life.
That not only helps maintain healthy digestion, but it can also help boost your immune system. A number of studies have linked probiotics with immune health. In 2014, for example, researchers reported that probiotics are helpful in many diseases because of how they boost immune response. And in a 2012 review, researchers found that in general, the introduction of probiotics into the diet had a beneficial effect on the immune system.
To get more probiotics in your diet, eat more fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, miso soup, kefir, sourdough bread, kombucha, pickles, tempeh, and soft cheeses. If your concerned about catching the flu, you may want to take supplements for awhile, as they typically contain more probiotics than you can get from food.
4. Wash your hands frequently.
You’ve probably heard about hand washing since you were high enough to reach the sink. The CDC says that it prevents illnesses and helps keep infections from spreading to others. The problem is that we all tend to touch the eyes, nose, and mouth without realizing it, and when we do, any germs that are on our hands can gain entrance into the body, making us sick.
It helps to avoid touching your face, but you’re still likely to do it on occasion. Washing your hands keeps you from transferring germs to yourself. It also keeps germs away from the foods you eat, which is good, as some germs can multiply while they’re in foods and beverages, making them even more likely to cause illness.
Remember that you touch a number of surfaces throughout the day that may contain germs, including hand rails, door handles, table tops, and more. Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap, and if you don’t have access to a sink, take some hand sanitizer with you.
Finally, keep some hand lotion with you too, to keep hands moisturized. All that hand washing makes skin dry and cracked, which gives germs an easy entrance inside you. A strong skin barrier protects you, so do your best to keep your hands hydrated. Wear gloves frequently.
5. Eat immune-boosting foods.
What we eat can help protect us from a cold or the flu. But what foods are the best?
Most any “healthy” food is good for the immune system. This includes fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, legumes, spices, and teas. If you’re looking for some specific recommendations, here are a few:
• Garlic and onions
• Citrus fruits
• Bell peppers
• Spinach and broccoli
• Green tea
• Papaya and kiwi
• Seeds (like sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds)
• Shellfish and oysters
• Oats and barley
• Chicken soup
• Sweet potatoes
6. Take the right supplements.
A healthy diet will provide most of the nutrients you need, but there are some vitamins, minerals, and herbs that are powerhouses when it comes to supporting the immune system. During the height of the flu season, it may help to take some of these supplements to increase your protection. (Always check with your doctor before starting a new supplement.)
• Vitamin D: Many women are low in vitamin D to begin with (read our article on vitamin D here), and even more may be low in the winter months because of a lack of sun exposure. Yet a deficiency in vitamin D is associated with an increased susceptibility to infections. You need enough of this vitamin if you want a strong immune system.
• Zinc: Do you take zinc lozenges to get over a cold faster? That’s wise, because zinc is known to play an important role in the immune system. If you’re not getting enough, you may be more likely to get sick.
• Vitamin C: In a 2006 study, researchers found that adequate intakes of vitamin C and zinc (up to 30 mg) soothed symptoms of respiratory tract infections and helped shorten their duration. Both also reduced the incidence of pneumonia and other infections.
• Echinacea: Studies have found that Echinacea can help stimulate the immune system to fight harder against infections. If you feel like you’re coming down with something, give it a try.
• Astragalus root: Astragalus root has been found in studies to help activate immune cells, and in a 2013 study, to actually reduce replication of the H9N2 avian or “bird” flu virus.
7. Calm down.
There’s a reason why at some of the worst times in your life, you get sick. “Now?” you may think. “When all of this other stuff is going on?”
That “other stuff” is most likely the reason for your illness. Studies show that stress alters the immune system, overtaxing it so it’s less able to protect you from germs. In a 2004 study, researchers reported that even short stressors, like taking an exam, suppressed immune activity. Chronic (ongoing stress) is worse.
When we get stressed, the body releases more of the stress hormone, called “cortisol.” Cortisol temporarily suppresses the immune system, reducing its natural response to viruses and bacteria. That’s why if you’re stressed, you’re more susceptible to the cold and flu.
In a 2012 study, researchers talked to about 275 people about the stressful experiences they’d had over the past year. They then gave them nasal drops containing a common cold virus, and quarantined them for five days. Those who reported more stressful events in the past year were more likely to get sick.
To protect yourself, engage in at least one stress-relieving activity each day. The point is to do something that helps you release your worries and anxieties and feel calmer. Exercise is a great option, but you may also enjoy crafting, spending time with friends and loved ones or a cherished pet, meditating, taking part in a yoga or tai chi class, enjoying a warm bath or nice massage, or anything else that works for you. The point is not to let your stress take control. Find ways to release and manage it and you’ll stay healthier this year.
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