Kick your immune system into high gear

With autumn comes color, cool nights, cozy sweaters – and coughing coworkers. Infectious viruses lurk everywhere and it’s hard to avoid them. Don’t fall victim. A good offense is your best defense against catching a cold or getting really sick. But you can’t just eat an orange or squeeze lemon juice in your water and expect one quick burst of vitamin C to prevent a cold. A healthy immune system depends on a balanced mix of vitamins and minerals over time, plus normal sleep patterns and a hefty dose of exercise.

Bolster your immune system with these simple tips and you’ll sidestep – or at least minimize – the suffering cold and flu season can bring.

Exercise in autumn’s fresh, brisk air

Get outside and move. A brisk 20 to 30-minute walk increases blood circulation, allowing immune cells to move freely through your body where they can work efficiently. And, it raises your T cell count to help boost immunity. 

Don’t skimp on sleep

The only time your immune system has a chance to rebuild is while you’re asleep. The rest of the time it’s busy working to keep you cold- and flu-free. 

Lack of sleep sends stressor signals to your immune system. In response, white blood cells are activated and start to fight off “invaders” – just as if you were actually sick. So give your body plenty of rest by getting a full six to eight hours of sleep a night. 

Stress less

People under a lot of stress tend to get sick more often. That’s because when you’re stressed, your body’s immune system kicks into action – as if it’s being attacked. 

Antibodies increase and your body produces cortisol (a hormone that fights inflammation). Under prolonged stress, cortisol eventually suppresses your immune cells, making you far more vulnerable to getting a nasty case of the flu. 

Get your vitamins

Vitamin A is the immune system’s “defender.” To get more vitamin A in your diet, look for color. Foods that are high in colorful compounds called carotenoids include carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and squash.

Vitamins B6 is critical to how your immune system functions. You’ll find it in bananas, cold-water fish such as tuna, baked potatoes and chickpeas.

Vitamin C is associated with citrus fruits, but you can also get this immune-boosting vitamin from leafy greens like kale, spinach bell peppers and Brussels sprouts.

Vitamin D supports the immune system and provides protection against colds, flus, viral illnesses and bacterial infections. You can increase your intake by eating fatty fish, such as tuna or salmon, and fortified cereals, orange juice or milk. Many Americans are deficient in vitamin D, especially those living in northern states that may get less sunshine or at high altitude (above 3,000 feet). Have your levels checked. You may need a supplement. 

Take advantage of probiotics

Good bacteria (probiotics) live in your digestive tract and keep intestinal tissue healthy. Probiotics can stimulate the production of antibodies and T cells (specialized immune cells) to fight off invading viruses. 

For the most benefit, consume foods and drinks that contain live and active cultures: yogurt, kefir and buttermilk, freshly made fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and miso paste, kombucha tea (a fermented drink made with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast) and probiotic-fortified energy bars and cereals. 

If you’re lactose or gluten intolerant, check with your primary care provider and consider taking a daily probiotic supplement. 

Don’t forget to vaccinate!

It can take up to two weeks to start working, so get inoculated as soon as you can in preparation for cold and flu season.