Not Your Typical Year
Get a good health start. Stop and think about the simple steps to a healthy immune system.
It’s January, it’s cold, the days are short and the number of COVID-19 cases is still alarming. You just don’t feel like getting any exercise, and it might be takeout for dinner—again.
While we try to be motivated this time of year to stay healthy, it’s easy to let ourselves slip. But during the winter months, particularly during a pandemic, there should be a flashing neon sign in every home that says: Stop and think!
We should ask ourselves, what are we doing to stay healthy?
Start with a Healthy Immune System
A healthy immune system can help fight infections—bacterial or viral—even including COVID-19. One of the reasons COVID-19 is so dangerous is that because it’s a new virus, we don’t have any natural immunity to it. But we’ve learned that a healthy immune system can provide important protection and may help reduce the severity of an infection.
As an added bonus, a healthy immune system also protects us against colds, flu and other illnesses that people commonly experience during the winter months.
So, what should we be doing to maintain a healthy immune system?
Eight Specific Things To Do
Here are eight important things you should do in 2021:
1. Don’t smoke. Full stop right here. Quitting smoking is the single most important thing you can do to improve your health. That’s worth repeating: the single most important thing you can do. This goes for traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes. Both have proven to damage lung function, which in turn makes it harder to fight off respiratory illnesses such as the flu, COVID-19, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus, primarily affecting young children) and other seasonal viruses.
2. Exercise. After not smoking, this is the next most critically important step you can take for your health. A minimum of 30 minutes of exercise 3 to 5 times a week is recommended. The exercise can be low-impact, such as walking. The best exercise is the one you enjoy. And the one you do.
3. Follow food safety and hygiene guidelines. Reduce your risk of getting infections by washing hands and practicing food safety, which includes cooking meat thoroughly, not eating raw eggs and storing leftovers properly. In addition to proper hand washing, we should all be wearing masks, staying six feet apart, and avoiding indoor gatherings to protect us from COVID-19.
4. Get your flu shot. While the flu vaccine is not 100% effective, if you do get the flu, the vaccine can reduce the flu’s duration and severity of symptoms. It can keep you out of the hospital, which in turn will help make room for those patients with COVID-19 and other critically ill patients.
5. Eat a well-balanced diet. That’s a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables. Aim for smaller meals throughout the day. Make sure there’s enough fiber in your diet. Most importantly, stay well hydrated. Other nutrition tips: antioxidants are powerful in protecting you from harmful free radicals. Vitamin D plays an important role in overall health, especially during the winter months when we’re not absorbing much sun. Vitamin C is also very helpful for fighting off infections, so don’t forget your oranges. Another quick and easy tip to stay healthy is to read labels—if you can’t understand or pronounce what’s on the label, don’t buy the product.
6. Drink less alcohol. Enough said.
7. Reduce stress. Consider mindful meditation. It only takes a few minutes. And it’s something you can control, unlike many sources of stress.
8. Get enough restful sleep. It’s important to practice sleep hygiene. Again, consider mindfulness meditation, reading a book before bedtime, and keeping your cellphone out of sight. If you need help waking, invest in a classic alarm clock.
Four More Questions Answered
And here are answers to a few common nutrition questions.
1. Can supplements help keep you healthy?
If you’re generally in good health and eating a well-balanced diet, one multivitamin a day should be a sufficient supplement to your diet. If you do have a proven vitamin or micro-nutrient deficiency, you should discuss your supplement needs with your health care provider.
2. What about the diets?
Skip the latest health craze and stick to the basics outlined above. It’s easier to maintain a healthy weight and overall healthy lifestyle if you’re doing something you enjoy as opposed to adhering to a strict new diet. The latest fad may make you feel good temporarily, but too often people will plateau, and overall health doesn’t improve.
3. Do probiotics help?
There’s a place and time for probiotics, but they’re not recommended for daily use. You may consider probiotics to support your gut if you’re currently taking an antibiotic. Also, if your antibiotic course lasts only a short time, eating a small container of plain Greek yogurt each day may be helpful.
4. Should everyone consider eating gluten-free foods?
There are a few medical conditions that warrant being on a gluten-free diet, such as celiac disease. However, for the average healthy individual, a gluten-free diet doesn’t provide any additional health benefits. It just costs more.
Here’s wishing you a healthy New Year!
Glea H. Mazzuca, D.O., is a primary care physician and clinical director of ChristianaCare Primary Care and Women’s Health at Kennett Square. She is board certified in internal medicine.
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