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5 Strategies to Minimize (Or Better Yet, Avoid) Cold and Flu Season

December 16, 2013

One sneeze completely destroyed my confidence. I was midway through a grueling book tour when I felt it coming on. Not now, I thought. I cannot get sick when I've got a PBS show to do this weekend.

No such luck. The next morning, its impact hit me like a double-decker bus. I troopered through my PBS show, immediately headed back to the hotel, and after a solid night's sleep I felt about 90 percent well.

I'm not alone in my debacle. Everyone gets sick (yes, even nutritionists), and it always seems to occur at the worst possible moment. You've got a hot date this weekend, or maybe your grandkids will be visiting and you want to feel your best. Whatever your situation, you want to tell your cold to start packing now. It can visit you at another time or, well, never.

Along with colder weather, the cold and flu season has arrived, but you needn't succumb. I've developed an arsenal of tactics to reduce symptoms and recover faster -- and if you're lucky, bypass it altogether -- so a simple sneeze doesn't derail your weekend plans:

1. Spend more time in the sack. Scientists are still putting the pieces together about sleep and immune function, but one thing's for sure: Lack of sleep can contribute to numerous problems, from infections to increased mortality. Lack of sleep can also ramp up your stress hormone cortisol, leaving you wired and awake when you should be tired. And you become more susceptible to whatever is going around your office. A vicious cycle ensues around your waistline: Poor sleep increases your appetite, making you crave sugar, which further weakens your immunity. Aim for 7 - 9 hours of high-quality, uninterrupted sleep every night. Power down an hour before bed, take a hot bath with chamomile tea and a trashy novel, and try melatonin or an herbal-based sleep aid if you really have trouble getting solid shut-eye.

2. Stress less. Ever notice how an argument with your significant other or a brutal week at work can bring on a cold or flu? It's not your imagination: A meta-analysis of 300 studies found chronic stress could seriously mangle your immune system. Besides depleting immune-boosting nutrients like vitamin C, stress lowers natural killer (NK) cell activity (a major player in a healthy immune system). One study found a major life stressor could deplete NK activity a whopping 50 percent. You can't control the weather, but you can reduce its impact. Massage, yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or just walking your terrier around the block: Find what works to defuse stress and do it.

3. Get moving. You're probably not going hit the weights or take a fitness class with a cold, but regular exercise improves your mood and reduces stress to keep a cold from coming on. One study found moderate exercise could increase your body's macrophage production and strengthen your immune system. You needn't spend time at the gym to get exercise's benefits. Create an at-home workout with burst training, weight resistance, and body-weight exercises. Find an effective routine that works for you and make it a regular habit.

4. Start your day off right. A low-fat muffin or toaster strudel at breakfast creates metabolic havoc that backfires on your immune system. Because they're processed and high in sugar, most breakfast foods fall into the dessert category. Fructose can especially wreak your immune system: This sugar can trigger inflammation and glycate proteins, making those proteins ineffective at their immune-boosting roles. Skip the sugar for a blood sugar balancing protein-rich shake with plant-based powder, raw leafy greens, frozen raspberries, and freshly ground flax seed blended with unsweetened coconut or almond milk.

5. Optimize your D. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen found vitamin D can activate your immune defenses, and a newer study at Boston University School of Medicine found "direct evidence that improvement in vitamin D status plays a large role in improving immunity and lowering the risk for many diseases." That makes sense considering without sufficient vitamin D, your immune system has a difficult time fighting infections. Ask your doctor for a 25-hydroxyvitamin D test and aim for levels between 60 - 100 ng/ ml. You're probably not making enough D from sunlight during winter months, and few foods contain optimal levels, so supplementing with high-quality vitamin D is your best bet.

I regularly hear from practitioners and friends who have tried-and-true strategies to reduce a cold's impact (or better yet, bypass colds altogether). What's your top tactic to sail through cold and flu season with barely a sniffle?