Health Column: Cold and flu season: Are you prepared?

By Stephanie Vilendrer

Cold season is just around the corner. Around the holidays, it seems that everyone is getting sick. Don’t let this happen to you! Do you know how to boost your immune system to fend off a cold and flu? How about what to do if you do get sick? These suggestions will help you stay healthy during end-of-semester finals and make the most of your winter break. Prevention is key to staying well, and actions that boost your immune system are the best way to do this. First and foremost, you need sufficient sleep. At least seven hours of quality sleep every night is critical for good health. A 2009 study on 153 healthy men and women found that those who slept less than seven hours each night were almost three times as likely to catch a cold than those who slept eight or more hours. Sleep deprivation not only decreases immunity, but also may increase the likelihood of making poor dietary choices that increase your chances of getting sick. Sugar is often a major culprit. Processed foods, soda, and even bottled fruit juices are high in sugar, which may suppress the immune system. A 1973 study found that excess sugar consumption decreases the body’s immune response to invading bacteria. Additionally, sugar induces the release of insulin, which suppresses growth hormones that support immunity. In addition to avoiding sugar and getting adequate sleep, eating a nutritious diet that is high in vitamin-containing vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, protein and healthy fats is an easy and simple way to avoid getting sick. I recently wrote about vitamin D, a vitamin that has the benefit of fending off infection. A 2010 study conducted by researchers at the University of Copenhagen found that vitamin D is a crucial factor in T cell activation (a critical component of the immune response). Since the major source of vitamin D is through exposure to sunlight, deficiency may help to explain why grey winter tends to be “cold season.” While eating foods high in vitamin D (such as fish, eggs and dairy) can be helpful, supplementation is the most surefire way to ensure an adequate intake of vitamin D. Take it easy on mulled wine and hot toddies this season too! The negative effects of alcohol on immunity are well documented and research shows that over-consumption increases your chance of infection. Stick with just one glass of wine or beer and drink plenty of water. Don’t share cups either. Simply being conscientious of avoiding contact with others’ germs can help prevent bacteria from invading your body. Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth, and be sure to wash them frequently. If you’re planning to kiss someone under the mistletoe this year, make sure your cutie doesn’t have some terrible bug first (get creative so you don’t need to ask directly). Although an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, sometimes we simply just cannot do enough to stay well. The sooner and more aggressively you tackle a cold or flu, the quicker you will feel better. First, ask yourself whether you are taking advantage of the preventative measures described above. Are you drinking too much alcohol? Not sleeping enough? Eating gingerbread cookies for breakfast and candy canes for dessert? If you are taking care of yourself and still manage to fall ill, you might want to consider some of these quick and easy cures. Perhaps no one loves the taste, but eating raw garlic can be a miracle remedy. Its anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties are attributed to allicin, an organosulfur compound that wipes out bugs quickly. Just one clove mashed up in plain yogurt or spread on buttered toast can do the trick. I recommend doing this twice each day until your cold is gone. A number of herbs and supplements are also effective remedies. Sambucol is a liquid supplement made from black elderberries that has been shown to reduce the symptoms of (and even eliminate) the flu. It prevents viral particles from attaching to healthy cells, so while it can be a great cure, it is also a useful preventative measure during flu season. Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic remedy that also has been shown to reduce the symptoms of flu in two separate studies. Homeopathy is a form of medicine that is similar to vaccination, except that whatever is being treated is present in the homeopathic medicine in a highly diluted form. I take Oscillo to reduce chills, fever, and body aches, and it tastes pretty good too. Other supplements that may help kick a cold include vitamin C, zinc and echinacea. If you’re curious about these, do some research and perhaps try them out for yourself. Take some preventative measures so that a cold or flu won’t keep you from being productive during finals and enjoying a long winter break. For a happy end of semester and holiday season, give yourself the gift of health!