It’s that time of the year again! As summer winds down, and classes begin, it’s inevitable that we are spending more time in close quarters with other people. Classrooms, offices, and transit are breeding grounds for all viruses, especially the common cold. But I know you, and I know myself. If I can avoid getting sick, that is the best way to make it through cold and flu season.
Previously, you may have read my article Boost Your Immune System, which focused on various supplements and if they actually give you an extra boost against illness. In this article, I want to take a more holistic look at health, and how every part of our lifestyle is key in avoiding the common cold.
Holistic Health: What We Need to Look At
For a long time, health was thought to be just the absence of disease. Likewise, the disease was only perceived and monitored in the physical body. In order to protect our current health, I think it is important to look at our bodies as a holistic system. This means we have to consider the mental, physical, and social aspects of health.
For many, this perspective is not relevant to something like avoiding the common cold. However, in this article, I hope to show how we can holistically avoid getting sick.
Protecting Physical Health To Avoid Getting Sick
Naturally, our physical health is a key aspect of our overall health. We know that sleep, diet, and exercise are key to a healthy lifestyle. But, even if exercise, sleep, and diet help you live a longer and happier life, do they promote immunity?
The short answer is yes. You can read the long answer below!
Sleep: An Immune System Building Block
Sleep is important. There is no question of that. But, how important is sleep to the immune system?
Freda DeKeyser Ganz explores this idea in her article about sleep and immune function. Uninterrupted sleep lowers cortisol and promotes cell function. When we do not sleep enough, our immune cell production becomes imbalanced. This causes a decreased and less effective immune response! In fact, participants who slept less than 7 hours a night, were THREE TIMES MORE LIKELY to catch a common cold!
These findings were echoed by Orzech and colleagues, who researched sleep deprivation in teens. Their research discovered that adolescents often slept poorly the week before an illness. They also identified that teens should be sleeping 9+ hours a day, due to the energy demand of their growing bodies and minds.
Both articles point out a key fact.
Sleep helps manage our body’s inflammatory response. Inflammation is key to the immune system. Furthermore, unregulated inflammation is becoming linked to a variety of diseases, including diabetes and cancer.
The verdict? Go to bed! It’s no wonder all we want to do is sleep when we are sick.
Diet & Exercise
It is not news that a nutritionally complete diet is critical to a healthy body, and therefore a healthy immune system.
We need certain nutrients (iron, zinc, vitamins A, E, B6, B12, and more) to ensure our body can function properly. Moreover, a healthy dose of prebiotics and probiotics is connected to a lower number of upper respiratory tract infections (like the common head cold)!
Similarly, an increased intake of fat is linked to decreased immune function. High levels of cholesterol, especially in aging populations, can decrease immune cell function by limiting cell wall permeability.
What does this mean for the average person? When choosing foods or grocery shopping, I encourage you to shop for food high in fiber and potassium. Vegetables are key to keeping your body running healthily. Moreover, foods rich in zinc, including seeds and nuts, have a direct impact on immune function. Probiotics, such as fermented vegetables or yogurt with active bacterial cultures, can also help keep your immune system happy.
But why did I choose to include exercise in this section?
Exercise, like diet and sleep, is critical for health. Activities like dancing or running promote a healthy heart. Stretching keeps us limber and reduces joint and muscle stiffness. Team sports, such as basketball and hockey, allow us to socialize while we stay in shape!
Exercise is important to immunity because it is important to the body itself. However, intense bouts of exercise, especially if you are not getting the right nutrients, can actually lower your immune function!
To avoid this, be sure to eat adequate amounts of carbs and protein when you are staying active!
What About Mental Health?
We already know that poor mental health and stress can impact your daily functioning a lot! When we are depressed, anxious, or struggling with burnout, it can be difficult to complete the easiest task on our to-do list.
But can it get you sick?
Well, it depends on what kind of stress we have on our hands.
In days of old, when humans were the hunted as opposed to the hunters, stress tended to be situational. We would escape a wolf pack or a tiger, and we would continue on with our lives.
Now, stressors tend to be more long-term. Chronic stress creates dysregulation in our body, and it makes it difficult to get back to that true state of relaxation.
These two kinds of stress, episodic and chronic, impact our immune system differently!
When we are stressed for a short period of time, our immune system becomes more active. The last thing we need when we are running from a polar bear is a coughing fit! Moreover, short-term stress can exacerbate conditions like asthma or arthritis, because those conditions are caused by the immune system attacking the body.
When we are chronically stressed, on the other hand, our body is thrown out of whack. We cannot relax. We cannot truly rest. When we are stressed, we struggle to sleep.
Chronic stress lowers immune function, increases your chances of getting sick, and puts you at risk of diseases like cancer.
Stress is a major risk factor for many mental health conditions, and many mental health conditions can worsen under stressful situations.
Protecting Your Mental Health
Therefore, to stay healthy and avoid getting sick, we must protect our mental health. How can we do that?
First, we have to start with baby steps. Is there something that continually stresses you out? Are there boundaries you can set to protect the time you have to rest? What activities do you find restful? For example, mindful coloring is a great strategy for people who find journaling makes them anxious.
Some people find that hiking, spending time in nature, and even forest bathing helps them to relax.
For many, self-care is as simple as turning off the TV, shutting down your phone, and opening a good book.
If relaxation strategies aren’t working, you can also force yourself into a stressful but short-term situation to “trick” your body into thinking the stress is over! This is where exercise comes into play. Or, you can try the spaghetti exercise! While lying down, tighten your calves – then relax. Then tighten your thighs – and relax. Continue through your whole body, and you should find that you have released a lot of tension by FORCING your body to be tense.
Avoid Getting Sick By Being Social?
Humans are social animals. We would not be where we are today without millennia of evolution in groups, communities, and families. Countless cultures worldwide recognize the importance of connection and social relationships, but that importance can be lost in Western individualism.
But did you know a lack of social connectivity can impact your health?
Loneliness is defined as feeling like you are alone. It is not necessarily related to the number of friends or social contacts that you have. So, if you like your “me time”, you don’t have to worry about its impact on your health.
According to G. Miller’s article, people who feel lonely have greater rates of inflammation, stress, and lowered immune function! This correlates with years of research suggesting that lonely people are more susceptible to viruses and disease! Loneliness can also cause increased blood pressure, which can impact generations of descendants due to epigenetic changes.
No one likes to feel lonely. So, what can you do if you feel alone?
It’s not an easy question, and there isn’t an easy answer. I could suggest reconnecting with old friends and family, but many past relationships are in the past because they were toxic or damaging. You could join a club, intramural team, or start connecting with people online. However, research shows that those who identify as lonely, are also more likely to be stressed out or anxious in social situations.
So, how do we promote health by improving connections? I ask that all those who do not feel lonely take the time to check up on those around them who might. Talk to your barista. Ask the coworker in the elevator how they are doing.
As a wise man once told me, we have to move past tolerance by beginning the conversation.
In Summary: Can We Avoid Getting Sick?
At the end of the day, the only way to completely avoid getting sick is to live in a bubble. But, even then, germs are everywhere.
That’s why strategies like vaccinations, washing hands, staying home when you are sick, and maintaining distance between those with symptoms are so important. So you can limit your exposure, and limit the spread of a contagious virus!
Ultimately, the above techniques will make your immune system stronger. Why? Because they will make you healthier. Much like the American military wants to fund their troops to ensure they are protected, we need to fund our immune system with good food, good sleep, and good habits.
As always, if you have any questions, please leave your thoughts in the comments or contact us here! We can’t wait to hear from you!