It’s that time of year… cold and flu season. Runny noses, coughs and germs start to spread like wildfire through offices, daycares, and gyms as we all move indoors during the colder, drier and darker days of winter.
Nothing derails your productivity at work or in the gym faster than a nasty cold. Fight back this year and find out how you can stop bacteria and viruses in their tracks. Here are six reasons you get sick and how you can fix them.
1. You Don’t Follow A Seasonal Diet
If you follow the patterns of nature and try to eat foods that are fresh and in-season, it’s remarkable how you correct for deficiencies without even knowing it. For example, vitamin A is a common deficiency in the general population, and when levels are low, it impairs the “first line of defense” of your immune system (i.e., neutrophils, macrophages, natural killer cells, etc.) (1)
Vitamin A is found in abundance in orange vegetables that are typically harvested in fall. Eating squash, pumpkins, etc. helps rebuild mucosal immunity, keeping the immune army in your sinuses and gut wall strong and impermeable throughout the winter.
The Fix: Follow an ancestral approach and eat seasonally. Pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes, and carrots are all fall classics rich in immune-boosting vitamin A. They make a great roasted veggie option for lunch or dinner, or you can puree them into soups to warm up and stay cold- and flu-free.
2. You’re Over-Caffeinated!
As the days get shorter, you should be getting more rest and recovery. Unfortunately, the end of the year is typically the busiest time for people at work and at home, as we gear up for the holiday season. The accumulation of stressors, a busy work and family schedule, lack of sleep, and eating on the run is the perfect recipe for fatigue, and the first thing most people reach for is an extra cup of coffee (or two) throughout the day. You’re already burning the candle at both ends, and by adding more stimulants to the mix, you tax your nervous system even further. This leaves you more susceptible to colds and flu. (2)
The Fix: If you are run down, take your foot off the accelerator and reduce your coffee intake by 50%. If you only drink one cup per day, take 1-2 days off per week to give your nervous system a break and your immune system a chance to recharge. As a general rule, always drink your last cup before noon.
3. Your Belly Is Fighting A Losing Battle
Did you know that over 70% of your immune system is in your gut? That’s right, all the “good” bacteria in your gut play a key role in preventing foreign invaders from penetrating your immune defenses. (3) However, there are a lot things in today’s environment that can sway the balance of “good” to “bad” gut flora and lead to dysbiosis or the accumulation of too much bad gut bacteria. A hectic schedule, stress, alcohol, caffeine, sugar, processed foods and the environment can all derail a healthy gut.
The Fix: Add more Paleo-friendly fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha tea, tamari sauce, and yogurt to get your daily dose of “good” bacteria. If you’re feeling run down, add a probiotic supplement daily to prevent bacteria from adhering to mucous membranes and penetrating your immune defenses.
If for some reason you have to take antibiotics, be sure to include a probiotic supplement twice daily (away from your medication) to help maintain healthy gut flora.
4. Your Vitamin D Levels Are Too Low
Vitamin D status is a crucial factor for maintaining health and fighting off colds from November until March. Vitamin D upregulates key antimicrobial proteins which keep foreign bacteria and viruses at bay.
Unfortunately, even though ancestral foods like eggs, pork, fish, and mushrooms have some vitamin D, it’s not typically enough to maintain your blood levels above 30ng/ml, the recommended level for the general population. If you live north of the 49th parallel in a country with a true winter season, then maintaining your ideal levels of vitamin D in the coldest and darkest months is particularly difficult from food alone.
If you’re athletic, your vitamin D level becomes even more important. Due to their intense training, athletes have a greater need for vitamin D. Intense exercise drives down vitamin D levels, and new research is uncovering how deficiency can lead to reduced muscular power production, V02 max (a measure of peak aerobic fitness), inflammation and recovery. (4) Based on the research, you should maintain your levels above 40ng/ml throughout the year if athletic performance is your goal.
The Fix: Add a vitamin D supplement (2,000-4,000 IU daily) to maintain your levels throughout the winter months. If you’re supplementing at the top end of this range, get your levels tested every 8-12 weeks. Also, be sure to include vitamin D-rich foods and Paleo staples like eggs, pork (e.g. bacon), fish, and mushrooms to fight off the seasonal decline of vitamin D.
5. You Don’t Wash Your Hands Enough
We tell our children to wash their hands before they eat, but how many times do you wash yours before you sit down to have your lunch or post-workout snack? We all think we do it, but slacking off in the winter is a surefire way to catch that nasty cold going around the office, daycare or gym.
How important is hand washing? The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued repeated suggestions to “avoid shaking hands” for business people throughout the winter to avoid the rapid spread of germs.
The Fix: Like your mom always said, “Wash your hands before you eat!” It’s that simple. (Note – soap and water are just as effective as antimicrobial hand sanitizers.)
6. You Don’t Get To Bed Early Enough
A new study on modern day hunter-gatherer tribes across the globe – the San of southern Africa, the Tsimane in Bolivia and the Hadza in Tanzania – found they sleep an average of 6-7 hours per night, less than the 7.5-8.5 hours of sleep experts generally consider the “sweet spot” for optimal rest and rejuvenation. So, does this mean you don’t really need more sleep?
Not exactly. The answer changes depending on the season. The researchers found that in the shorter, darker days of winter, the tribes went to bed about one hour earlier than during the summer months. While they did stay up a few hours after sunset, they weren’t exactly “night owls;” their average bedtime was 9:15pm in winter and 10:45pm in summer. The hunter-gatherer tribes were found to wake up at the same time throughout the year. (5)
For many of us, the winter months leading up to the holiday season are often the busiest months at home and at work. This means later bedtimes and less total sleep. Most people struggle to get bed before midnight (laptops, cell phones and TVs don’t help) and typically don’t get to bed earlier in the colder, darker winter months.
The Fix: Switch off and get to bed earlier in the colder, darker, winter months to prevent illnesses and feel more energized. Research shows that sleeping less than 5 hours at night equals a 5-fold increased risk of catching a cold or flu, so make sure that, even during busy periods, you aren’t running on empty. (6)
(Read: 8 Tips to Sleep Better)
Don’t let a few nasty bugs slow you down. Stay ahead of the game! The best way to fight off colds and flu is to avoid getting them in the first place. These six tips are tried and tested “fixes” to increase your resiliency and keep your immune system strong this fall and winter.