It’s the time of year when the sniffling, coughing and sneezing of the cold and flu season return across the country. While some approach the season expecting to catch a bug, area doctors and other medical experts are recommending ways to boost your immune system and potentially fight off any winter infections or illnesses.
John Sissney, a family medicine physician with TexomaCare, said the most effective way to prevent illness, including influenza, is to stay on top of immunizations and shots.
“The literature on immunizations is very clear,” Sissney said. “Are they 100 percent effective? No. Are they highly effective? Yes.”
With seasonal threats like the flu, Sissney encourages patients to treat it seriously. While the flu is a common illness, Sissney said it kills about 56,000 people per year, including between 8,000 and 10,000 in the U.S.
Beyond the annual flu shot, Sissney said there are many other shots individuals should get to help boost their immune system against preventable diseases. Adults should get a booster shot for tetanus once every 10 years, while individuals who interact with children should get a one-time booster against pertussis, also known as the whooping cough.
Other immunizations are recommended when people get older. For those at risk, Sissney recommends a shot for pneumonia, but said the medication can vary depending on age. Individuals in their 50s or 60s should also start getting inoculated against diseases like the shingles.
Aside from age, other factors that can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system include obesity, said Jennifer Laing, a doctor with Wilson N. Jones Regional Medical Center. By the year 2035, about 10 percent of the world population is expected to have diabetes, according to the International Diabetes Federation. High blood sugar can have a negative effect on white blood cells, Laing said. Exercise, however, can have a double effect by encouraging weight loss while also strengthening the immune system.
“When we exercise, we boost our immune systems,” Laing said. “We work out stress and that is an incredible downer on the immune system.”
Laing recommends a mixture of both aerobic and weight training exercises three times a week, for a total of at least 150 to 300 minutes of exercise per week. Laing said there are ways to work some of that exercise into your weekly schedule by making simple adjustments to your habits, including parking farther away from store entrances when shopping.
Alongside exercise, proper nutrition is the key to staying healthy and boosting the immune system, according to both Sissney and Laing. However, the typical American diet usually isn’t the healthiest. A proper diet should include about six to 10 servings of vegetables each day, Laing said.
“We take better care of our cars and homes than we do our body,” said Laing. “I see a lot of people who eat a McDonald’s diet and expect a Corvette body.”
While it may be difficult to get all the vitamins needed to keep your immune system strong from diet alone, both doctors recommended a simple multivitamin as a way to fill in the gaps. However, Laing said this should be done under the guidance of a physician, as certain health conditions can be exacerbated by an excess of certain vitamins.
Sissney also cautioned against taking too many vitamins. While a small influx of Vitamin C may help boost the immune system during a period of illness, 10 times the daily recommended value will not help. The body is only able to absorb so much, and the remaining vitamins will instead be flushed out of the system.
“All you are left with is expensive urine,” Sissney said.
Maintaining a proper sleep schedule and getting around eight hours of sleep a night can also have a positive effect on the immune system, Laing said.
“What I am a big proponent of is staying simple, and one of the simplest things we can do is get adequate rest,” Laing said.
She specifically recommended rest and sleep that follows the body’s circadian rhythm and day and night cycle. She recommended that people get to sleep earlier — by 11 p.m. at the latest — in order to get the best rest possible.
“One hour of sleep before midnight is better than two after,” she said.