The human immune system is a remarkable machine. In effect, it’s your own private army, keeping out invaders that can hurt you — especially bacteria and viruses. But just like an army, it can’t effectively fight multiple invaders on multiple fronts at once. Doing so weakens the strength of the army — which is why the cold and flu season during a pandemic is so much trickier.
As always at this time of year, several things are certain: the weather will get cooler, daylight-saving time ends, and cold and flu season will arrive. But this year, there’s a major addition: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 a major threat all on its own, and it has been for most of this past year. But now the medical community has to continue tackling it during the cold and flu season.
This is problematic for several reasons, including the following and more:
1. The symptoms of COVID-19 and the seasonal flu can be similar on the surface, potentially complicating diagnoses.
2. A compromised immune system from having the seasonal flu may make you more vulnerable to COVID-19.
As Dr. Suzanne Cassel, immunologist at Cedars-Sinai, puts it, a strong immune system is actually a balanced immune system.
“Too much of an immune response is just as bad as too little response,” she says.
But to keep your immune system balanced and in peak working order, you need to protect it … which means it’s time to take a look at some of the habits that may weaken it.
Believe it or not, diet and lifestyle factors are the biggest influences on your immune system and its response to intruders. You may think of these factors as being simply “unhealthy,” but their effects are felt far deeper than that.
A lack of exercise can lead to all sorts of problems with weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. Additionally, it may also lead to a weakened immune system.
The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. If you’re physically able, you should also add some muscle-strengthening activities (such as a weights program) at least two days per week.
Here are some moderate-intensity exercise examples:
• Brisk walking
• Water aerobics
• Bike riding
Don’t worry if you can’t reach 150 minutes per week just yet. Just get moving and walk. You can increase and improve over time.
As always, it’s smart to get your doctor’s approval before beginning any new exercise regimen.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet consisting of a range of vitamins and minerals (and therefore a range of fruits and vegetables) is essential for supporting your immune health.
Some things to consider when it comes to eating:
• Eat mindfully at the table, paying attention to what you’re eating, and chew slowly. Listen to your body and the signs that it’s full. Avoid eating on the couch or being distracted by the TV.
• Curb cravings by turning to whole pieces of fruit when you need a sweet boost, yogurt if you’re craving something creamy, and herbs and spices rather than salt. Avoiding buying or keeping foods in the house that test your willpower.
• Practice portion control and fill at least half your plate with fruits and vegetables.
• Curb sugary drinks and focus on drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
Note: Always consult with your doctor before making any dietary changes.
Closely linked to diet and exercise is maintaining a healthy weight. You should aim for a BMI of 25 or lower and understand that the best way to lose excess weight is with a healthy diet and exercise.
There is now plenty of strong evidence that sleep supports immune health. As you age, your sleep patterns may change, but you still need to be getting enough sleep. What’s enough? For adults 65 and above, it’s around seven to eight hours.
Set a consistent routine to encourage good sleep habits. Set a specific time when you will go to bed each night. And, if you need to, make up the shortfall by taking a nap during the day.
Smoking is bad news, period. If you’re finding it hard to quit, there are plenty of resources that can help.
Excessive alcohol consumption has also long been observed as suppressing immune responses. Aim to limit your alcohol consumption as much as you can. If you must have a drink, only do so in moderation.
Many studies have shown that stress can wreak chaos on the body’s immune system. And this goes for all stress, not just the big things.
So, reducing stress — and putting coping mechanisms into place to help alleviate stress — are keys to supporting immune and mental health.
If you can’t remove certain stressors from your life entirely, try practicing meditation, connecting with loved ones, taking a walk, exercising, taking a bath, practicing some yoga, or any other hobbies that relax you.
Though a healthy immune system doesn’t guarantee you won’t ever get sick, it does give you the best fighting chance against illness.
Keep washing your hands, sanitizing, wearing a face mask, and physically distancing. These newly adopted habits won’t just help protect against COVID-19, they may also help slow down flu season.