Lifestyle choices to beat the flu season

Flocks of geese, noisy in their southern-bound departure, an unmistakable scent in the morning air, a light snow covering the mountain tops - fall has definitely arrived. It can be a time of excitement with the rush of back-to-school, new indoor projects and plans for holidays.

But for many, especially seniors, fall also brings the concern of facing another cold and flu season. Throughout the world, the colder months are labeled “cold and flu” season. Lower humidity and cooler air temperatures make it easier for cold and influenza viruses to survive and be passed from one person to another.

But, even with the elements working against us, we may be able to improve our resistance to infections with some simple health habits.

Eat your way to a stronger immune system

Healthy eating, improves the body’s ability to fight infections. It is difficult to nail down the specific nutrients, food components or foods that will make the largest difference to the immune system because nearly all nutrients contribute to fighting infections in one way or another. But, there are some notables on which to set your healthy eating sights. Protein, zinc, selenium and Vitamins E, C, A and D can all play roles in helping us avoid infections or reduce the length of infections or severity of symptoms.

Antioxidants, good fats and probiotics found in yogurt or fermented foods may also play a role.

In a recently published six-month study, seniors experienced fewer colds and infections when diets included five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, whole grain bread, fish twice a week and nuts at least once per week (hmmm, this sounds like the Mediterranean Diet).

These foods were meant to assure an adequate intake of zinc, selenium, carotenoids, Vitamin C and Vitamin E, all nutrients that have strong influences on the immune system.

Another group of seniors in the study were given a vitamin and mineral supplement with the same target nutrients and they also had fewer infections.

Keep it simple

Don’t panic. You don’t need to be a dietitian to figure out how to get all these nutrients in your diet – following the current dietary guidelines should help cover your bases and might lead to fewer infections. The foods used in the study – whole grains, fish, nuts and five servings per day of vegetables and fruit – will boost your intake of Vitamin C, Vitamin E, carotenoids (Vitamin A), zinc and selenium.

You may also consult with your medical provider about whether a supplement including those nutrients is right for you.

Other immune-boosting habits

A strong nutrition foundation should give you an immune boosting edge but some other habits and strategies shouldn’t be forgotten:

• Regular aerobic exercise improves immune responses

• Getting enough sleep lets the body repair itself and strengthens immune responses

• Meditation and relaxation techniques improve immune response

• Staying well-hydrated helps sinuses and mucous membranes resistant to infection

• Wash your hands often – after using any public space or after contact with anyone who is sick (wash thoroughly for 20 seconds, turn off faucet and dry hands with a paper towel). Use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol if water isn’t available

• Try to keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth unless you’ve washed your hands.

• Avoid exposure to sick individuals

• Don’t smoke

I do enjoy the fall. This is when I make my “new year’s resolutions.” I get started with year-long projects and goals and I know that there won’t be time to be sick. I’ll be eating lots of vegetables, Alaska salmon and berries and boosting the exercise.

I’m going to call Mom and tell her to do the same.

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Services in Anchorage. Call her at 786-6313.

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