When one of my young boys, my husband, or I bring home an illness from school or work, it’s often only a matter of time before our household of five is down for the count. I can remember times when it took weeks for all of us to finally be well again—such a drag! Fortunately, we’ve gotten much better in recent years at minimizing our risk of getting sick. As a nurse and health coach, I’m committed to long-term preventative measures, so we focus on keeping a strong immune system and nurturing a healthy microbiome as our first line of defense when it comes to decreasing the frequency and duration of colds and flus in our home.
Maintaining a resilient immune system and balanced microbiome is a proactive approach to help stave off the cold and flu. Effective hand washing is another great approach that can help prevent the spread of germs. You don’t necessarily need antibacterial soap to get the job done though. The FDA recently banned certain antibacterial agents, including triclosan and 18 other ingredients, from use in consumer anti-bacterial hand soaps. Some of these banned ingredients have been linked to changes in hormones including thyroid, estrogen, and testosterone in animals, including mammals.Both the FDA and CDC agree that washing your hands with plain soap and water for 20 seconds can effectively wash away germs and help prevent the spread of illness. Here are some more tips to keep your immune defenses strong and microbiome balanced this season:
- Manage your stress. Chronic stress decreases your white blood cell count and the body’s immune response. Make sure to prioritize activities that relax you, whether it’s exercise, reading, meditation, or just spending time with your family.
- Get plenty of rest. Especially if there is a cold going around your household, office, or community! Cortisol (the stress hormone) decreases at night when we sleep, and growth hormone—which is required to repair and heal tissue—increases.
- Don’t forget the oxytocin. Connecting with loved ones releases the hormone oxytocin, which is a natural anti-inflammatory. It also reduces blood pressure and cortisol.
- Adjust your diet. We do our best to limit refined sugar (an immunosuppressant) and processed foods, focusing instead on a plant-based diet. During cold and flu season especially, we up our intake of garlic and onions, as they have antimicrobial qualities. Fresh vegetables and fruits are also high on our list for their natural antioxidants. Mushrooms, green tea, and coconut oil are all high in betaglucans, which means they increase white blood cells. We also limit dairy this time of year, as it can cause inflammation and indigestion.
- Include supplements. Our family regularly takes vitamin D, probiotics, and omega 3 fatty acids to help manage inflammation in the body. We also take colostrum, which promotes a strong immune system by providing helpful antibodies and immunoglobules. In the winter months, we take supplements that contain astragalus and elderberry as a way to enhance our ability to ward off sickness—my sons take Berry Well Immune Support from Vital Kids, and I take ViraCon from Vtial Nutrients. If there is a cold going around, we’ll increase our vitamin C, vitamin A, and add zinc to the mix. I know it sounds like a lot—and definitely check with your doctor before going down the supplement road—but I really think these additions to our routine help keep us healthier.
- Just add humidity. Humid environments tend to slow the movement of germs. We live in an arid mountain climate, so I’m always looking for ways to add moisture to our environment, particularly in winter.
- Give warming socks a try. This doesn’t necessarily promote a healthy microbiome, but it’s a naturopathic remedy that has really worked for me when I’ve felt a cold coming on. Before bed, make sure your feet are nice and warm from a bath or foot soak, then put on ice cold, wet cotton socks. I know, it sounds crazy, but bear with me—cover the cotton socks with dry wool socks and hit the sack. I’ve found that not only do I sleep more deeply, but I have relieved congestion and feel much better when I wake up. Give it a try and see what you think!
What strategies do you and your family use to get through cold and flu season?
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World. Learn more at www.this-one-life.com.