Staying healthy during the cold and flu season

The cold and flu season typically lasts between November and April and many people are affected by the cold and flu each year.

  • Colds are a minor illness caused by a virus. Symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, and congestion and may also include a headache, cough and sore throat. Colds will usually last about a week. Although good hygiene, nutrition and sleep can be helpful in preventing colds, there is no sure way to completely prevent a cold.
  • Influenza or “the flu” is also a virus but it can make you much more ill than a cold. Symptoms include a fever, chills, fatigue and body ache. Influenza can be very dangerous for those at risk such as children , the elderly and those with a weakened immune system.

Your immune system is what helps to defend your body against illness. Your immune system tries to keep viruses out and if a virus does get in, the immune system works hard to seek them out and kill them off. Keeping your immune system strong is key for giving your body the best chance to fight off colds and nutrition plays a very important role in doing this.

Main things you can do to prevent colds and the flu

  • Eat a variety of foods from each food group. Certain vitamins and minerals (which you will see below) are important for a healthy immune system and it is best if we can get these from foods instead of supplements.
  • Be physically active. Physical activity can help to keep your immune system strong and ready to fight infections if they happen.
  • Stay well-hydrated.
  • Reduce stress. Stress can very easily weaken your immune system which can make it more likely for you to catch a cold or the flu.
  • Get enough sleep. In our society today, sleep does not tend to be considered when talking about a healthy lifestyle. Getting enough sleep is crucial for good healthy and keeping your immune system strong.
  • Wash your hands often throughout the day and use hand sanitizer if you are not close to a sink.
  • Avoid close contact with those who have the cold or flu, encourage those around you to stay at home if they are feeling unwell to make the spread of their virus less likely.

Nutrients that can help keep your immune system strong

Vitamin C- The first vitamin everyone thinks about when we are talking about the cold and flu season is vitamin C and often people will take extreme amounts of vitamin C supplements when they start to feel a cold coming on.

  • While vitamin C is truly an important vitamin to take for immune system health, taking above and beyond the recommended 200mg per day for cold prevention will not provide any additional benefit as it is a water soluble vitamin and your body will simply excrete this through your urine if you get too much.
  • It is best if we can get this through foods instead of supplements. Vitamin C is found in many fruits and vegetables with the best sources being bell peppers, strawberries, kiwi, oranges and broccoli.

Zinc- Zinc is a mineral that plays a unique role in regulating the number of infection fighting T-cells your immune system uses to fight off colds and the flu.

  • Having enough zinc can help to prevent colds and reduce the length and severity of colds if you do get one. Again it is best if you can get zinc naturally from foods. The best sources are fish, seafood, beef, pumpkin seeds and baked beans.
  • Zinc can also be found in zinc lozenges, syrup and supplements, however do not take any more than 40mg per day in supplement form as it may not be safe.

Probiotics- Probiotics are good bacteria that help to keep your immune system healthy by having a good balance between good and bad bacteria in the gut.

  • Probiotics are naturally found in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi. About 10 billion active probiotics are necessary to help fight off colds. While this amount can sometimes be found in certain yogurts with added probiotics, this can be hard to get on a daily basis from food alone.
  • Probiotic supplements are one of the only supplements I do recommend to take. You must take probiotics for at least three months prior to cold and flu season in order for them to help you fight colds as it takes time for good bacteria to culture in your gut.
  • Not all probiotics have beneficial effects on colds, look for probiotic supplements and foods that contain: Lactobacillus gasseri, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium bifidum.

North American ginseng- Ginseng is an herb that has been found to have some evidence in the prevention of common colds.

  • North American ginseng can be found in capsule (Cold-fx), liquid or tea form. You cannot simply take this when you begin to feel sick, it is important to take 100mg of North American ginseng extract on a daily basis during cold and flu season in order to see beneficial effects in fighting colds.

Source: Dietitians of Canada


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