2020 has proven to be an especially stressful year. So as cold and flu season approaches, taking care of your health— both mental and physical—is paramount. "When you talk about boosting the immune system, you have to look at the whole person, the whole picture," says Dr. Jessica Natale, a primary care physician for Summit CityMD.
Below, Dr. Natale details five ways you can help keep your immune system strong.
As the light changes, so does your mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) doesn't affect everyone, but those who do experience it might feel the effects more acutely this year. As a result, you might find it harder to get off the couch and into your workout gear.
As the weather grows colder but gyms still aren't an option everywhere, you also might struggle to fit movement into your day, but Dr. Natale says it's important to try. "Being sedentary can be detrimental to immune health and put you in an inflammatory state," she advises.
While getting your maximum heart rate 5-7 times a week is ideal, even 10-minute sessions of yoga or repetitions with hand weights while watching your favorite show have beneficial effects. You could also set a timer so that you get up from your desk and walk around every so often, or work at a standing desk wherever possible.
What is a healthy diet? The answer is not one-size-fits-all, but it's probably also not delivered to your door in a takeout container. "The best recommendation is to eat a robust diet to get all the nutrients," says Dr. Natale. If you want vitamin C, peel an orange. Need calcium? Add leafy greens or dairy into your meals. Although Dr. Natale does see more deficiencies in the winter, low ranges of zinc and vitamin D tend to crop up in the colder months. She says a general one-a-day type of vitamin is sufficient to correct most of them.
It’s advisable to avoid mega-dosing on supplements to increase the strength of your immune system. As with any new regimen, be careful, as it can have side effects.
Because we've been spending so much time at home, there's often very little separation between work and downtime. As a result, our bodies can no longer subconsciously separate home life and work life.
This is just one reason so many of us are experiencing insomnia. Dr. Natale suggests that "practicing good sleep hygiene" in general can ease that burden and raise our immune health. In order to better define those boundaries, do as much as possible outside the bedroom. Be sure to also turn off anything with a backlit screen, including phones, computers, and televisions, well before bedtime.
Panic, anxiety, and depression are on the rise, so take extra care with your mental health. "Be open to therapy and to being honest with yourself and your physician," Dr. Natale suggests. Not only can it help you feel unburdened, but your immune system will perk up, too—even if your session is virtual.
You can also try some meditation apps or classes and deep-breathing exercises. Because emotions drive the way we act, you're likely to make better choices about exercise and diet, two other factors that affect your immune system.
Many people have been avoiding the doctor’s office for fear they'll catch COVID-19. But this can be especially damaging for people with pre-existing conditions like diabetes and other autoimmune diseases. "They need to be following up on their health," Dr. Natale says. "If they don't want to come in because of risk, telehealth is a wonderful platform. But if you need to come in to be seen, do it. It's easier to come in for chronic care management than to ignore it, end up being more susceptible, and wind up in the hospital."
The same is true for wellness visits, vaccines, mammograms and colonoscopies, and other kinds of screenings. The pandemic is giving people excuses to delay such important health assessments. Instead, Dr. Natale says, "Being self-aware about what's going on in your life and with your body is the best step you can take."