15 ways to fight off sickness this winter
Keep your toes toasty.
If your feet are always cold, grab those slippers to avoid getting sick, says Ron Eccles, Ph.D., director of the Common Cold Centre at Britain's Cardiff University. How? Chilly tootsies tell your brain to conserve body heat, in turn reducing blood flow to areas that lose heat quickly, he explains. Decreased blood flow means fewer infection-fighting white blood cells, leaving you more vulnerable to viruses.
Swish salt water.
You already know gargling salt water can help soothe a sore throat, but doing so beforehand may actually help prevent one in the first place. In a 2005 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, scientists found swishing a mixture of 8 oz warm water and ½ tsp salt for at least 10 seconds twice daily cut a person's risk of viral infections as much as 34%. "When we breathe in sickness-causing bacteria or viruses, they can get stuck in the mucus membrane in the back of the throat," says Carrie Demers, M.D., medical director of the Total Health Center in Honesdale, PA.
Pass on pain meds.
Aspirin, ibuprofen, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) work by suppressing natural protective compounds, including white blood cells, Dr. Demers says. Those are the very agents responsible for attacking and destroying invading germs, she adds, so try to steer clear of those pills during cold season unless you truly need them.
Research shows that weaving a workout, like a brisk walk, into your daily routine could cut your risk of catching a cold by a whopping 50%."Regular exercise stimulates the brain to produce more serotonin, dopamine, and human growth hormone," says Pamela Peeke, M.P.H., an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland.
Sip a cup of tea.
Studies suggest that people produce three times more interferons, powerful proteins that destroy viral invaders on contact, if they sip 20 ounces of black tea daily. The credit likely goes to the beverage's naturally potent antioxidants, Dr. Peeke says. For a bigger health bang, let your tea steep for a few minutes before you sip: Research shows this helps release more of the drink's disease-fighting antioxidants.
Turn on the tube.
Tuning in for 30 minutes today may protect you from colds and flu later. According to researchers at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, taking a calming TV break daily can cut your risk of developing illness by up to 80%. "The stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin slow down white blood cells, making it harder for them to kill invading viruses," Dr. Demers says. "But a fun-filled break that leaves you feeling relaxed squashes adrenaline and cortisol output within minutes, allowing your immune system to aggressively attack invaders."
Sewing, scrapbooking, quilting — whatever crafty projects you prefer, spending just 20 minutes working on it can strengthen your immunity by 76%, according to experts at State University of New York at Stony Brook. "That's because your body's ability to produce virus-fighting white blood cells and protective antibodies rises as soon as stress hormone production drops," Dr. Demers says.
Another reason to work in enough winks: "Deep sleep is your body's prime time for building infection-fighting antibodies and interleukins, [which are] natural inflammation and illness fighters," Dr. Peeke says. Studies have also shown that being chronically tired can almost double your risk of catching nasty infections, not to mention you'll stay sick longer. Fortunately, snoozing for eight hours can reduce your risk, so power down and hit the hay.
Get a massage.
Consider this a great excuse to hit the spa: Researchers found that the soothing strokes of massage can reduce the body's production of immunity-weakening stress hormones while increasing feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin by 30%, says Wendy Warner, M.D., author of Boosting Your Immunity for Dummies. No time for a professional treatment? Massage your scalp, face, and neck using slow, circular motions for 10 minutes daily, she recommends.
It really is the most important meal of the day, especially if you're surrounded by people coughing. According to researchers at the Netherlands' Maastricht University Medical Centre, breakfast eaters are half as likely to fall prey to viral infections, as regular morning meals triple your body's production of gamma interferon, a natural antiviral compound. And you don't have to whip up anything fancy to get this protection: experts say any A.M. meal works (even kid-friendly ones), as long as you leave the table feeling full.
Clean your phone.
Though colds and flu are largely airborne, you can still transfer germs from your fingers to your device and back again, according to a Stanford University study. (Not to mention about 30% of viruses on the surface end up on your eyes, nose, and mouth.) Clean the screen with a slightly damp microfiber cloth, which removes 100% of MRSA pathogens without damaging the phone. Be sure to swab your phone case with a disinfecting wipe, too.
Turn down the heat.
"Warm, dry air disrupts the protective mucous layer in your nose that helps keep germs out," which makes it easier for viruses to invade, says Martin Hopp, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Cedars-Sinai Sinus Center. Outside cold air doesn't hold much moisture either, and frequently switching between two drastic temperatures is a recipe for disaster. To ward off the sniffles, try a twice-daily saline rinse with a Neti Pot to reestablish the moisturizing barrier and wash germs away.
Take time to meditate.
Once again, science proves that taking care of your mental health has positive returns on your physical well-being. A study published in the journal PLoS One found that people who participated in eight weeks of a mindfulness meditation program or a moderate-intensity sustained exercise regimen had lower rates of acute respiratory infections (ARI) — science-speak for colds, the flu, and flu-like illnesses — compared to a control group. High levels of cortisol suppress your immune system, and both activities help counter that, says Amber Tully, M.D., a physician at Cleveland Clinic.
Actually wash your hands.
Hand sanitizer may be convenient (and effective!), but research published in the American Journal of Infection Control says good old-fashioned soap and water is best when it comes to killing germs on your hands. Opt for soap and water as your first line of defense, making sure to get the backs of your hands and in between fingers. Then, when you can't get to a sink, reach for a 60% or higher alcohol hand sanitizer.
Don't touch your face.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Occupational Health found that doing so makes you 41% more likely to develop frequent upper respiratory infections. When you feel the urge, take a sip of water, clasp your hands together, or do a few shoulder rolls instead. "The key to changing an undesirable behavior is to substitute it with something beneficial or neutral," says Traci Stein, Ph.D., a health psychologist in New York City. Not aware you're doing it