How to Boost Your Immune System and Avoid Colds and Flu


In the United States, the incidence of cold and flu viruses begins to increase during October and can last through May. That is eight long months of potential coughs, sniffles, sneezes, fevers and aches and pains.  

Have you ever noticed how some people seem to pick up viruses more often than others? Where do you stand on the spectrum: Can you go through a cold and flu season without catching more than one mild cold or do you get hit harder with several viruses during the eight months? 

The cold and flu season has turned into a money maker in the United States, with many people trying to avert illness by spending on hand sanitizer, orange juice, cough syrup and cleaning products containing bleach. The key to avoiding getting sick isn’t to prepare just in case you get sick, but instead to prepare your immune system to stay well. This can be done in some simple, but not always easy, steps. In addition to the steps below, I increase my vitamin c and zinc intake during the flu season. So far so good and going strong! 

1.)  Limit Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates

I know it’s not fun, but it could not be truer. Most people know that consuming sugar through processed food and carbohydrates affects their health in numerous negative ways. Due to the temporary release of drug-like endorphins after consuming sugar, the very serious short- and long-term health effects are often dismissed. But did you know that consuming processed sugar actually weakens your immune system?

A study done in 1973 by Loma Linda University concluded that when you eat 100 grams of sugar (think one can of soda), your white blood cell count actually drops by 40-50% for the next five hours. Your white blood cells are “first-responders,” so to speak, and are responsible for fighting viral germs and bacterial infections. Almost half of these cells in your body are suppressed after eating sugar, making you far more susceptible to picking up that nasty cold or flu. 

Sugar impacts your white blood cells by competing for space in those cells with Vitamin C. When Linus Pauling did research in the 1970s to find out how the body uses Vitamin C, he discovered that white blood cells need Vitamin C to destroy bacteria and viruses. Sugar and Vitamin C are similar in their molecular structure. When you eat sugar, it directly competes for space in your immune cells with Vitamin C! The more sugar in your system, the less Vitamin C can get into your white blood cells. Sugar is not your friend and does not help your immune system fight infection at all, resulting in a weakened defense from infections.

The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar per day. This is equivalent to about 24 grams, but according to New Hampshire Health & Human Services, Americans are consuming 168 grams of sugar per day! That is a whole lot of sugar paralyzing people’s immune systems, so to truly limit your chances of catching that cold or flu, be mindful of your sugar intake. It will benefit your health in countless ways.

2.) Get your beauty sleep 

You have heard it before: Sleep is crucial for overall health and wellbeing. According to the American Sleep Association, 50-70 million people in the United States suffer from insomnia or other sleep disorders. There is a very strong relationship and data linking chronic disease and illnesses with sleep deprivation. Studies show that a lack of good sleep reduces immune system function by 50% and raises the risk of a person getting sick with a virus or bacterial infection. 
Lack of sleep can reduce the number of cytokines produced by your body. Cytokines are a protein that your immune system releases during sleep. Certain cytokines need to increase when you have a cold, flu or inflammation, and a lack of sleep decreases their production, making you more susceptible to viruses. 

To improve the quality of your sleep, develop a nightly pre-bedtime routine including activities such as reading, stretching or enjoying a non-caffeinated tea. Go to bed at the same time every night and use an alarm so you wake up at the same time as well. This will help your body develop a healthy sleep pattern. Avoid all television in your bedroom and instead opt for a humidifier or fan if white noise is needed, and use a face mask and ear plugs if needed.  

3.) Move your body 

One more reason to step away from the desk and move that body! Studies show moderate exercise and movement is a great way to boost the immune system and contribute to overall happiness, energy and wellbeing. 

Scientists believe exercise can boost the immune system in a variety of ways. Some of these may be that physical activity can help flush out harmful bacteria from the lungs or airways, limiting your chances of catching that cold or flu. Light to moderate exercise can also reduce stress hormones that can make you more susceptible to catching a nasty bug. 

The key is light to moderate movement, since intense exercise can actually suppress the immune system. Think a walk, bike ride, yoga, light jog, playing sports, light cardio and weight work at home, etc. You do not need to work out an hour every day to reap the health benefits of exercise. Some actually believe the magic number is 20-minutes per day of movement to give your immune system that beautiful boost!

4.) Namaste and minimize stress

This one is a no-brainer. Ongoing stress, whether it be physical or emotional, can interfere with the delicate hormonal balance in our bodies, depressing our immune systems. Stress triggers chemical reactions and releases a flood of cortisol (our primary stress hormone) into our bodies, triggering inflammation and suppressing the immune cells needed to fight infections. Over time, this not only leads to a weakened immune system unable to ward off colds and flu, but can lead to chronic disease. 

To reduce day-to-day stress, practice daily relaxation techniques like a 10-minute walk, positive thinking or a gratitude journal, meditation, social connection or deep breathing. Studies also show a negative mindset and anxiety can also lower the immune system, so when in doubt, try to see that glass as half full! 

5.) Wash yo' hands 

This one is a little controversial. Some experts believe that our overly-good hygiene and hand sanitizer use is what is causing us to get sick, because we are not exposing ourselves to bacteria in order to build up that immunity. It’s been shown that children who own pets get less sick , possible due to exposure to pet dander and other microbes at an early age, allowing their immune system to adapt to that exposure.  

I agree that we have lost touch with nature a bit and are afraid to get a little dirty, which can contribute to a weakened immune system. With that said, washing your hands with soap and water (not hand sanitizer) regularly, if you know the flu and colds are going around, is a good idea. Some viruses can live on surfaces like shopping carts and door handles for hours. Washing your hands prior to touching your face or eyes is your best defense against picking up these germs that are passed from one person to another.

When in doubt, veg it out, move your body, laugh a lot, stress a little and wash your hands!