It’s that time of year again. It’s almost winter. If you live somewhere with four seasons like me, you will undoubtedly be spending more time indoors over the next few months. That means you’ll be up close and personal with people and their germs! You can wash your hands all you want, but you’re still going to be exposed to cold and flu germs.
So should you just give up and go buy a case of Nyquil and Kleenex? No! There are evidence-based things you can do to prevent colds and flu!
First off, get enough sleep! This is hugely important. Even just one bad night’s sleep can lower immunity. Losing one to two hours of sleep per night can result in a “sleep debt” that leaves your immunity chronically low. And don’t fall for the “catching up on weekends” sleep myth. A single night of solid sleep will not “pay off” a sleep debt.
Second, focus on your gut health. I’m obsessed with this topic lately. I’ve written about it before. Gut health affects nearly every health condition, including immunity and even weight!
By “focus on”, I mean:
- Work on creating and maintaining a healthy, resilient mucosal barrier (it lines the inside of your intestinal tract), and
- Keep a healthy balance and diversity of bacteria in the gut.
About 100 trillion bacteria line your intestinal tract. It’s an extremely complex living system that aggressively protects your body from outside invaders. A healthy gut will protect you against an over-growth of disease-causing microorganisms, and help you digest food and absorb nutrients.
So what should you eat to increase the diversity of bacteria and improve the resilience of your gut? Prebiotics and probiotics may be beneficial. Prebiotics are indigestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and maintenance of beneficial gut bacteria. Onions and garlic have high amounts (onions and garlic can help kill the bad bacteria too!). Probiotics are good bacteria that may help repopulate the gut. The research on probiotics is all over the place. Plus, there are so many different strains, it’s hard to know which one affects which health condition. And that’s if they even make it past the acidic stomach to the gut! However, while I don’t take a supplement, I’m hedging my bets and still incorporating foods that contain probiotics into my diet. Fermented foods like miso, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and kefir are great sources.
I’m learning a lot about bone broth lately. This is just like it sounds – broth made from bones, not bouillon cubes or from a box. It contains gelatin, which is very soothing and healing to the gut wall. In an ideal world, I’d be making it in the crock pot every week. But in real life, I try to make pho – Vietnamese noodle soup – a regular part of my diet in the winter. It’s a cheap and delicious way to get real bone broth outside my house. Luckily, I live in the Washington metro area and there is a pho house in nearly every strip mall!
So how does the gut get out of balance in the first place? Well, our modern world of processed foods, antibiotics, stress, and hand sanitizer certainly doesn’t help. If you eat a lot of processed foods, the balance of bacteria in your gut will have a hard time staying optimal.
Antibiotics wreak havoc on the balance as well. Avoid antibiotics unless necessary. This is a tricky situation, because doctors don’t always agree on when they’re necessary. There are plenty of doctors who are still giving them out willy nilly – for prevention and even for viruses! Several studies have shown that half of all antibiotic prescriptions are not needed! More and more doctors are getting on the “no antibiotics” bandwagon though. Especially as it becomes more and more clear that when you take antibiotics, the diversity of the gut microbial ecosystem declines, leaving you susceptible to secondary infection. And it takes a long time to get the gut bacteria back in balance after a round of antibiotics. Unless I’m dying, I trust in my body’s inherent ability to heal (fevers are good people!) and I avoid antibiotics.
Once I learned how bad they are for the gut lining, I’ve severely limited my use of aspirin , ibuprofen, naproxen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) as well.
Who am I to talk about this topic? I’m just a dietitian, researcher, and self-experimenter. I get sick sometimes. But it’s unusually just a cold that doesn’t knock me out for more than a day or two. I thought about this topic when I was talking to someone recently who has chronic sinus infections. She’s on antibiotics a few times a year. While I was talking to her, she was drinking a Mountain Dew, eating a bag of Cheeze-Its, and sucking on a lollypop. Gah! By simply eating better, she could significantly affect her chances of getting another sinus infection. I’ve also been thinking about this topic a lot as I do everything in my power to have a natural labor and delivery in six-ish weeks (!!). A vaginal birth gives a baby a huge head start in balancing their gut bacteria for life!
For more info on gut health, check out this awesome blog I recently discovered:
I’m about to start reading Gut and Psychology Syndrome (aka the GAPS Diet), to help patients deal with food allergies and sensitivities. Anyone read it? I’ve heard it’s the “gut health Bible.”