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PIOG: Tips on remaining healthy during flu season

Posted by on Nov. 12, 2009 at 1:53 PM
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In most years, the cold and flu season comes and goes without too much fuss. Not this one. "The swine flu is dangerous and spreads much faster than the usual seasonal flu," says William Schaffner, MD, chair of the Vanderbilt University department of preventive medicine and president-elect of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. "It's not being overhyped, and everyone should take it seriously."

But even as the flu season unfolds, there's much you can do to substantially lower your own risk of getting sick. First, assess your vulnerability by familiarizing yourself with the signs of impaired immunity. Then adopt the following strategies, where you'll find all the tools you need to boost your immunity, fight off the flu (as well as the plain old cold), and keep you and your family healthy this winter and beyond.

1. Fight back with food
Research shows that adding certain foods to an already healthful diet can increase your ability to fend off colds and flu this season. Here's what to start eating now:

Yogurt: Shift workers who consumed a drink containing Lactobacillus reuteri, a probiotic that appears to stimulate infection-fighting white blood cells, were 33 percent less likely to take sick days than those who took a placebo, according to an 80-day Swedish study published in Environmental Health. But beware, says Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of 10 books on nutrition: "Some companies make up probiotic names to put on their label." She suggests looking for yogurt that contains Lactobacillus acidophilus as well as Bifidus and L. rhamnosus. "They're even more effective when combined," she says.

Garlic: According to a study published in Advances in Therapy, subjects who swallowed a garlic capsule for 12 winter weeks were two-thirds less likely to catch a cold; those who did suffered for 3 1/2 days less. Garlic contains allicin, a potent bacteria fighter, and other infection-fighting compounds, and Somer believes it's even more effective in food form. She suggests adding one to three cooked cloves to your food each day.

Black tea: Drinking 5 cups a day for 2 weeks can turn your immune system's T cells into "Hulk cells" that produce 10 times more interferon, a protein that battles cold and flu infections, according to a Harvard study. Don't like black tea? The green variety will also do the trick. If you can't stomach drinking that much, you can still get added protection with fewer cups.

Mushrooms: They contain more than 300 compounds that rev up immunity, in part by escalating the production of infection-fighting white blood cells and making them more aggressive. Shiitake, maitake, and reishi varieties contain the most immune-boosting chemicals, but plain old button mushrooms will also do the job.

Fatty fish: Salmon, mackerel, herring, and other fatty fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which increase activity of phagocytes — cells that fight flu by eating up bacteria — according to a study by Britain's Institute of Human Nutrition and School of Medicine. They also contain selenium, which helps white blood cells produce cytokines, proteins that help clear viruses. Other research shows that omega-3s increase airflow and protect lungs from colds and respiratory infections. In fact, says Somer, DHA and EPA (the two main forms of omega-3s) benefit the immune system at the most basic level, enabling cell membranes to efficiently absorb nutrients and remove toxins.

2. Shield yourself from germs
The best defense against viruses is to keep them — and the people and objects they infect — at a safe remove. "Germs can lurk on most surfaces for up to 3 days," says Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona and co-author of "The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu." Here's how to protect yourself wherever you are:

Wash often and well. "Washing your hands is the best way to fight viruses and germs — if you do it properly," says Philip Tierno, PhD, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University and author of "The Secret Life of Germs: What They Are, Why We Need Them, and How We Can Protect Ourselves Against Them."

Soap the top and bottom of your hands (including under your nails) for as long as it would take you to sing "Happy Birthday" twice, says Tierno. When you can't get to a sink, a gel containing 60 percent or more alcohol will effectively remove cold germs, says Gerba, and helps protect against the flu by dissolving the outer layer of the virus. Hand wipes also work, but buy only those labeled disinfecting or sanitizing.

Don't share toothpaste tubes. Most people touch their brush to the opening, passing along germs.

Befriend paper towels. At home, replace bathroom and kitchen towels with disposable ones during flu season. At the office, use paper to open the office fridge and microwave, turn off a bathroom faucet, and exit the restroom.

Deploy disinfectant. Your phone, computer keyboard, and desktop all harbor more harmful germs than the average toilet seat does. Wipe them down at the end of each day. At the gym, disinfect free weights, yoga mats, and other equipment before using them. If you're staying at a hotel, wipe down the remote control, phone, clock radio, light switches, and door handles. The cleaning staff probably hasn't cleaned these things in months, if ever.

Use creative barriers. Press the elevator button with your keys, a knuckle, or your elbow. When using an ATM or a ticketing machine, use gloves, or press the buttons with your ATM card. Observe the 5-foot rule. Maintain at least 5 feet of distance between you and a coughing or sneezing co-worker. Gravity forces the droplets that carry germs to fall rather than land much farther away. When traveling — on a train or bus — try to sit at least three rows behind someone who's obviously sick.

3. Buy supplements
Certain natural remedies can help you stay healthy this winter. Here's what might work best for you.

If you don't like fish... try omega-3 fatty acids. Get the same protection with a daily dose of purified fish oil capsules containing at least 1 g combined of EPA and DHA.

If you don't get enough sunlight... try vitamin D. People who took 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily had 70 percent fewer colds and flu than those taking a placebo, according to a 3-year study published in Epidemiology and Infection. Even with fortified foods, most people don't get enough D, which the body produces when sunlight hits the skin. The amount used in the study exceeds the DV; Somer recommends not exceeding 1,000 IU a day.

If you feel a cold coming on... try Cold-fX. Subjects who took two daily capsules of Cold-fX (available online), a supplement containing North American ginseng extract, caught half as many colds as a group taking a placebo, according to a study done by the Center for Immunotherapy of Cancer and Infectious Diseases at the University of Connecticut. When they did get sick, their symptoms lasted less than half as long. This particular ginseng variety contains compounds that increase white blood cells and interleukins, proteins the immune system relies on.

If you feel a cold coming on... try zinc. The research on this mineral has been conflicting. Still, "30 mg taken at the very start of a cold will shorten it by about half a day," says David L. Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. But don't overdo it. While even a slight deficiency in zinc, which is needed to produce white blood cells, can increase your risk of infection, more than 50 mg daily can suppress your immune system and block absorption of other essential minerals

.4. Play hard, then get some rest
Exercise and sleep are powerful natural immunity boosters. Here's how to get the right amount of both.

Get moving. Moderate exercise — around 20 to 30 minutes a day — increases blood flow, speeding nutrients to your cells, and decreases stress hormones, which dampen immune response, says Katz. And according to a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, regular physical activity — as long as it's not extreme — lowers your overall risk of upper-respiratory infections.

Snooze for at least 7 hours a night. "A single night of sleep deprivation can depress your immune system," says Katz. After 153 healthy men and women were exposed to a cold virus, those who had slept more than 7 hours each night during the preceding 14 days reduced their risk of contracting the rhinovirus by up to 300 percent, according to a 2009 study published in Archives of Internal Medicine. And get some solid shut-eye the night before your shot. According to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, when healthy men were limited to 4 hours of sleep before getting a vaccination, they developed only half the normal number of antibodies.

Try tai chi. When women ages 55 to 65 practiced tai chi for an hour 4 times a week, Shanghai University of Sport researchers saw the women's levels of two different disease-fighting cells jump by nearly 32 percent over 4 months. Start practicing a week before your flu shot and you can boost its effectiveness by as much as 17 percent, found a University of Illinois study. To get started, try Element Tai Chi for Beginners ($15;

Party on — moderately. People who are socially active get fewer colds, even when intentionally exposed to the cold virus. Researchers postulate that frequent socializers tend to be more positive and maintain high-quality emotional ties, both of which strengthen immunity.


Top 10 worst things for your immune system

Muscle Up Your Immunity

Staying healthy isn't just about using hand sanitizer and avoiding coughing co-workers.

It turns out some pretty surprising daily habits—like how you fight with your husband or whether you stay up late for Letterman—can impact how well your body fends off colds, flu and other pesky bugs. Here's a list of science-backed tips to add to your stay-healthy arsenal today.

1. You Avoid the Water Cooler

Friendship may be Miracle-Gro for your immune system.

Research shows that the fewer human connections we have at home, at work, and in the community, the likelier we are to get sick, flood our brains with anxiety-causing chemicals, and live shorter lives than our more sociable peers. In one study, researchers who monitored 276 people between the ages of 18 and 55 found that those who had 6 or more connections were 4 times better at fighting off the viruses that cause colds than those with fewer friends.

What to do: Don't let a jam-packed workday or hectic schedule get in the way of your friendships. Stop by a co-worker's office for a quick Monday morning catch-up, or e-mail/text your friends at night to stay in touch when you're too busy for phone calls.

2. You Often Feel Tired

Scrimping on sleep has a powerfully detrimental effect on immunity.

The perfect example: college students who get sick after pulling all-nighters cramming for exams. Poor sleep is associated with lower immune system function and reduced numbers of killer cells that fight germs. In fact, University of Chicago researchers found that men who had slept only 4 hours a night for 1 week produced half the amount of flu-fighting antibodies in their blood (jump-started by a flu shot) compared with those who slept 7 1/2 to 8 1/2 hours.

What to do: Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of uninterrupted rest every night, but how you feel in the morning and throughout the day may be a better gauge. If you're tired when you wake up in the morning, you're not getting enough—sleep, or maybe not enough quality sleep.

3. You Act Like Debbie Downer

Studies show that glass-half-empty types don't live as long as those who look on the bright side.

When pessimists put a more positive spin on the calamities in their lives, they have less stress and better health. A classic UCLA study found that law students who began their first semester optimistic about the experience had more helper T cells mid semester, which can amplify the immune response, and more powerful natural killer cells, than students who had a more pessimistic perspective. One reason could be that optimists take better care of themselves. It could also be due to less stress-related damage to the immune system, such as killer cells that suddenly become pacifists.

What to do: Personality is tough to change, look for reasons—however small—to feel lucky every day. Sounds hokey, but try striking up a dinner table conversation with your family where you all share a couple of good things that happened every day.

4. You Bottle Up Your Moods

A constructive argument with your spouse can actually increase immunity, say UCLA researchers.

They asked 41 happy couples to discuss a problem in their marriage for 15 minutes. The researchers detected surges in blood pressure, heart rate, and immune-related white blood cells, all of which were similar to the benefits seen with moderate exercise. But you still have to play nice: Couples who frequently use sarcasm, insults, and put-downs have fewer virus-fighting natural killer cells, have higher levels of stress hormones, and take up to 40% longer to recover from injuries than those who manage to stay positive and affectionate during their quarrels.

What to do: Don't keep what's bothering you bottled up. People with type D personalies—those who keep their opinions and emotions hidden—have killer T cells that are less active than those found in more expressive peers.

5. You're Under the Gun

Chronic stress—the day-after-day kind you experience over job insecurity or a sick relative—takes a toll on many aspects of your health, including immunity.

There is compelling scientific evidence that this kind of stress (as opposed to the every-now-and-again kind from a bad day at work or a screaming match with your kid) causes a measurable decline in the immune system's ability to fight disease. Periods of extreme stress can result in a lower natural killer cell count, sluggish killer T cells, and diminished macrophage activity that can amplify the immune response. In fact, widows and widowers are much more likely to get sick during the first year after their spouse dies than their peers who have not experienced a major loss.

What to do: We're not going to tell you to take a bath or light a scented candle (unless those really help you relax, that is!). Do find go-to, healthy stress relievers that can take the edge off—be it a long run on the treadmill, a relaxing yoga class, or baking dessert just for fun. The important thing is that you unwind and recover from stress, since it's often hard to avoid in the first place.

6. You Don't Stash Pens in Your Purse

Having your own supply of dime-a-dozen plastic ballpoints might just keep you from picking up a virus.

Cold and flu germs are easily passed through hand-to-hand contact, says Neil Schachter, MD, a professor of pulmonary medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu. Any way you can avoid touching public objects—such as the communal pen at the bank—will cut your risk.

What to do: "When you get up in the morning, don't leave the house without a pen in your pocket or your purse," Schachter suggests. "Take your own wherever you go, and use it instead of the doctor’s, the delivery guy’s, or the restaurant waiter’s"

7. You Drive Everywhere

One in four American women doesn't exercise at all—and that's an easy way to set yourself up for sickness.

When researchers compared inactive people with those who walked briskly almost every day, they found that who didn't walk took twice as many sick days in 4 months as those who strolled regularly.

What to do: Experts say that it takes a 30 minutes of aerobic exercise—a brisk walk counts—to sweep white blood cells back into circulation, making your immune system run more smoothly.

8. Your Friends Smoke

We don't need to tell you that puffing ciggies is terrible for the entire body. But the secondhand kind is almost as harmful.

Each year, because of exposure to tobacco smoke, an estimated 3,000 nonsmoking Americans die of lung cancer and 300,000 children suffer from lower respiratory-tract infections. Secondhand smoke can trigger an asthma attack and aggravate symptoms in people with allergies. In addition, tobacco smoke has been shown to make asthma worse in preschool children and may even cause it.

What to do: Sounds obvious, but avoid secondhand smoke as much as you can—including spending time with people while they smoke. Encourage anyone in your everyday life (husband, coworkers or neighbor friends) to quit.

9. You Always Reach for Antibiotics

Taking antibiotics at the first sign of a sniffle can make you resistant to these drugs over time, causing more serious infections.

Researchers found that certain patients taking antibiotics had reduced levels of cytokines, the hormone messengers of the immune system. When your immune system is suppressed, you're more likely to develop resistant bacteria or become sick in the future.

What to do: Take antibiotics only for bacterial infections, use them right away, and take the entire course. Don't use antibiotics preventively unless prescribed by your doctor, and don't save or share unfinished courses.

10. You're Little Miss Serious

Consider this a doctor's note to troll YouTube on your lunch break...

Researchers have found that the positive emotions associated with laughter decrease stress hormones and increase certain immune cells while activating others. In a study conducted at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, healthy adults who watched a funny video for an hour had significant increases in immune system activity.

What to do: Um, laugh more. You know how: Watch your favorite comedies, have lunch with a pal known for her funny bone, and read those silly forwards from friends before you auto-click "delete."


I know these articles are long, but please take time to glance at them, there is some good information in them!


I'm a breast AND formula-feeding, co-sleeping, non-cry-it-out, organic-food-loving, Yo Gabba Gabba and Dora The Explorer addicted, ENFP, extended-schedule vaxing, Obama-supporting, pro-choice, army-journalist  mommy to one adorable little monkey named Alana Michelle, born at 36 weeks on May 20, 2007!!

by on Nov. 12, 2009 at 1:53 PM
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by on Nov. 12, 2009 at 2:25 PM



I'm a breast AND formula-feeding, co-sleeping, non-cry-it-out, organic-food-loving, Yo Gabba Gabba and Dora The Explorer addicted, ENFP, extended-schedule vaxing, Obama-supporting, pro-choice, army-journalist  mommy to one adorable little monkey named Alana Michelle, born at 36 weeks on May 20, 2007!!

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