8 Daily Habits That Could Be Making You Sick
Last Updated: Oct 28, 2015
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You might have already seen it at work, in the gym or on the bus. As sure as turkey on Thanksgiving, cold and flu season starts in the late fall and continues through early spring. Sure, you can try to ward off lurking viruses by adding home remedies like echinacea, vitamin C or zinc to your daily routine. However, there are a handful of common, everyday habits that you may not realize are either sapping your immune system’s strength or exposing you unnecessarily, potentially sabotaging your efforts to boost your immunity to the rhinovirus in the room.
Numerous studies over the years have made a very clear connection between stress and its negative effect on immune system function. Stress can come from a variety of sources, such as work or family pressures, but the one that seems most damaging to immunity seems to be stress brought on by loneliness or limited social support systems, according to the American Psychological Association. To help ward off this damaging immunity-buster, reach out and plan times to get together with friends, or try joining a new social club or sports team. Along the same lines, chronic depression, even nonclinical depression, has been shown to weaken T cell responses, which indicates how effectively the body responds to viruses and bacteria. If you’ve been feeling low, cold and flu season may be the best time to finally see a medical practitioner about possible treatments.
NOT EATING DIVERSELY
Beyond vitamin C and D, the body relies on a host of nutrients to keep the immune system functioning in top shape. As the days get colder and darker, we tend to go straight for comfort foods, often not as nutrient-dense as salads and grilled veggies you might see in the spring and summer. Vitamin A, for instance, helps your body’s white blood cells better fight infection. If cooler weather makes cold snacks like carrots and hummus less appealing, look to side dishes likes sauteed or steamed dark leafy greens and sweet potatoes to increase vitamin A in your diet. Vitamin E, excellent for battling respiratory infections, can be found in seeds and nuts, with walnuts and pumpkin seeds being good options and easy to add to a salad, bake with some vegetables or even sneak in through a dessert or trail mix.
For many, it’s far too easy to move from your house or apartment to the garage to the garage at work and inside the office without ever having to go outside. In the winter, it’s also easy to make excuses to drive to work when you usually walk or to run on a treadmill instead of bundling up for an outdoors jog. Unfortunately, you are missing out on one of the most effective sources of vitamin D: natural sunlight. Simply spending 10 minutes in bright sunlight can boost vitamin D production, further enhancing your ability to fight colds and flu. We need a recommended daily intake of 2,000 to 5,000 IU of vitamin D to help bone strength and immune system health, according to internal medicine physician Banita Kooner, D.O., with the Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “Vitamin D deficiency may be related to rheumatologic issues too, such as hypothyroidism and celiac disease,” she adds -- all the more reason to schedule your sun session. Simply sitting on a bench or going for a stroll in bright light for 10 minutes can do the trick.
PLUNGING INTO THE POTATO CHIP BOWL
This isn’t in reference to the fact that a junk-filled diet might make it harder to fight a cold (although it can). It more has to do with all the communal snacks at parties and get-togethers or even the ol’ bowl of nuts at a bar. If you’re concerned about picking up a bug at a party, pass on the chips and dips and instead opt for individual appetizers or wrapped candies.
When it’s cold out, it may be easy to burrow in and hibernate. Or you may be avoiding human contact to avoid germs. In addition to diminishing your social network, choosing to isolate yourself from others can actually backfire when it comes to outrunning a cold or flu. “Isolation means you are not accountable for your irregular eating patterns or other unhealthy behaviors; one may drink more alcohol, eat more unhealthily, skip meals and/or sleep too much or too little. Your motivation to meet friends and family may be minimal because they help provide feedback you aren’t willing to accept,” says Dr. Kooner. Get out even when you don’t feel like it, because sometimes it’s good to be part of the herd.
NOT WATCHING WHAT YOU’RE TOUCHING
You visit the doctor’s office, cringing at every cough and sniffle around you in the waiting room. After the appointment you vigorously scrub your hands in the washroom or douse yourself in hand sanitizer. Unfortunately, you go back to the office and grab your afternoon cup of coffee from the communal pot (the one used by everyone in your department). You might not think about a coffee pot or watercooler as a germ incubator, but any surface touched frequently can harbor a variety of nasty cold and flu viruses. “It may be a little obsessive to wash your hands each time you touch something public, so I prefer to instead recommend to make it a habit not to touch your face at all during the day if you can help it,” says Dr. Kooner. “Touching your nose, lips and eyes is the culprit for bacteria and viruses to get in your system. This is why people get sick on airplanes so easily.”
We should be getting at least seven to nine hours a night for optimum immune response, says Dr. Kooner, but most people on average do not. This can lead to decreased energy levels and ability for your cells to regenerate, making you more susceptible to illness. “Working on good sleep hygiene habits is key,” she adds. Make your bedtime routine a priority, not an afterthought; schedule regular sleep and waking times to maximize sleep’s health benefits.
NOT WIPING DOWN THE GYM EQUIPMENT
Although you go there to get healthy, heading to the gym can also lead to a cold. You often see signs there that request people wipe off machines after use, but how many people ever really follow through? While using the cardio machines and weights, people often wipe sweat off their faces and then continue handling the equipment. According to the CDC, a flu virus can live on a surface for two to up to eight hours. And here’s another tip: Don’t use your towel to wipe down a machine before using it because then you might proceed to touch your eyes or nose or handle something like your phone. Before using gym equipment, use a towel and alcohol-based sanitizer to wipe it down -- and to be a good world citizen, wipe it down after too. Remember, this goes for yoga mats and stretch mats as well.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Do you have any additional tips for staying healthy in flu season? Let us know in the comments below!
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