Although we refer to “catching” a cold, the truth is that we are surrounded by viruses all the time. Whether or not the viruses take hold in our bodies depends on two major factors:
- How virulent (“strong”) the virus is
- How weakened our immune system is
The following is a fool-proof recipe for catching a cold or the flu in one long, exhausting week. Mix the ingredients carefully. Some substitutions are allowed, e.g. substitute a sick spouse or co-worker for a child.
- 3 – 4 hours of sleep per night
- 4 – 6 cookies per day
- 1 midterm exam for the evening MBA class
- 2 presentations at work
- 30 ounces of fluid per day
- 2 sick children at home
- 1 serving of fruits and vegetables per day (and some days that one serving is ketchup)
- 3 difficult phone calls (one with your boss, one with your mother, one with your –ex)
- 1 sudden weather shift, with a 30-degree temperature drop overnight
- 25 minutes waiting for the bus in the rain
This recipe includes the finest ingredients for stressing the immune system and creating the perfect internal environment for developing a cold or the flu. In truth we do not “catch” a cold; viruses and bacteria surround us all the time. We become ill when a potent enough virus encounters a weakened immune system.
Let’s examine the ingredients to discover how to boost rather than undermine your immune system’s health.
Sleep: Sleeping less than seven hours per night increases the risk for developing both acute and chronic diseases. Lack of sleep decreases the activity of natural killer cells and B cells, important components of our immune system’s ability to respond to acute infections.[i] Regularly sleeping less than seven hours per night also increases the risk for developing gastric, colorectal, and lung cancer.[ii] [iii] [iv] Increasing sleep is one of the most enjoyable ways of preventing colds and the flu.
Foods: Eating even small amounts of refined sugar can depress immune function up to 24 hours. Snack on fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grain crackers and almond butter, and fresh nuts. The most recent research suggests eating seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day supports optimal immune function.[v] [vi]
Stress: What lands as “stress” is different for each person. Anticipating stressful situations, e.g. the two presentations at work, an exam,[vii] or a conversation with an angry boss, can weaken the immune system. Sometimes the mind can handle more stress than the physical body. Many professional athletes, for example, are trained to ignore or override their bodies’ distress signals. They take that training into their daily lives, often with unhealthy consequences.
The phone call with Mom may trigger every childhood pattern you thought you had resolved. The difficult interaction with the boss may increase frustration or disappointment.
Plan ahead and minimize stressful phone calls and interactions during busy weeks, including holidays. Plan something relaxing or rejuvenating afterward, e.g. a walk or time to dig in the garden. Physical activity helps to “use up” the stress related hormones, e.g. epinephrine and norepinephrine, that are dumped during stressful encounters. Work with a counselor, minister, or mentor to resolve underlying issues.
Weather changes and exposure to the elements: In the West we like to think we are impervious to the elements. What could standing in the cold rain have to do with developing a cold? Chinese medicine recognizes the impact of the elements on the body. Colds, for example, are considered an invasion of wind, dampness, cold, or heat. From Chinese understanding, these elements are particularly prone to enter the body through the back of the neck. You can help prevent colds by wearing a scarp, especially during windy weather. Wear a silk or cotton scarf during warm, windy weather and an acrylic or wool scarf in winter. We lose most of our heat through the top of the head (darn, Mom was right about that), so wearing a hat is helpful as well.
Dehydration: our respiratory tracts are lined with mucous membrane tissue rich with immuneglobulins to fight bacteria and viruses. When we are dehydrated, the ratio of immune globulins (IgA, IgG, IgM) changes, the immune system is suppressed, and neutrophil activity is decreased.[viii] In essence, the respiratory tract is more vulnerable to invasion by bacteria and viruses. Remember that drinks sweetened with refined sugars decrease immune function. Drink more water, herb teas and diluted 100% fruit juices.
Exposure to viruses and bacteria: Although we are surrounded by bacteria and viruses all the time, the virulence (strength) of the viruses and as their sheer number influence whether or not we will become ill. Two sick children are perfect vectors, as are travelers coughing on the plane and a coworker sneezing in the next cubicle. You can minimize these exposures by regularly cleaning commonly used surfaces (e.g. sink handles, doorknobs, light switches, refrigerator door handles, etc.) Using a neti pot can also reduce viral exposure.
Remember that the primary supports for the immune system include a good diet, rest, and basic hygiene. We don’t “catch” bacteria and viruses – they live around us all the time. Whether we succumb or thrive depends on the health of our immune system. The herbal allies astragalus, Siberian ginseng and spirulina all can offer potent additional support for the immune system.
[i] Krueger, J. and Majde, J. (1990). Sleep as a host defense: its regulation by microbial products and cytokines. Clinical Immunology and Immunopathology 57(2), 188-199.
[ii] Hu, et al. (2104) Deregulated expression of circadian clock genes in gastric cancer. BMC Gastroenterol. 14, 67. doi: 10.1186/1471-230X-14-67.
[iii] Luojus, M., Lehto, S., Tolmunen, T., Erkila, A., & Kauhanen, J. (2014). Sleep duration and incidence of lung cancer in ageing men BMC Public Health, 14, 295. BMC Public Health.,14, 295. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-14-295.
[iv] Thompson, et al. (2011) Short duration of sleep increases risk of colorectal adenoma. Cancer, 117(4), 841-7
[v] Leenders, M., Boshuizen, H., et al. (2014). Fruit and vegetable intake and cause-specific mortality in the EPIC study. Eur J Epidemiol. 29(9), 639-52. doi: 10.1007/s10654-014-9945-9.
[vi] Oyebode, O., Gordon-Dseagu, V., Walker, A., & Mindell, J. (2014). Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause, cancer and CVD mortality: analysis of Health Survey for England data. J Epidemiol Community Health doi:10.1136/jech-2013-203500