Don’t let the seasonal sicknesses get you! Keep illness at bay with these simple suggestions.
Astragalus membranaceus. This herb has been a staple in Chinese medicine that hasn’t made headlines here—yet. But University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center researchers have found evidence that the herb boosts virus-fighting cells in mice (and may also be helpful in fighting life-threatening disease including cancer and heart disease). Research is underway to see if it has similar effects in humans.
Breakfast. People who eat cereal in the morning are less likely to catch colds and other respiratory illnesses than those who skip breakfast, according to research from Cardiff University in Wales. In one study involving 100 students who kept a nutrition and health diary, those who had more than one illness during the 10-week study were less likely to eat breakfast. “Breakfast consumption may help reduce risk of colds because it supplies many of the essential nutrients necessary for an efficient immune system,” says Dr. Andy Smith, the study’s lead author. Eating cereal for breakfast is also associated with better mental health, which may be linked to linked to a good immune system, he adds.
D (the vitamin). With all the news about vitamin D deficiency, and all the health problems it’s linked to—including a poorly functioning immune system—it’s worth asking your doctor for a D blood test. New guidelines from the Institutes of Medicine recommend that everyone ages 1 to 70 get 600 IU of vitamin D daily, with the exception of people with dark skin pigmentation, whose recommended daily intake is 800 IU. People 71 and older should also get 800 IU.
Echinacea. Even though echinacea is one of the top-selling herbal supplements around the world, there is not much scientific evidence that echinacea works as an immuno-stimulant. “The evidence is murky but I know lots of people who swear it prevents them from catching a cold or flu after they’ve been exposed,” says Benjamin Kligler, research director of Beth Israel Hospital’s Department of Integrative Medicine in New York City. It’s not dangerous, he adds.
Fish oil. “There is evidence showing that people who consume big doses of fish oil get fewer upper-respiratory illnesses, and need antibiotics less than people who don’t,” Dr. Kligler says. He recommends 500-100 mg a day for kids and 1000-2000 for adults.
Ginger tea. “It sounds corny, but I strongly believe that if you feel a respiratory sickness coming on, you need to drink lots of warm fluids,” says Kligler. In Chinese medicine, there is a philosophy that having too much cold energy inside your body makes you vulnerable to illness. “I can’t show you a study, the advice is purely anecdotal,” he says, “but I swear by it.” Kligler, who is a licensed acupuncturist, likes ginger tea because it is spicy, which warms up the insides, and it’s rich in antioxidants and antioxidants help the immune system.
Probiotics. In 2009, a highly publicized study from the journal Pediatrics found that kids who take probiotics, either in foods such as probiotic-enriched yogurt, or as a supplement, recovered more quickly from upper-respiratory illnesses and had fewer gastrointestinal ailments. “We think probiotics help the developing immune system function more efficiently,” Kligler says. The most promising probiotic studies have involved children, he says, but says as more research is done, we might learn that adults benefit too. Experts suggest eating yogurt containing probiotics daily to get the most benefit.
Sleep. “When it comes to having a strong immune system, getting adequate sleep is much more effective than any supplement,” says Kligler. Why does shuteye matter? Lack of sleep increases production of cortisol (the stress hormone) he explains, making you more vulnerable to illness. So how much is enough? “Six hours might be optimum for one person but someone else needs eight or nine,” he says. If you often wake up not feeling refreshed, try adding 60 minutes to your sleep routine and see how you feel after a couple of weeks.
Worship. People who worship more than once a week have better-functioning immune systems, according to a 2004 University of Iowa study that focused on older adults.
Zinc. While zinc deficiency is rare in North America, it is essential for proper immune function. Adult women need 8 milligrams a day, 11 if they are pregnant. Men need 11 mg a day. Reams of research on the effect zinc lozenges might have on treating colds has been inconclusive. Some over-the-counter zinc nasal sprays and gels have caused a loss of sense of smell, so talk with your health-care provider before using one.