winter landscape
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Conquering a Common Winter Foe

by Yvona Fast

In winter we spend more time in warm, dry, indoor environments with little air circulation and lots of people contact. It's not surprising that colds are common, because they're caused by viruses that favor dry, cracked nasal passages, travel through the air by sneeze or cough droplets, and are further spread by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth after you've come in contact with an infected person.

One way to minimize spreading the virus is by bringing moisture back into the air with a well-maintained humidifier and good ventilation system. Sleeping with your bedroom window opened slightly, along with washing your hands often and keeping your fingers from touching your face, will certainly help.

But, the best way to conquer colds and flu is to strengthen your immune system. Diet, exercise, rest, and stress reduction all play a vital role in your body's ability to fight disease.

Medical professionals agree that many people who suffer from frequent, repeated colds and complain of feeling run down employ poor eating habits. A healthier diet that includes a simple vitamin supplement can help boost their immune systems and bring about substantial changes in overall quality of life during the winter months.

Adequate sleep is also essential for the immune system to operate properly. Dr. Michael Irwin, M.D., a sleep researcher and psychiatrist at UCLA, has found that even modest disturbances of sleep patterns produce a reduction of immune activity.

Staying fit increases the body's production of white blood cells. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts examined differences in RTI risk between physically inactive and moderately active adults. They found that people who were physically active had 25% less respiratory tract infections per year compared to their sedentary friends.

Vitamin C to the Rescue

Many vitamins and herbs can strengthen immunity, improving resistance to infections. While supplements can help, it's best to obtain these powerful nutrients from your diet, because they don't occur naturally in isolation but act synergistically with other compounds. While it's possible to take too many pills, it's difficult to overdose on food.

"Vitamin C is particularly important because it helps to keep immune systems healthy," says Robyn Webb, M.S., L.N. Because it's water soluble, vitamin C that's not absorbed is excreted; therefore, you need a daily supply. But, beware. This potent vitamin is highly acidic. Too much at once can irritate the stomach.

I was a sickly child, catching every cold and flu that went through my school. Then we moved, and I began living with my grandmother, who owned and maintained her own grove of orange trees. Each time I came in from playing all hot and thirsty, I was offered a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice. After a few months of this "treatment," my colds miraculously ceased.

Today, at the first sign of a virus, I make lemonade by squeezing lemons into a glass of water and adding honey to sweeten it. It works for me.

I think it's important to use fresh fruit rather than bottled juice that has lingered on store shelves because some ingredients are inadvertently removed in processing, while others are lost through storage. As in all areas of good nutrition, fresh is best.

Other vitamins and minerals important to immune function include folic acid (a B vitamin), betacarotene, vitamins A, D, and E, zinc, iron (essential for white blood cells), copper, and selenium. Choose foods packed with these immune boosters to help keep winter illness to a minimum.

Herbs Versus Sniffles

Traditional herbal medicine offers several tools for strengthening the body's resistance to illness. One example is Echinacea, a North American herb long used by American Plains Indians. Today it accounts for nearly 10 percent of all herbal supplements sold in the U.S. Although researchers in one study found that using it for 12 weeks didn't protect volunteers from RTIs, other published studies have shown that when Echinacea is taken at the first sign of a cold, symptoms are milder and the duration is shorter. Long-term use of Echinacea as a preventive, however, is not warranted.

Many other herbs benefit the immune system. Garlic's medicinal properties have been enjoyed for thousands of years; medical studies have shown that it boasts antibacterial, antiviral, and fungal, and antiprotozoal properties.

Ginseng has a long history of use in the Orient. Its antistress action is significant for disease prevention, and it has been shown to help avert the common cold. Green tea, elderberry, milk thistle, cat's claw, and astragalus also appear to stimulate the immune system.

All of these supplements are widely available in supermarkets as well as pharmacies. However, they're not regulated by the FDA, and the amount of active ingredients can vary substantially from one bottle to the next.

Getting Down and Dirty

We were not meant to live in a sterile world. The immune system has to be stimulated to develop properly, and overuse of antibacterial products can increase our susceptibility to disease by causing our immune system to stagnate.

Antimicrobial ingredients such as triclosan—a broad-spectrum antibacterial agent-are now common in many personal care and household cleaning products and have become popular among consumers. Routine use of these products, which are widely advertised for killing household germs, adds to the ever-growing problem of drug resistant bacteria. Read ingredients labels carefully, or choose more nature-based cleaning agents.

Another culprit implicated in creating resistant strains of bacteria are antibiotics. Keep in mind that they're designed to kill bacteria, not viruses. Thus their overuse is harmful and contributes to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. One study found that antibiotic prescribing for children with respiratory tract infection, viral conditions that do not benefit from antibiotics, represents a substantial portion of total antibiotic prescriptions to children in the United States each year.

Researchers at Boston Medical Center who surveyed parents and doctors found that, while many parents are concerned about the overuse of antibiotics, they often request them even though their physicians believe they're unnecessary. Many parents maintain misconceptions about which illnesses warrant antibiotic therapy, and may even administer antibiotics without their physician's knowledge.

When it comes to colds and flu, nature has a way of combating them if we give it a chance to work. By boosting our immune systems, we're preparing our bodies to do battle with our most common winter foe. More important, our stronger, more resistant bodies will keep on fighting diseases long after the snows melt. Good health can and should be enjoyed through every season of our lives.

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