We all know how it feels to have a cold coming on: a pain in your sinuses, tickle in your throat, and heaviness all over your body. You’re getting sick, and you start cursing yourself for not scrubbing your hands after exchanging a handshake with your coughing coworker or logging enough hours of sleep each night.
Nobody wants this to happen, which is why you need to keep your immune system in infection-fighting shape. And the secret to that isn't that complicated. “If you take care of yourself, the immune system will take care of itself,” says Timothy Mainardi, MD, an allergist and immunologist based in New York City.
Read on for the healthy lifestyle habits you can practice in your day-to-day routine to cut down on sick days, and keep your immune system strong and ready to fight off any virus.
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Eat a nutrient-packed, well-rounded diet
“The most important way to keep your immune system functioning normally is the old-fashioned way that nobody likes to talk about: diet and exercise,” Dr. Mainardi says. “Having a varied diet can be difficult, I do understand that, but it’s definitely worth trying to do and will keep you much healthier in the long run.” An eating plan rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins will defend your body against germs. (Try these antioxidant-rich foods.)
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Working out does more than keep your waist trim. “As boring as it sounds, exercising regularly and eating healthy are the most significant factors for your immune system,” Dr. Mainardi says. “It’s been proven that people who live more sedentary lifestyles are far more likely to get colds or other infectious diseases.” Recruit a workout buddy or try a new group fitness class next time you’re paranoid about catching the bug that’s going around.
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Get enough sleep
When you're feeling overwhelmed by your endless to-do list, it can be tempting to skimp on sleep to get everything done. But if not prioritizing your shut-eye becomes a habit, it can have serious ramifications on your health. “There’s an association with lack of sleep and getting sick,” Dr. Mainardi explains. “Medical and surgical residents who would notoriously work 100-hour weeks during their residencies were at a much higher risk of not only getting an infectious disease, but also reactivation of a past disease.” Reactivation happens when an old virus reawakens in your system and causes a different, sometime worse, disease. A common example of a reactivation disease is chicken pox and shingles.
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Wash your hands with soap and water
“Washing your hands is an extraordinarily good way of helping one from getting sick, but it’s something that we don’t always do very well,” Dr. Mainardi says. The FDA recently announced that washing your hands with plain soap and water is really all you need, and an antibacterial soap isn’t quite necessary or good for us in the long run. So find a soap that you love and remember these hand-washing techniques.
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Use hand sanitizer
If you’re out in public and can’t use soap and water to scrub, using a hand sanitizer is the next best thing. “Purell is phenomenal if you can’t get to a sink,” Dr. Mainardi says. “We have it all over the hospital.” Not to mention, it’s offered in convenient, pocket-sized bottles and tons of different scents.
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The bacteria in your gut may affect your body's ability to fend off infections. That's why Dr. Mainardi suggests eating foods with live and active cultures. “A slew of new data has recently come out saying that probiotics may protect against certain inflammatory conditions,” he says. “Fermented foods and beverages such as kombucha and kimchi, for example, may offer additional benefits compared to regular food.” Consider taking a daily probiotic supplement or try some of these simple recipes that include a dose of probiotics.
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Be skeptical of supplements claiming to strengthen your immune system
“For the general, run-of-the-mill person who doesn’t have any illnesses, vitamin supplements aren’t really necessary,” Dr. Mainardi says. “The vast majority of nutrients we need we can get from the food we eat, and vitamins can get expensive.” But, if you do decide you want to take a vitamin, he advises taking the recommended daily dose of a general multivitamin. Be careful with individual supplements of vitamin A, D, E, and K, which can be dangerous to humans if taken in high doses.