Fall is a magical season full of colorful landscapes, fun activities, and cool, crisp mornings. For many people, it’s the best season of the year.
Unfortunately, fall is also the time we need to start thinking about colds and flu. Most flu activity starts in the fall and goes through the winter, with October being the semi-official “start” to flu season.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause trouble, with the Delta variant spreading rapidly and cases increasing over the past few months.
That means that all of us would be wise to do what we can to boost our immune activity now. The stronger the immune system, the better we can fight harmful pathogens and protect ourselves from getting seriously ill.
The good news is that it’s not hard to increase your odds of enjoying a healthy and happy fall and winter. Below, we have shared 13 easy ways to get your immune system into its best shape below.
1. Keep a regular sleep schedule.
Sleep is like fuel for your immune system. If you’re not getting your 7-8 hours per night, your immune system will weaken and you’ll be more likely to get sick.
The best way to make sure that you get the sleep you need is to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. It's also best to keep all technology out of the bedroom and to do something quiet and calming the last hour before bed.
2. Keep moving.
You may think of exercise as a way to maintain a healthy weight, but it can also help keep your immune system strong. According to a recent 2020 study, regular exercise helped strengthen and prepare the immune system for COVID-19.
With the changing weather and shorter days, you may need to adjust your exercise routine. Go for a walk or bike ride first thing in the morning, for instance, or use your exercise routine as a way to de-stress after work.
3. Drink more tea.
Did you know that tea can boost the immune system? A recent study found that the L-theanine in black tea helped promote a stronger immune response in the body, boosting its defenses. Green tea has L-theanine too.
If you prefer herbal tea, try elderberry, turmeric, ginger, licorice root, chamomile, and peppermint—they can all help keep your immune system in top shape.
4. Watch your diet.
As the temperatures cool down, we often find ourselves craving comfort foods. These are typically high in fat and calories and they can also slow down your immune system.
Researchers from Bonn, Germany recently found a link between junk food and the immune system. In their study, they found that a diet high in sugar and fat and low in fiber caused subjects to develop a strong inflammatory response throughout the body—as if they had been infected by a dangerous bacteria.
This not only taxes the immune system but can also lead to the long-term damage that increases the risk of heart disease. So, stick to your healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins.
5. Try a new stress-relieving activity.
When you’re feeling stressed out, your body releases stress hormones, including cortisol, into the bloodstream. Scientists know that cortisol reduces immune activity. That means that when you’re stressed, you’re more vulnerable to infections.
It's unrealistic for most people to imagine they can live a completely stress-free life. Instead, try to incorporate at least one more stress-relieving activity into your daily routine. Good options include journaling, walking, meditating, yoga, tai chi, exercise, walking your dog, coloring, crafting, woodworking, deep breathing, aromatherapy, listening to music, and art therapy.
6. Eat more yogurt.
Fermented foods like yogurt contain live, active bacterial cultures that support the friendly bacteria in your gut. Called the “microbiome,” this community of microorganisms helps keep you healthy.
According to a 2020 study, the microbiome constantly communicates with the immune system, with a complex network of systems that maintain immune activity. If the “bad” bacteria in the microbiome get the upper hand, however, they can not only upset your digestion but dampen your immune reactions too.
Regularly eating fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, and kombucha helps repopulate your microbiome with friendly bacteria that can keep your immune system strong. If you took a round of antibiotics recently—which kill good and bad bacteria—talk to your doctor about potentially taking a probiotic supplement.
7. Stay hydrated.
As the weather cools down, we are less likely to notice when we are thirsty. Proper hydration, though, is critical to overall good health and a strong immune system. Scientists reported in a 2008 study that dehydration had a clear effect on immune cells, reducing concentrations in the bloodstream and leaving participants more vulnerable to disease.
As a general rule, it’s best not to use thirst as a gauge. Instead, watch the color of your urine. If you’re drinking enough, it will be a pale yellow. Darker yellow means you need to drink more.
8. Get your vaccines.
Experts recommend that everyone get a flu shot every year. Not only does it decrease your risk of getting the flu, but it can also help reduce your symptoms if you do get it.
This fall (2021) it’s more important than ever to get both your COVID-19 vaccine (if you haven’t already) and your flu shot. Scientists don’t yet know the risks associated with having both of these illnesses at the same time, but it’s possible and likely to be dangerous for some groups.
9. Supplement wisely.
There’s no magic pill to keep you from getting sick, but there is some evidence that certain supplements may help keep your immune system strong during the fall and winter. Always talk to your doctor first, then consider adding these to your diet if necessary:
- Vitamin D: This one is particularly important if you live in the northern latitudes where the sun becomes scarce in the fall and winter months.
- Zinc: Zinc is critical to the proper functioning of the immune system. Vegetarians and vegans may be at risk for low levels.
- Vitamin C: This is one of the biggest immune boosters of all, but you’re probably getting enough in your diet as long as you’re eating fruits and vegetables.
- Vitamin B6: Vital to supporting the reactions in the immune system, you’ll find this vitamin in chicken and cold-water fish as well as in green veggies and chickpeas. Older people may be more at risk of a vitamin B deficiency.
- Herbs: Several herbs are known to help reduce inflammation and boost healthy immune activity. These include quercetin, elderberry, ginger, turmeric, Echinacea, astragalus, garlic, licorice root, and milk thistle. Always check with your doctor first, and buy from reputable companies.
10. Take it easy on the cocktails.
You may be looking forward to falling holidays and celebrations, but be careful not to overdo it on the alcohol. According to a 2015 study, clinicians have long observed an association between excessive alcohol consumption and adverse immune-related health effects like increased susceptibility to pneumonia.
So enjoy yourself now and then, but in moderation.
11. Keep in touch with your friends.
Social connections are important to your health and your body's defenses too. Scientists have found that poor quality and a low quantity of social ties have been associated with impaired immune function and other adverse health outcomes.
Indeed, one study showed that a lack of social connections was a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.
So join a new book club, gather your friends together for lunch or a walk in the park, or pick up the phone and give your brother a call. Even getting together on a Zoom call is better than staying too isolated.
12. Add some mushrooms to your meal.
Some of the most powerful immune-boosting substances are found in mushrooms.
In a 2005 study, researchers found that mushrooms helped activate immune cells, including natural killer cells, but that they could also regulate the immune system so that it didn’t overreact with too much inflammation. This ability enables mushrooms to not only help protect you from illnesses but to decrease your risk of cancer, too.
In a later study, researchers found that people who ate a cooked shiitake mushroom every day for four weeks showed increased immunity and reduced inflammation. “If you eat a shiitake mushroom every day,” said study author Sue Percival, “you could see changes in their immune system that are beneficial. We’re enhancing the immune system, but we’re also reducing the inflammation that the immune system produces.”
To add more mushrooms to your diet, consider using them as salad toppers, sauté them for your steak or burger, roast them up as a side dish, or use them in your sandwiches.
13. Get some sun.
As the days get shorter, you may find that you’re seeing the sun a lot less than you were just a few weeks ago. This isn’t good for your health.
When you expose your skin to the sun, it makes vitamin D, which is critical to a strong immune system. But sunlight does even more than that. It helps regulate the body clock, making it easier for you to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day. And according to other research, it can energize T cells that play a central role in immunity.
Specifically, low levels of blue light, found in the sun’s rays, make T cells move faster! “We all know that sunlight provides vitamin D,” said study author Gerard Ahern, “which is suggested to have an impact on immunity, among other things. But what we found is a completely separate role of sunlight on immunity.”
This is why it can help to get some exercise first thing in the morning, or over your lunch hour. If you live in an area where it rains a lot, consider getting a sun lamp to use when the sun is nowhere in sight.
Taking care of yourself becomes increasingly important in the fall and winter months. The key is to not let yourself get run down and keep your immune system running optimally. Eat well, keep moving, and get the rest you need. A little self-care goes a very long way in keeping your body healthy.
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