With two effective vaccines currently in development, we're beginning to see some light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
But widespread vaccination may still take a while: Even more optimistic timetables suggest it could take months to implement distribution, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate it may be mid-to-late 2021 before the vaccines are widely available.
Meanwhile, as coronavirus cases continue to rise in all 50 states, we're heading into what some have dubbed a "dark winter." To stay safe, vigilant, and healthy, it's absolutely crucial to observe CDC guidelines: wearing masks, washing your hands, and avoiding close contact with others. But keeping your immune system healthy can go a long way, too, especially with flu-season on the horizon.
To help you maximize your health this winter, we've created this guide to what you can do to boost your immune system.
Exercise Two Hours per Week
Most experts will tell you that the average adult should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. Aerobic activity benefits your health by elevating your heart rate and maximizing blood oxygen levels. As you continue to exercise, your body also releases endorphins and other natural painkillers that boost your mood and support overall immune health.
Regular exercise can be challenging during the winter months, so you may need to get creative. You can take short walks or even do at-home exercises. Remember: Your 150 minutes do not need to come all at once. In fact, doctors typically recommend that you spread your exercise throughout the week in smaller, more manageable increments.
Your chosen workout routine shouldn't feel overwhelming, and any activity is better than no activity. Start small and build to greater challenges as you feel comfortable.
Regular exercise can reduce stress, but there are other things you can do to be more proactive.
A recent study from Standford's School of Medicine found that mild or short-term stress — fight or flight responses, for example — actually stimulate immune activity and boost overall health. Meanwhile, according to the Cleveland Clinic, long-term or prolonged instances of stress can overwork your immune system, making you more vulnerable to sickness.
What does all this mean? Stress is a double-edged sword that can cut both ways; it supports immune system health when properly managed, but weakens it when left unaddressed.
When it comes to managing stress, it's best focus on mitigating the stressors that you encounter chronically or on a long-term basis and let the mild or temporary triggers come and go. Meditation and yoga can also support these efforts, as do other common stress reduction techniques.
Establish a Vitamin-Rich Diet
Beta carotene — an antioxidant that converts to vitamin A — supports your body's ability to fight infections. Vitamin A also helps keep your intestines healthy. It can be found in carrots, bell peppers, spinach, and broccoli.
If you regularly eat vegetables and citrus fruits like broccoli and oranges, you're already getting plenty of Vitamin C — one of the best vitamins for immune system health. Vitamin C acts as a natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory. It can reduce the duration of the common cold and help your body fight viral and bacterial infections.
Meanwhile, Vitamin D can help lower blood pressure and promote bone health, but studies have also shown that it also prevents colds and the flu by supporting healthy immune system functions. Salmon, trout, and other fish contain high natural levels of vitamin D.
The mineral zinc is another key player. It promotes healing and supports both your metabolism and your body's immune response to infection. Foods rich in Zinc include red meat, poultry, beans, and whole grains.
The best way to consume these vitamins is by naturally integrating them into your daily diet. Supplements are also widely available, but it is always best to first consult your doctor about dosage and intake.
- What It Does: Supports the body's ability to fight infection
- Found in These Foods: Carrots, bell peppers, spinach, and broccoli
- What It Does: Works as a natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory
- Found in These Foods: Leafy greens, broccoli, and citruses, like oranges
- What It Does: Lowers blood pressure, helps bone health, and supports immune function
- Found in These Foods: Salmon, trout, and other fish
- What It Does: Supports metabolism and the body's immune response
- Found in These Foods: Red meat, poultry, beans, and whole grains
Use Proper Hygiene
This may seem obvious, but even the simplest things are worth bearing in mind in these challenging times: One of the best things you can do to support your immune health is avoid germs and viruses in the first place, and that starts with hygiene.
The CDC recommends washing your hands regularly with soap and warm water, especially if you've been in a public place. It's important to remember to take your time, spending at least 20 seconds thoroughly washing your hands. Try singing "Happy Birthday" in your head, or another short tune to help gauge the time. If soap and water are unavailable, you can also use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Other elements of good hygiene include avoiding touching your face when you can't wash your hands; covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, especially when you're maskless; regular bathing; flossing and brushing your teeth; and getting good, restorative sleep.
Get a Flu Shot
Getting vaccinated against the seasonal flu is always a good idea, but it's even more important this year due to the rise in COVID-19 patients across the country. The flu shot lowers your risk of seeing a doctor by 40-60%, according to the CDC.
A lower likelihood of hospitalization means a lower risk of COVID-19 exposure, and you'll be freeing up medical resources for those who need them the most. Public health experts are concerned that hospitals may be overrun as we head into winter, and getting the flu shot can help combat that possibility.
The flu shot is not 100% effective, but even for people who do end up getting sick, the shot reduces the severity of illness, especially among children, the elderly, and those dealing with chronic health conditions. It also protects women during and after pregnancy, and generally helps reduce the spread of flu-related illnesses.
For the first time since the pandemic began back in March, we some idea of when the coronavirus might be behind us. But vaccine distribution takes a while, so that won't happen immediately. In the meantime, wearing a mask and using our tips to boost your immune system are the best bet for keeping yourself and others safe and healthy this winter.
Header Image Credits: Viorel Kurnosov / EyeEm, Yuichiro Chino | Getty Images
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